Chronicle from an attic window
By Uzma Falak
30 September 2014
A people’s account of surviving the Kashmir floods.
“It is a war,” an old woman on the road cried as she saw fierce waters approaching, and submerging everything that came in the way. Water reaches the old mighty chinar a few metres away from my house. I watched from the window of my home in Srinagar, the capital of Indian-administered Kashmir. Soon there was no time to watch, no time to escape. Water gushes forth in the surrounding lanes and neighbourhoods. There was no option but to take refuge in the attic. My mother asked me to pack my ‘valuables’, and as I entered my room on the ground floor, I was still in disbelief. And indecisive. I thought, ‘what to pack and what to leave for the waters to wash away’? But there was no time to be indecisive or logical. I gathered whatever I could – books, documents, clothes, laptop, toothbrush, childhood photographs. Was I being stupid? Will there be a chance?
Our homes became rivers. Huddled together in the dusty attic under candlelight with all our belongings scattered on the floor, we watched the Jhelum flow by our houses, into our rooms.
The pressure breaks open a crack in the floor of our sitting-room and water jets forth like a fountain. Walls, seemingly protective, could not bear. I took turns to watch from the window – people rushing to their houses, shopkeepers shuttering down their shops, some shouting, a few trying to stop the flow with sandbags and sundry. It was mayhem. Water reaches our porch where four kittens and their mother live in a small shelter. The mother looks horrified. I soon found myself helping my family carry essential supplies to the attic. My legs gave way. Water flows into our corridor. I don’t know how much time it took for two levels of our house to submerge, but in my mind it felt like between seven and ten minutes.
‘It is a war indeed’, I told myself. Only more surreal. Our homes became rivers. Huddled together in the dusty attic under candlelight with all our belongings scattered on the floor, we watched the Jhelum flow by our houses, into our rooms. We watched dogs painfully drowning. The air smelled of gasoline and rot. We heard water roaring, dogs howling as they gazed at the sky. And silence. The view from the attic window evoked an apocalyptic imagery from a dream or some sci-fi film. I had to remind myself that this is real: we are flood-hit, and sitting in the attic that we dreaded as children because we thought all ghosts lived there – sometimes we mustered courage and would go up to collect empty bullet cartridges and peek through bullet holes.
All communication channels were down. Electricity cut off. Drinking water limited. Radio relayed only disturbance. TV networks were not operational. We developed a new compulsion – watching from the window. Window frames, medicine bottles, petroleum, balloons and plastic balls were floating in the flowing water. Night air was noxious. The cold night evoked disquiet from my childhood in the early 1990s when the mass armed movement for liberation from India broke out – still breaths, military blackouts, dogs barking on the desolate roads.
From an infamous torture centre next to a martyrs’ graveyard, in a nearby neighbourhood, a parade of empty bottles of alcohol that once hung on the barbed wires guarding it were now wandering on the flood waters. In the blue of night air, I saw an army jackboot and a rifle silently floating like fugitives.
I closed my eyes and, to my surprise, slept soundly.
It had been raining incessantly for a week. On 2 September, two of my friends and I visited Palhalan, a village in the north of Kashmir known for its pro-resistance sentiment, relentless curfews and as the home to 18th century poet Arnimal. As we listened to the old poet-farmer we had come to meet, he remarked about the untimely rains. “Seasons are no more favourable. The skies are wrathful.” We drove back watching rain fall on tufts of paddy and breathing in the faded fragrance of apple orchards. In my head I kept repeating the only verse of Arnimal’s I remembered: “Guun guun mo kar haa yanduro, kanreyan phallil-e malaiyo, Do not moan, my spinning-wheel, I’ll oil your rings of straw.” Days before, we had witnessed light rain in the upper reaches of south Kashmir, the first region to be deluged.
‘No government, people for people’, read one of the flags held by a youth from a rescue team.
The last I saw Jhelum River, before its protesting waters reached my room, was on 4 September. The brownish waters were delirious, already brimming, longing to walk its childhood alleys. But nobody knew the extent of its anger. By then, parts of southern Kashmir were already inundated. Large parts of Srinagar were submerged between 6 and 7 September, including my home in the southern part of the city.
