December continued what the previous months had started. As if it wasn’t hard enough to have no cash, to worry if you could pay for a pint of milk or half a dozen eggs, then we – Chennai and Tamil Nadu state – were hit with two major events that were to exacerbate those problems.
Death of the Chief Minister
Sadly, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, the head of the Tamil Nadu state government, died on the evening of 5th December. Jayalalithaa Jayaram – Jaya – was only 69, and was a hugely revered person here, respected by many for her efforts to help the poor. She had been in hospital since September: posters of her were all over the place wishing her a speedy recovery, so it was a huge surprise when she had a sudden cardiac arrest.
We had been told the night before that she had suffered a setback and, on the Monday morning in the office, we were told to be prepared. We had no concept of what to be prepared for, to be honest. Eventually, we were told to go home early because, if she died, there might be civil unrest. There was wall to wall news of her health, with all expecting her to die – She died at midnight that night. It was said that the announcement was deliberately timed to allow minimum disruption that day but, the next day, it was the strangest of places.
Jaya had been CM five times, in and out of that office over a period of 25 years. In her early life, she was a hugely popular dancer and a major film star but turned to politics over 40 years ago encouraged by a former co-star. Her reputation among Tamils was that of a mother – she was known as Amma, for mother – but it was not without controversy as she had been jailed a couple of times over asset disputes and corruption but still remained hugely popular and highly respected. Her death not only was national news here, but globally reported. Her successor has also generated some tensions…but that’s for later.
It may be difficult to appreciate in the UK but the huge reverence and respect for her here was such that, after her death was announced, everything closed down for two days – everything. There was a 7-day period of mourning and a massive public display of grief. We stayed out of the office for those two days.
Chennai, where we never see traffic slow down or vendors stop selling, was a ghost town, with no cars, no shops open, and few people in the street. It Stopped, such was the influence and respect that Amma had on her people here. The unrest never really came to pass but there were skirmishes over her legacy. Despite the respect, there are many divisions in how she governed and her supporters and opponents expressed their views.
At a reverential, spiritual and religious level, men committed suicide, women shaved their hair off and grief was plainly visible everywhere. The memorial by Marina Beach where she is buried was so busy that it blocked the main road. Difficult to appreciate – the only time I’ve seen that kind of grief was when Diana died 20 years ago. Perhaps unsurprisingly for 21st century Britain, the UK’s first woman leader’s death brought celebration.
After the curfew, we got back to work by the Thursday but that weekend brought yet more potential upheaval. The news reported that there was a cyclone – called Vardah – in the Bay of Bengal. Since I’d arrived in India in October, there had been a number of them, to be honest, and all were expected to bring the monsoon rains. None of them ever did. This one did, and it came with just a slightly bigger punch…
Texts and emails proliferated from colleagues on the Sunday night to say that the cyclone was due to land over Chennai. I took it with a pinch of salt and, on the Monday morning went to work. It was very, very windy, and there was rain but, as I said, I just thought that this was the monsoon arriving and it’d be over in an hour or so. (Insert huge icon of hilarious and incredulous laughter here, such is this blogger’s ignorance!). When I got to work there were very few people there and texts were sent to say for me to get back home immediately – so I left. The first indication that this was going to be really bad was when I was leaving the office campus and saw a woman blown over. (Oh, I know I should have got out but I blame her umbrella)
I was back home by 11 and the rains, by then, were really heavy – the streets were flooded already and many branches were littering them. I felt sorry for my driver who was taking his motorbike home but it turned out it was better that he left then rather than delay. I then had an opportunity to view the gathering storm from my balconies, from and back of the apartment. Within a couple of hours, the large trees outside were bending sideways but seemed to be ok. This was yet another incorrect assumption. Flashes, bangs and booms proliferated where power cables were broken by falling trees, leaving the street without mains power – the backup generators then kicked in…but not for long. I live five minutes from the beach and was keen (and stupid enough) to want to go and see the storm there but my mind was changed when I heard huge cracks over the howling wind and saw that the trees front and back of my apartment were suddenly no longer there. They were big strong trees and the wind had snapped them like matchsticks, such was the storm’s force. I looked down the street from the safety of my balcony to see that many other trees had also fallen. The leafy street was beginning to look very bare of any foliage and any trees still upright were bound to land on me if I ventured out. I braved going downstairs to at least get a view from ground level. The wind was like an express train – it was incredibly noisy.
