August 27, 2010

Impressions of a flood

As I mentioned earlier, internet access was difficult in Leh, and it seemed blogger.com was particularly hard to reach. I did manage to put out a number of tweets, you know what those are. Now that I'm back in broadband country, I thought I'd put some of those tweets (edited some for coherence and relevance and because I no longer am constrained by the number 140) up here as one post. Might give you a taste of what it was like in Leh.

***

In Leh with minimal Web access. The destruction is something fierce, yet there's utter normalcy in places that are unaffected. In that sense, it brings back memories of Tamil Nadu during the tsunami.

I realize that when you look at the edge of the road where a bridge has been washed away, or indeed the road itself, that edge looks like a bitten biscuit. In a week, I saw more biscuits than I might want. And walking to a destroyed bridge near Phyang, west of Leh, I pass three connected vertebrae lying in my path. Probably cattle, or a dog? But in this time, this place, I wonder.

Orissa cyclone '99: plenty of fields destroyed by seawater flooding in. Ladakh '10: plenty of fields destroyed by floodwater and boulders from the mountains. Same difference, to me.

Standing in the hospital in Leh, across the valley over the town of Stok is a vast black cloud, looks like it is pouring rain on Stok. Friend there whom I call laughs at my worry, tells me it's only drizzling.

In more than one flood-damaged Ladakh place, metal rods from the innards of destroyed buildings rise from the ground like tall strands of grass.

Signs 200 metres apart on the Leh-Srinagar highway read thus: "Rajma Rice Available Here", and "Salvage". We turn off onto a dirt road that leads up to a stony plateau. Between damaged huts on this plateau sits a damaged Maruti 800 with "Lynyrd Skynyrd" painted on back. I expect to hear "Gimme Three Step" any moment. Meanwhile, the 16 Border Roads Task Force says it is the "Only Unit in Guinness Book of World Records." No time to find out why -- does anyone know? For the highest motorable road in the world? Also, I won't tell you where in Leh I found a sign saying "Please After Close The Door", and this in large letters about 150 m away: "URINE".

A three-storey building was destroyed by the flood, its roof lies 50 metres away. Lying on the roof when I walk past is a drenched and thick book, titled "The Aim of Life". Ironies everywhere. Several of us gather on Sunday morning to clean up a Leh playground that's buried in mud. Digging, lifting. Then a JCB joins in the fun. Its operator's tee reads "Trophies of Bygone Era". Appropriate. Maybe irony as well.

The cleanup crew included five or six teenage boys, and the rest all much older. Nobody in their 20s, 30s or 40s. Puzzling. Also working steadily in the cleanup was a German grandmother, picking up sticks and boards with her bare hands. Reminded me of Ram's squirrel. In fact, most of the cleanup happened with bare sets of hands. Any fear of rust/nails/dirt/wood splinters, if there at all, was not apparent to me.

Lunch on Monday is at an elegant Leh eatery. I liked it and its owners, who sat to chat, a lot. Their business has been badly hit because of the flood (which was why they had the time to chat). I return on Wednesday for a late lunch and more conversation. When I am done, they refuse to charge me. Another day, a taxi driver called Asif wants Rs 80 for a trip I need to make. I have a Rs 100 note. He has no change. So he tells me, you keep it. If we meet again, give me the Rs 80. Specifically because he had been so generous, I looked for and found him for two more trips I needed to do.

On the other hand: I bought half a kilo of apricots from a woman on the pavement. Tried another seller for another half kilo, and this woman would not let me pick out the ones I wanted -- said I would spoil them. So she lost my business.

In truth, the impact of this disaster on Ladakh's economy is massive, and so there's lots of resentment over the media coverage. But here's an example of the impact: one small shop in the tourist strip that I visited, King Arts, would do Rs 40,000 to Rs 50,000 of sales every day. After the flood, that came down to Rs 4000 a day. (The day I visited, I contributed Rs 1000 of that). The owner told me he was closing up and going to Goa, where he also has a store.

Lots of sad stories that I hear, about the disaster. A man jumped into a truck with his baby, then stretched out his hand to pull his wife aboard. But before she could grab his hand, she was washed away. Another couple with their 2.5 month-old baby clung to a gate in neck-high water. The gate crumbled. Desperate, they threw their baby to a nun on the first floor above them. After catching the kid, she lowered sheets for them to climb up to safety.

The Ladakh Scouts Regimental Centre lost three men, washed away while on guard duty. A bridge on the Leh-Srinagar highway near their post was also washed away, but within a day, the Army was able to put up a temporary Bailey bridge there.

Not so easy to replace soldiers.

1 comment:

rw14 said...

Hi Dilip,
Though a bit late in reading your insert, but it certainly is very interesting and having been there my self, I can visualise the events described by you rather vividly.
I think we met in Srinagar in 1998 when you came along with your Dad, Maj Gen Eustace D' Souza to the JAK LI Centre for the Golden Jubilee celebrations.
Do confirm.
Brig Rajiv Williams
rajivwilliams@yahoo.co.in