There was never anything wrong with keeping up a little optimism over the flood.
That line from Eudora Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter arrested my attention when I was reading the book by candlelight a week ago. It was a dark week in many senses.
My beloved city was flooded, making thousands of people homeless. While it rained and rained and rained, I stayed at work for three days, for I couldn’t figure out a way to reach home. Although I was beginning to feel homesick, I had no reason to complain; I had to wait for the rain to stop, and water to recede.
On my third day at work, I had a dream when I was resting in the retiring room. In my dream, I was on the seventh floor of an enormous building. I saw water gushing into our building, and I fled to the top floor, as I warned everybody to flee. After I reached the eighth floor, I looked down to survey the water-level, and I was petrified. It looked like an ocean. The mere image scared the living daylights out of me. That’s when I woke up with a weird feeling in my chest. I stepped out from the retiring room, packed my bag, and walked back home. I wanted to be with my parents, and bury my face in Boo’s fur.
On a normal day, I would have reached home in 40 minutes, if I had walked. But, that day, it took me one hour and 45 minutes, despite travelling on an auto for a couple of minutes. It seemed like a walk that would never end.
I was just a couple of minutes away from home, and a minute away from what everybody calls Buckingham Canal. It was a few minutes after sunset, and there were naturally no lights on the street. Clutching my bag under my armpit, I took one slow step after the other. I was waist-level deep into water. Sadly, the mind began playing sadistic games. It reminded me of all the stories that I had heard — snakes coiling around people’s legs, strange insects attempting to taste blood.
At one point in time, I realised I couldn’t walk further. I had nobody walking in front of me. It was dark, and there was water everywhere. I turned around to see if I had company. For the first time in my life, I realised the gravity of disasters; I was desperate to see a human face.
As I stood still for a few seconds, I heard the sound that I wanted to hear — the sound of somebody wading through the flood. An old man, who had an air of incredible nonchalance around him, noticed me beginning to feel lost. “Where are you going?” he asked. I cleared my throat, and offered a feeble answer. “Palavakkam.” He adjusted the towel around his neck, and held his hands behind his back. “Just one more minute, and you will be home,” he assured, as though I was a little girl, who was about to be reunited with my parents after found lost and crying in a carnival. I nodded and thanked him. I expected his face to break into a smile. But, he took it like he had been nice all his life, and he was so used to being thanked that he’s almost impervious to it.
He lead, and I followed. The road that I took for almost half a decade seemed strange and scary that evening, and the old man’s random act of kindness looked like my only lantern. Strangers, they are not bad, after all!
A boat was at my house’s entrance. It was filled with packets of hot food and cold water, long candles, and matchsticks. I was hungry, and the food smelled great. But, for reasons that escaped my logic, I asked for candles and matchsticks. With my carefully packed bag in one hand, and candles in another, I climbed the staircase, and shrieked with joy. I was home. I was finally home. My parents jumped for joy as though I returned from war.
That night I slept for 12 hours. And, there were no dreams.
The next three days were kind. I read. I read. And, I read. By the flattering light of candles offered by those bunch of volunteers, I read these books.
The news about what was happening to the people of Chennai broke our hearts. We weren’t affected by the floods. We just faced some challenges like everybody else. There was no power for about five days. We ran out of essentials. All modes of communication were severed. But, we were thankful for every breath that we took.
While we were worried about how soon we could go back to being normal, unknowingly I fell in love with the life that I lead. Only a wee bit. Okay. 🙂 I finished four books in three days. I used candles. (My love for candles is incurable.) Father, mother, and I gathered in front of the radio, and listened to the news anxiously, as my mother muttered some prayers under her breath for the water to recede fast. When news was not broadcast, we listened to random songs, and father cracked silly jokes about the lyrics. Mother, with her fractured hand, relished the numerous cups of tea that father fixed for her. I was sure she was secretly enjoying the role-reversal.
Our days were lit with shy sun-rays, nights with valiant candles, and our hearts with unswerving hope. Life was still beautiful.
Then I ran into this line from The Optimist’s Daughter when we were starting to embrace the new life too. ❤
Surviving is perhaps the strangest fantasy of them all.