This was no simple storm, though: For the uninitiated, a cyclone is exactly the same as a hurricane or typhoon…it just depends on the part of the world you’re in. (Thanks to Kris Surtees for that valuable nugget of information when he was here) Cyclones, hurricanes, typhoons
Some stats: The cyclone claimed over 18 lives; uprooted 12,000 trees in Chennai; over 10,000 electricity poles were destroyed; 800 electricity transformers were damaged; 77 dead cows were found afloat in a lake; as many as 224 roads were blocked.
The winds died down by about 5pm and, later that night, with the wind now a slight breeze, it seemed that nothing had happened – the evidence was plainly obvious, though, as almost every other tree in my street had been brought down or damaged. It was quite sobering to see the amount of destruction that can happen so quickly.
The cyclone damage had a massive impact on Chennai: major power supplies were been knocked out and even the backup generators couldn’t help as they ran out of fuel as they’re only expected to run for short uses; Communications were badly affected: broadband internet services were down and mobile communications were extremely limited as mobile masts had been brought down meaning even basic phone call were difficult to make (I had no internet for three weeks and my mobile was limited to texts and poor voice calls for two weeks); travel was severely affected because of the sheer amount of trees blocking the roads. However, the day after the cyclone, the sun shone, there was barely any wind and most people into the offices because the communications and power supplies were more reliable there. Damage was quite apparent there too where huge panels had been ripped off the side of the buildings and thrown into windows in the buildings opposite. The daily life continued, almost as if the cyclone was just a blip, but the evidence of it lay in the streets where in excess of 12,000 trees were felled, and, for weeks lay at the side of the roads. Heavy plant equipment was soon deployed to move the felled trees which were then moved to the beaches or parks.
The damage to the communications infrastructure also exacerbated the current cash shortage as even more ATMs were now out of order, and it became difficult to get cash to those that were working. The services were slowly restored but, with all the other events going on in India – cash crisis, deaths, unrests and curfews, this really did seem to be the “Perfect Storm”
As of the start of the year, it is difficult to recognise that Chennai was in the centre of such a devastating storm as the thousands of fallen trees have been removed, the mobile and internet infrastructure – of which almost 90% was destroyed – is almost back to normal. This is solely down to hard working, long, late efforts by many, many people, working all hours to clear the trees and damage.
A late paperwork task after the cyclone was to apply for an Indian bank account. My Indian PAN card (like a national insurance / social security card / Id card) had arrived. Arrangements had been made for a man from the bank actually came to my place to fill in the forms and, as mentioned before, I thought I’d got them all. Ha-ha, no a chance – this is India! Despite him actually being in my apartment he still needed a letter from my employer to say I lived there. “But you’re here, you can see I live here” I tried to reason but he was having none of it. “No sir, we need proof” – and I didn’t have any. A quick phone call to our office in Delhi arranged to have an original – a signed scan wouldn’t do – delivered to me.
Additionally, he also wanted other documents I’d not needed before including a copy of my UK driving license and, this time, my mother’s name was also needed in addition to my father’s; oh, and a copy of the entry stamp on my passport. Just something else different. It never fails to amaze me that the proof I needed to get into the country on a working permit is still insufficient for other things and all of it is on paper, signed in every space blank bit of space on the page. As I mentioned right at the beginning of this entry about the disparities, this country has two faces – the modern and what we’d now call bloody old fashioned. I was assured that the account would be ready for when my son and daughter arrive before Christmas – I’d explained I was taking them on a tour of Tamil Nadu and was concerned that the cards I ‘d been using in Chennai – and which randomly failed to work, with or without cyclones and self-important till assistants – may not work out of the city. “Of course, Sir, it will be ready in 5 days”…5 weeks later it was.
My Son and Daughter flew to India to stay with me for Christmas. Cash crises, deaths and cyclones would be nothing to them coming over…but that’s another blog.