On the second day, we woke up hysterical. Water levels had surged. Checking water levels became a norm, even paranoia. The bicycle in our backyard was now invisible. Last night its handle was visible. A diagonally written graphic – Muntazir (Waiting) – painted on a bus standing on the roadside was now completely under water, which was about two metres high.
On the third day, water was receding by centimetres. People were ferrying the sick and displaced, luggage, etc., on borrowed boats or makeshift rafts using foam, storage drums, ropes, tin and other available materials. Our neighbours gave us a box of ice cream, carefully aiming it towards our balcony, where my mother managed to catch it.
The ‘war’ started moving slowly. Twice, huge trucks ferrying dead passed by, people chanting in Arabic, there is no God but…
The territories demarcated by dogs were erased, and they were yowling in unison. For three days, two dogs and a puppy stood petrified and confined to a small wooden plank amid a sea. Later one of them swam and its neck got caught in the park fence. It was horrifying to see it struggling. I stood there, prayers on my lips, listening to its cries. Tears filled my eyes as I saw it release itself and swim to safety.
I began to lose track of days and dates. Time weighed heavy. There was nothing to do except check water levels, listen to the sound of helicopters hovering, watch from the window, fiddle with old objects in the attic, feed the hungry pigeons, and try to sift reality from rumours. And wait.
Lilting azaan piercing through the stillness outside and within became a consolation. The muezzin at the local mosque had taken refuge in the tall minaret and dutifully gave calls for prayers.
Women, children, young and old were migrating in tractors and trucks. Dozens of men were marching with their torsos in water, clinging to their bags and cigarettes. An anxious milkmaid, sweat dripping from her brow, carried her calf on her shoulders and strode against the waters. It evoked past memories and imageries of the Partition. Despite the absence of morning newspapers, stories of sacrifice, devastation and possibilities reached us.
A boy in his late twenties spent two nights on a tree in a nearby neighbourhood. He was overwhelmed, in his own version of Into the Wild, to see night slipping into dawn, sun rising over the drowned city, the moon and stars breaking through the dark.
There was no presence of Indian troops or local police on the roads. In a police state like Kashmir, the absence of its personnel made Srinagar appear like a phantom city, existing only in our dreams. They were seen only in helicopters and choppers roaring aimlessly in the skies, stopping occasionally to rescue their cadre from the nearby torture centre and dropping packets of ‘relief’ to their establishments.
The Indian Army, responsible for gross human-rights violations in Kashmir, and India’s national media are using the army’s selective relief measures as a tactic to whitewash their crimes.
In the first few days of urgent crisis, the state was dysfunctional, even absent. Its vital limbs were inundated first. Masses reclaimed the roads and the ways belonged to them. People of all walks, young and old, from villages, outskirts and parts of Old City journeyed to affected areas in huge numbers, organising impromptu relief efforts and distributing essential supplies like milk, medicines, packed food, drinking water and candles. Community kitchens and relief camps were set up by various people’s groups, transcending religions and regions. Even traffic was managed by the people. It was overwhelming to witness this love and solidarity. A large percentage of rescue operations were carried out by youngsters with their make-do tools. This included critical rescue operations in hospitals where patients, even pregnant women, were left to fend for themselves. Some rescuers lost their lives in the process. ‘No government, people for people’, read one of the flags held by a youth from a rescue team.
Students, activists, lawyers and businesspeople of the Kashmir diaspora have been active in the relief efforts. Many travelled to Kashmir, while others, trying to grapple with loss at a distance, worked day and night in coordinating the operations.
From my window, I saw people trudging through waters and scoffing at troopers and police who watched from their safe vantage points. A man balancing his heavy bag on his shoulders shouted “Hum kya chahtey? Azadi! What do we want? Freedom!” as if drawing strength from the slogan.
The Indian Army’s rescue and relief operations were selective, delayed, meagre and unintelligent. A friend from Old City told me over a frequently interrupted phone conversation how people hoisted black flags as a mark of protest and boycotted the army’s aid, calling it ‘chopper drama’. Many also complained about the army dropping expired food packets.
An anxious woman in my neighbourhood requested a uniformed man in an army boat to help get her breast-fed baby who was stranded in a house few metres away. No assistance was provided.
