“Once the bullfrogs start, it’s a sign that the rains are over,” my Mum always said.

It is day three of the North East monsoon attack on Tamil Nadu. The trains have stopped. The drains have stopped. In most parts of the city, the current has stopped. Trees have dropped. They lie in obscene tangles, their branches outstretched, catching at passersby, asking for help. The rivers are rising. Life as we know it has come to a standstill.

Only the bullfrogs of Chennai are rocking. They begin with a chorus of hoarse calls to their mates. For months, they have been lying dormant under the earth. The rain sets them free to perform their mating rituals. They perform their Louis Armstrong imitations. They get ready to march. Just like the Saints, the bullfrogs of Chennai are marching in. And boy, do they get their number!  When it’s that time, the trumpets sound and that City, gateway to the South, pride of the Dravidians, comes floating by.

By Sunday, November 15, Chennai is too waterlogged to march.

A new situation

I am sending silent e-mails to my mother complaining that her theories no longer hold good.  Even the bullfrogs have wisened up. They are no longer croaking. There are rumors that there are snakes now. They are attacking the frogs. We don’t dare go out into our own garden.

After three days of intermittent rainstorms, Chennai records 245 mm of rain. The Chennai Meteorological Department warns that there is more rain to come. They have been forecasting the onset of a harsh monsoon for the last two months. When it arrives no one quite believes it is happening. We have had six months of water starvation. For months, water lorries and tankers supply water from the outlying areas to the city in buckets. We have deepened our wells and employed water diviners to tell us where we might find the aquifers to sink our bore wells. We learn to sip water that has been drawn deep from the earth and spit it out.

“Too brackish. Too metallic. It will rust your guts.” But everywhere there is the sound of pounding. It’s not just the bore wells that drill holes into the flat cityscape, but the foundations for the pylons that will string a network of flyovers across the city.

We can’t believe that it’s raining. It’s actually been raining for the past ten days. It’s only when the rivers start rising that it dawns on us that we are in the midst of a major natural calamity.

We've seen it before...

We’ve had our tsunami moment in 2004. Since then, the repeat performance of floods due to the monsoon in 2005, 2010, 2013 and now 2015 have left us almost waiting for the dark. We are disaster freaks. We are so immune to disaster that until we hear about it on the media, or read about it from the morning newspapers we don’t notice that the flood waters are creeping into our homes. We ignore the cars that are wallowing in dirty water like water buffaloes. We stand along the ocean’s edge on Marina beach, one known as the second-longest sandy beach in the world and look at the urchins swimming in pools of water formed by the rain-water filling the sand in waist-deep stretches. Even the beach is inundated.

“No one has announced that there’s going to be a cyclone,” my neighbor informs me. “Why are you stocking up on vegetables and bread?”

“It’s part of the Gujarati side of my inheritance,” I tell her. “Gujaratis always prepare for the worst, either drought or flood by stocking up on essentials. It’s called a frontier mentality.”

It gets heavier

On Sunday night, the rain takes on the form of a bombardment. The telephone lines are still working. I am on the line with a young family that has moved into a house one street away from the main road. They tell me that they have moved into a ground floor house from the 17th-floor of an apartment in a newly built area called Chemmencherry, close to the electronic highway that now defines Chennai at OMR, or Old Mahabalipuram. They have a young child. The locals tell them that the Cooum River is rising. The river will soon be in their house.

“You better move in with us,” I tell them. We wait till midnight. That’s when I know that the tide will turn. The waters will subside. And yes, the bullfrogs know it too.  They start croaking again in the early hours of the morning. We have survived the night. The schools are filling up with displaced people. Others just lie in the open under blue plastic sheets. Bus stops provide a temporary shelter. In one of the neighborhood autorickshaws I notice that a family of kittens has made a home. There’s still a sense of community amongst the ordinary folk of the city.

Chennai drowning is the most unreported event. Of course, the timing is also wrong. In the wake of the horrors recorded by and on the international networks about the terror strikes in Paris, the pugilistic fury of the political pundits shadow boxing on the daily Goswami rabble stadium, Chennai’s ordeal appears irretrievably local. In a city of five million, or thereabouts, a hundred dead, or thereabouts, does not warrant too much media space.

