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17 September 2018

More Adventures... and Some Misadventures

Photo: Young A
We were back in our hometown, and Dad’s birthday was looming. The head count was beginning to go out of control. At one point, my cousin had enough – ‘I think we should stop inviting people,’ he said. In principle, we all agreed. But we were stuck – if we called these relatives, then surely, we should call those relatives too? But finally, even we gave up – the guest list was the size of a small wedding.

My sister and I diligently worked our way through the list; in some cases, having to call to invite someone and then ask for someone else’s telephone number. My sister, sotto voce: If we don’t even have their telephone number, why are we inviting them? Well, apparently, ‘because’… By the second day of cold calling people, my sister and I had our delivery pat: ‘Hello, is this …? I am ….' 'Who?' 'Oh, elder/younger daughter of Mr and Mrs…' Still no idea who we are? 'Oh, we belong to this family; we are ….’s granddaughter. No, I’m not in Bombay/US; that’s my sister…. We would like to invite you to our father’s 84th birthday.' Who’s our father? Well, he is …. Through all of this, my mother sat like a sphinx. (That’s her usual expression.)

And in the meantime, S had already left; we had bid good bye to Madhu, my brother-in-law, one of my cousins… and my sister and I were running around like chickens with their heads cut off. It was sheer insanity.

On the day before the party, when my parents were getting ready to visit an old family friend who was ill, the rains had begun. It was 11.15 a.m. It was rain like we had never seen before, and we were used to the monsoons. My sister and I looked at each other in consternation. My niece had just arrived. My brothers were supposed to reach that evening. Assorted cousins were coming at various times. Then, slowly, the cancellations began – my aunt from Madras, my dad’s sister, called to say that she and her family had decided to cancel. They were hearing reports of heavy rains and weren’t too sure how it would affect their return.

By the evening, we had around 15 cancellations. My brother, who had managed to make it through, quipped: ‘We will be the only ‘guests’ at the event.’ ‘Well, then, we’ll just have to eat five plates of food each!’ my sister responded. We laughed, though privately, I think, all of us were thinking that might just come to pass.

The morning dawned wet and bleak. The rains hadn’t ceased since the previous morning. We patted ourselves on the back for our foresight in having hired our long-time driver to ferry all of us to the venue. And while we wondered whether we should even bother to dress up, it strikes me as curious that it never occurred to any of us to cancel the event.

Then, I got my first shock – Cochin airport had shut down and wouldn’t reopen for the next four days. My tickets to Bombay were for the following day; my tickets to the US were a couple of days later. Well, I would have to rebook my tickets from Coimbatore, I thought to myself. I would do that when we returned in the evening. And we ventured into the sheets of rain trying desperately not to get drenched.

We went prepared to face a deserted venue. Incredibly, our guests had already started trickling in. Within the next half an hour, everyone we had invited – less than 20 of our guests cancelled due to unavoidable circumstances – landed up! If I sound surprised, it’s because I am. Pleasantly so. Keep in mind that most of the invitees were my parents’ contemporaries – which means they are all in the late 70s or early 80s. For them to show up in such inclement weather because it was my father’s birthday says a lot about the kind of man he was/is.

Suffice it to say that we met our relatives – mostly known, some as yet unmet; we met old friends, made new ones. The food was great, the venue hosts had organised everything so well, and everyone had a blast. Especially my father.

It was when we returned home that the gravity of my situation struck me – the tickets from Coimbatore were exorbitantly priced and the earliest tickets I got were for a couple of days later. I decided to stay over in Coimbatore the next day. It was still raining heavily and I didn’t want to take a chance. I booked a hotel room and hurriedly packed as well as I could.

The rains had continued unabated throughout the night, and I woke up early next morning to a lot of commotion; outside our compound were ambulances, the rescue force, volunteers, and a boat! 
Photo: Anand R
The road (yes, that was a road) was now a river and they were struggling to evacuate over 750 families from the farmlands behind.