A volunteer-rescuer said the army was selective in their rescue operations, even with regard to their own personnel, prioritising high and elite ranks. Officers of a paramilitary force complained they were stranded in a government building in one of the severely affected areas and, despite calling SOS repeatedly, received no help. On the contrary, locals provided humanitarian aid to many military camps.
As for the civilians, according to witness accounts the army’s priority was to airlift tourists and other non-locals even if they were in safe areas, while leaving other people stranded in high-risk zones. Local pro-India politicians indulged in vote-bank politics, pressurising officials not to make any breaches to the Jhelum’s bank in their constituencies, which are otherwise traditional flood channels.
Amid the crisis and mayhem, the state engineered strategic information control, as is their usual modus operandi. State-controlled media manufactured half-truths, overstating the role of government forces, touting them to be messianic, and carefully ignored people’s narratives.
Despite being warned five years ago by flood control authorities, nothing was done by the government to take necessary precautions. The state has no flood forecasting and monitoring systems. The only announcements made were by locals from mosque loudspeakers.
Deep-seated corruption, intense military control, a free licence for environmental degradation, rash ‘development’, and the promotion of insensitive tourism (used as a yardstick for ‘normalcy’) such as the Amarnath pilgrimage, are factors that cannot be ignored while tracing the roots of calamities like this flood, which has taken nearly 300 human lives, rendered tens of thousands homeless and caused damages worth thousands of crore rupees.
The state, which did not stand up to the crisis, instead impeded the relief operations organised by volunteers outside Kashmir. The aid groups have been asked to route donations via the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, of the rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party and who is accused of complicity in the 2002 pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat, ignored offers of aid by the United Nations.
A friend from Delhi, whose family was stranded in a badly affected area, said over a scratchy line in a disquieted voice: “The state is blocking our consignments at the airport. We have been able to collect and send ample aid, but we are unsure about its distribution.”
By blocking international and other non-state aid channels, New Delhi and its more than 500,000 soldiers and paramilitary troops in Kashmir are trying to portray themselves as the sole messiahs, using the opportunity to push forth their ‘Kashmir-needs-India’ narrative. The Indian Army, responsible for gross human-rights violations in Kashmir, and India’s national media are using the army’s selective relief measures as a tactic to whitewash their crimes. However, the extent of the army’s crimes in Kashmir and people’s memory outstrips even the reach of flood waters. Such PR exercises have always failed in Kashmir.
Official efforts are directed towards making people solely dependent on state and army aid, an apparatus the people of Kashmir have been resisting for over 60 years now.
On the seventh night, which was starlit, water levels were considerably lower. From the attic window, I watched the moon’s reflection in the receding flood and sewer waters. Pale red bricks of the alley were emerging. The tarmac of the main road was visible too.
We managed to save our little feline family. One of them, an explorer with distinctive spryness, almost drowned, but we nursed it back to health. One is still missing. The kittens grew noticeably during this time. Their mother refuses to suckle them now and is preparing them for the world.
Days later when I walked the roads, it appeared as if the city had been bombed. Old, grand architectures were reduced to rubble. Familiar corners looked alien. People had taken shelter in small tents dotting the road. Heaps of garbage and rubble were lying on the road, stinking. Footpaths were crushed inwards. Hospitals were deserted as if inhabited by apparitions. It was reassuring to see some walls with their Save Kashmir, Save Gaza graffiti intact, making the city appear intimate again.
The air smelled of medicines and disease. People walked with their faces covered in medical-masks. The main city centre and other parts are still to be cleared of water. Phone and internet networks are yet to be restored in many areas. The floods have left a deep dent in the economy and taken immense psychological toll in the conflict-ravaged region, where thousands of people already suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
People, though grief-stricken and anxious, have set out to clean the rot and carcasses, mending what was broken and trying to grapple with loss amid subdued laughter. During the catastrophe, babies were born, funerals attended, marriages celebrated. I tasted the first pomegranates of the season from a small garden. The Jhelum flows silently again, oblivious to the desolation and destruction it left behind. The city is slowly limping to life. Bakers are rebuilding ovens; soon there will be bread again. And children are eagerly waiting for the Eid of sacrifice.
~ Uzma Falak writes about Kashmir for various publications and is currently making a film on women’s agency vis-à-vis Kashmir resistance movement.
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