Another planet

It’s not just the timing that has led to Chennai drowning but not waving. Geographically and politically it is too close to the ground, too far south, too mired in the darkness of the Dravidian family discourse, to warrant the attention of the national interest.

There is of course Chennai’s famous resilience to natural and humanoid disasters that we citizens can count upon. As environmentalists like to say, a river never forgets its history. In times of crisis it returns to its bed. So also in the case of the two major rivers that define the city, the Cooum and the Adyar, (a third river Kosathalaiyar feeds the life-giving lakes in the north west), and the British-era Buckingham Canal that cuts through in a north-south direction have dictated the deployment of people in clusters along its sides.

Before becoming a booming electronic hub, Chennai used to crawl back at night and revert to a series of villages. Each of these villages used to have a temple with a tank to conserve water, and inlets leading to the tank or lake were kept open. There used to be 650 such water bodies in the city. Now by most accounts, there are just 27. Unlike other coastal cities, Chennai is as flat as a dosa, with an average elevation of 6.7 metres above the mean sea level with many areas that are marshlands. These shallow lakes and man-made tanks were an essential part of the city’s natural cycle of self-preservation. As it happened, the areas least affected by the floods were the older parts of the city, where temple tanks remembered their history and culverts and drains constructed in the 19th century managed to find ways to carry the overflow.

Spilling over 

On Monday morning, we hear that one of the largest of the water bodies has breached its bank.

“The Chembarambakkam Lake has broken its banks!” The cry is taken up with additional rumors that some miscreants have deliberately allowed the floodwaters to flow into the city.

In the some of the newly developed estates of the feeder communities servicing Chennai’s electronic lifeline at Old Mahabalipuram Road, the floodwaters have no memory of where to go. They craw into every subway, underpass and ground floor households bringing in leeches, scorpions, toads and water snakes.

Even further down the OMR highway at Chemmencherry, where my newly found family of a young couple lived, there is a crisis. There is a clash of lifestyle. Low-rise communities surround the high-rise apartments. Both are now flooded by the opening of the Chembarambakkam Lake. After the fifth day of rain, the inhabitants in the high-rise DLF apartments have no choice but to leave their homes. Not many want to do that. They have children, infants in arms. The only option is to get into the boats deployed hastily by various authorities, the police, the Navy, the fire brigade.

When they get into the boats, the Low-Risers, the people who live in the newly built Tsunami Villages surrounding DLF, stop the boats. “Why should only the affluent be evacuated?” they ask. “Why not us?” Small boys swim across the water and attempt to topple the boats. There are rumors that they have thrown poisonous snakes into some of the boats. “The snakes will bite you!” they scream at the High-Risers. Even snakes, it seems, are well trained to bite only the rich and not those who are swimming in the water. Many of the High-Risers have to get out of the boats and wade through the mud to safety.

New contours

One of the interesting sidelights of this conflict is that the people who live in the Tsunami Villages are not all fisherfolk. They are some of the people displaced from the communities that lived along the Cooum and Buckingham Canal to make way for the plans to convert Chennai into the Singapore of the South. In the haste to create redraw the contours of the city, people living along the rivers’ edge have been brutally re-located. Lacking a sense of community, or being forced to live in arid clusters of concrete blocks, far from their original places of work, they have now reverted to a hunter-gatherer phase of existence.

When I go to the riverbank of the Cooum near our house, I notice that at least a hundred people are camping outside of their washed-out homes. They are sleeping in the open next to the heaving black river.

“This is our home,” says an old woman who is stirring a pot of rice. “We will not leave.”

In Amma country, the Amma Canteens have been providing hot food in vast quantities to the flood affected, as well as a solatium of rice, kerosene, a sari, a dhoti and Rs. 1,000 in cash for those who have a rice ration card.

“I really enjoyed the last time there was a flood, I was given a splendid sari and enough food for a week,” claims one of the lucky winners of the November 2015 Chennai rains.

For some, it is a lottery of rain-bearing gifts. For others the time to listen to the frogs.
When the rain stopped the ducks began their noise,
Hoarse-throated, full-chested, and we heard them
Away in the big house, after dinner, and my niece
Asked, “Are they bullfrogs?” I said yes, or perhaps birds.
But I knew all the time they were only ducks.
From Vijay Nambisan’s poem, Dirge.