My initial reaction was astonishment. In all my years living and visiting, I’d never seen the roads flooded. When I went downstairs, I realised that our backyard was under water almost two-thirds of the way.
Photo: Anand R
But it was only when my cousin informed me that there were no cabs that I realised just how serious a situation I was in – the roads out of town were blocked. Trains weren’t running. The airport was already shut down. There was no way I was going anywhere. We were cut off. 
Young A had an epic meltdown; my sister decided to become zen and nearly precipitated an epic meltdown on my part. (It’s easy to be zen when you don’t have a whole lot to lose.) I was frantically trying to find out what I could do, if anything. I had to make it to Bombay or I would risk missing my flight. But how?

My father’s helpful input was to see if I could reschedule my US flight. I had to take a deep breath before I replied. What with penalties for rescheduling and fare difference on two tickets, I wasn’t sure if I could explain just why it couldn’t be done. But as the day wore on, I caved and called S to ask him to call our travel agent. The results of that conversation were seriously depressing – even if he could reschedule, for which there was no guarantee, there were no tickets available on any airline until the 5th of September. Young A had a bigger meltdown. My sister became even more zen.

I’m at my best when I’m doing something. This situation made me realise just how helpless one can be when faced with the forces of nature. To cap it all, we lost power somewhere in the afternoon, and there was no water either. The irony of the situation didn’t escape us.

Dinner was by candlelight. I can assure you there was nothing romantic about the situation though we were making the best of it. Outside, the rescue workers were dripping wet and exhausted. They had been there for more than 16 hours at this point. We made pots of tea in the darkness; they drank cups of it gratefully and went back to work by floodlights. The next morning brought even more perspective, if I needed it; our long-time maid came home in tears. She’d lost everything, her voice trembled. The rescue force was still there, trying to rescue the last few outlying families.
Photo: Anand R
In the meantime, I still had to find a way to get out; days were passing without relief in sight and the rains showed no signs of abating. The dams had been opened adding to the floods, and Kerala was in the grip of an epic disaster. 

Finally, my brother called from Calicut; there were flights operating out of Calicut airport. Should he book tickets for me? The tickets were via Bangalore and I would land in Bombay around 1 a.m. The US flight I was on would take off at 6.25 a.m. We were cutting it fine. Besides, the roads were still flooded.
Photo: Young A
I begged my cousin to find someone who would agree to drive me to Calicut, a distance of about 136km. He didn’t look too hopeful, but he said he would try. Finally, at noon, he advised me to cancel these tickets as well. Nobody would risk the trip, he said. But at 1.30, he came in to say that a driver had agreed to take us, but I’d to be ready to leave at 3 p.m. I hadn’t packed, we hadn’t had lunch, I hadn’t even showered. I quickly threw in all our stuff, clean and dirty, wet and dry, all into the suitcases, showered and was ready by the stipulated time. There was no sign of the driver and I wasn’t sure if he would appear at all. But he did, with a warning that he was low on fuel. It’s a measure of my desperation that I agreed to risk the journey under those circumstances.

Finally, we were on the move. The less said about that journey, the better. For the better part of the initial journey, we were like one of James Bond’s vehicles – situation under water. It was as if the Innova had suddenly become amphibian. We would go into water so deep you could put a hand out of the window and touch it for a couple of kilometres, and we would come up on land for a couple of hundred yards.
Photo: Young A
This continued for around ten kilometres, at which point, I was silently berating myself for being so foolhardy. It didn’t help that the driver was beginning to volubly call upon God to save him. A journey that should have taken us half an hour thus took nearly two and a half. And we were just at the beginning.
Photo: Young A
When we finally reached my brother’s home, it was 8 hours later. We ate dinner, had a shower and tried to sleep. I couldn’t relax. We still had to get to Bombay. My fears were realised when, after hanging out in Bangalore airport for four hours, the flight out was delayed. Each extra minute in Bangalore meant an extra minute delay in reaching Bombay. With an international flight to catch, that wasn’t the best way to relax. What’s worse, I had to make my way to a friend’s house to pick up the rest of my luggage as well.

Suffice it to say that it was only when I finally did board the Turkish Airlines’ flight to the US that I breathed a sigh of relief. It is, as my father called it, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But it’s one that I’m in no hurry to replicate.

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