We Shall Overcome

Held hostage by the deluge for days together inside a building near her Barbarshah residence in Srinagar, Durdana Bhat spins a moving tale of survival, hope and resolve

People running after flood-hit Srinagar

It was late evening. Srinagar was receiving another spell of the shower. It was raining the way it always downpours in Kashmir. There was no stitch of the coming catastrophe until the clock struck 10.30 pm on September 7.

We were done with dinner. Everyone in my family was sacking out to learn the warning of catastrophe. There was something in the air. Yes, everybody was sniffing something. But that something didn’t seep in my senses so easily. Perhaps certain things are above sensory perceptions.

Shall I say: I had a hunch! Or, a gut feeling. Or, maybe, a premonition! But anyway, they all lead to the same meaning: an instinctive reading of events.

Back in my school days, that ‘abstract-sounded’ teacher of mine had once told the class: “Look students, there is something called ‘instinct’. It is a special ability of mind which enables you to sense your surroundings.” He didn’t stop there. In a very next breath, he continued: “Those who have a sharp instinct are smart, as instinct is what makes a human intellect.”

Everything he spoke that day sounded Greek to me. But the day Srinagar deluged, the word instinct (which was abstract to me since then) started showing up its signs.

Maybe certain things need adversaries for tapping out. This is exactly what was happening. Somehow that old class and that teacher rushed back to my memories. I was reading something strange in my surroundings. What was it? I had no clue. Maybe I was having a rendezvous with my instinct at the wrong time for all the worst reasons.

A young man on a floating thing based on drums moving around for rescue. KL image

Something was on the way. Yes, I was feeling it. It might sound a bit dramatic, but this is how it was: full of suspense and sizzle. And what was adding to my woes was the dreadful smokescreen of the night. There was no wind. An eerie silence had gripped everything. Something was about to happen. That night was no normal. I heard my parents talking in whispers: how hundreds have been rendered homeless. And how, the danger is looming large over the city.

I never engross myself in the parent’s conversation. But this one was too grave and hard to avoid. Each word they spoke struck me hard. My ‘instinct’ was freaking me out. “What if floods will drown us? Where are we going to take refuge then? Most of our relatives are already deluged?” All these questions kept repeating inside my mind. But somehow I was convinced that flood was still far away from our place; and that, the nearby water canal would never get overflowed or breach its bund.

But then…

On the spur of time, there was cacophony! The eerie silence of the night turned into cries—collective cries. Almost everyone was raising hue and cry. Barbarshah, my birthplace was never so scary before. In that moment of madness, I feared: whether my instinct had dawned the worst? No. I wasn’t sure about that. But yes, I was sure about panic in people.

A cleric while teaching me the holy Quran in a local seminary once told me that scenes on doomsday would be horrible and people would be running for their lives. At 11 pm that night, the scenes were horrible and people were indeed running for their lives in my neighbourhood. “Is this a doomsday?” I asked my own fearful self. But no answer cropped up. Only the state of shock reigned supreme.

By then, sounds of the water torrents had struck my eardrums. It was calling of death, I thought. For us, it appeared a warning of sink and whimper in the shrill.

Outside wails of women had started pitching up. Everyone was moving to places unknown. Driven by the desperation on our street, my mother and I went outside. We saw a hapless mother wailing, guarding her infant child with hand and dragging him to the safer side.

There were elders, women, children and who wasn’t. The flood had flooded our lanes with people. It was like a marathon run where nobody had an idea of their finishing line. They kept running, running and running.

In Kashmir, we have lost the count of bloody mayhems. But this one was indeed bloodless mayhem. Confusion. Chaos. Commotion. The night was getting horrible with each passing second. It was a mental strain.

“Let’s move to the safer place,” my frightened mother advised me, “water will soon fill our home.” In hustle-bustle, I followed her, only when the deluge was on our doorway.

The torrents had unabated our first floor within a while. Before we went on the second floor of a building nearby our home (it was exactly 11:15 pm), we closed down the shutter and came inside.

We survived!

Shikaras ply on both sides – the left is the Dal lake and the right is the Boulevard Road. KL Image:: Bilal Bahadur

But I was breathing bricks and cold inside the building which became my new home for days together. My brother who was outside station called us at 11:50 pm to know what had happened. We gave him false assurances. We tried. But we failed. Our emotional breakdown state caught was off guard. He understood that the flood had rendered his family homeless. After some time, a phone hung up.

Meanwhile, the flow of the water kept hovering like a wave and was taking everything along. The torrents created a sound as if somebody was uttering hurricane.

I, my uncle and my father kept on looking from the window with sceptic looks. With tearful eyes, we saw how household items were moving freely on the road that seemed a stream.

At 12:15 am, Jhelum calmed down. But for the whole night, the level was not dying. I shuddered. My heart sank. I saw no hope of survival. The scene of water making a forcible entry into my home turned me into an insomniac. I couldn’t resist my emotions for the entire night. A surge of sorrow had never seeped inside me like that ever before.

But yes, I wasn’t lone mourner that night. I heard cries of desperation, helplessness and forgiveness around me. Invoking divine intervention at that moment of the edge was the only option left. The prayer “Myane Khudaya, raham!” (Have mercy upon us, Allah) was on everybody’s lips.

The second day (September 8)

With the dawn of the next morning, the water level was steadily rising. We had nothing to eat. We boiled water and drank it.

Bricks of the wall became our scale for the whole day. I kept counting bricks to measure the water level that was decreasing sluggishly. It was when our neighbour held his nerves and made a temporary raft out of timber. It somehow worked. He reached us. My uncle from the window went over the temporary raft and managed to bring some eatables and a few blankets from our home. On the whole day, I saw only one ‘boat’ moving for the help—that too, a local one.

The third day (September 9)

Half of the water level had decreased on the road. People started coming and looking for their beloved ones and their houses. Some people took boats and started rescuing people who were on the rooftops. I remember how they cried out when they were rescued. They hugged each other like never before.

Amid the tension, I heard repeated shouts. When I looked out from the window I saw my brother. The relief and warmth it provided was immense. I broke down like a child. When he reached us from the window I hugged him tight and said what we lost. In an embrace, the two siblings cried a river.

Since floods hit the Srinagar city, we had no information about our relatives. Phones were out of service. Few relatives from the worst-hit area of Rajbagh were living with us. Some of their family members were still unreported and trapped somewhere in the flood.

Earlier when we contacted them they were crying for help. My paternal aunt, her husband, son and her daughter who were trapped along with 130 people in a building at Rajbagh were rescued by locals in the boat. They reached us the next day.

Fourth day (September 10)

In the evening after trying continuously I called up my other trapped relatives. I was told they were safe. Relieved, I went for a moment, but the misery of others’ was too hard to overcome.

Days went by. The news of people who were trapped in the inundated areas was steadily removing the uncertainty.

Fifteen days after…

We walked back home. Stench and slush welcomed us. This place was no longer my home. Most articles were soiled and decayed. Damaged walls, filthy rooms and wasted documents simply deepened despondency. In fact, the deluged had turned a rich collection of my books into a mound of muck. Nothing was spared.

While cleaning the mess and mud, somehow I found my diary lying on the second floor of my home. And soon I was running pen over my diary than a broom over my filthy room:

When autumn came,
It took away the glistering of my home town.
Like a wind, it came,
And ruptured the lullaby notes of the singing wind.
And then the boat was empty,
All left barren, home and sky.
Now be silent,
We shall overcome.

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