L I F EPhilosophy

Lessons Learned from the #KeralaFloods

It will happen to you. All your riches will not save you. Community might.

What did you learn from the #KeralaFloods?” I was asked the other day. My answer was quick, short and simple. It did not include long diatribes on meteorological patterns or behaviours, dam technology, river features or rescue mission nuances, nothing about which I can claim any expertise of. It was: “It can happen to me too, and to you as well.

There has been an alarming increase of news of too much or too less rain, heat, cold, snow, wind, and about floods, drought, storms, etc. that these bring along with them, across the world. For most of us living charmed lives in our comfy urban cocoons of paved streets, functioning electricity, water and internet, with every creature comfort at our command, such news have hardly gone beyond the fleeting curiosity generated by video clips cluttering up our news feeds. After all, these things happen only in distant hinterlands or somewhere up in the hills, or near some huge river or by the seashore or in such “vulnerable” places, generally far away and particularly not where we live. “We are safe”, we always think. “It won’t happen here because this place is too <geographically special> or <climatically different> or <something something developed>”. And then there always is the “I am a good person. I am special. Nothing will happen to me!“. A lot of humanity still walk around with this swagger of our deluded self-importance that our technology have made us in invulnerable to any kind of such vagaries, natural or human made. Oh how we do not know!

Most of us simply do not care about things like climate change and environmental catastrophes because they never affected us. We believe these are events either imagined or probable only far away in some distant future. Our technological advances will surely completely solve these problems before they can even affect us. What is a little bit of rain or heat? Only minor inconveniences to our busy and important lives, easily overcome by our technology, money, cars, buildings and our imagined importance. The most optimistic among us believe that these events are all things of the past, receding into the collective memory of the species, periodically resurrected by Hollywood studios just to remind us how bad things once were. We believe that we, our achievements and our creations are eternal, our destiny linear, our glory certain, and nothing can stop the march of our civilisation, and that we can go on looting, plundering and destroying nature in the name of “progress” with no consequences. In our eternal foolishness, we stupidly think we have conquered nature.

But it was only us who had forgotten, nature has not. We are as vulnerable to the forces we couldn’t control as we ever were. Our so-called technological advancements are good only until nature sneezes once too hard to wipe us clean off the face of the earth. Climate change is real, and it is happening. No, it is not happening somewhere in some far away part of the world anymore. It has reached your backyard. Those days we thought to be far away in the future are, now, here, live and happening. And humanity seems to be strangely helpless in its face. We don’t have to be, because these also floods taught us that even if we are powerless to stop this force, we can still survive it if we only cared to remember where we came from.

Community Will Help in Need

How the entire state and beyond came together as one to aid in the rescue and rehabilitation efforts during the #KeralaFloods has become legendary. People voluntarily and selflessly donated and gave up their time, resources, comforts and money to help total strangers in whatever way they could. It is without doubt that these “crowdsourced” rescue efforts saved, and continue to save, countless thousands of lives. This particular example exists as a living case study on how we can, if we stay together and help each other get through any disaster. In fact, we just rediscovered one of the basic human instinct, that of cooperation and community.

Homo Sapiens became the dominant (human) species on the planet mainly because (apart from dumb luck) we have an astounding ability to cooperate across millions of individuals, says Yuval Noah Harari. This is true not just about ancient hunter-gatherers but even of humans until a generation ago. A family or community whose individuals refused to work in tandem wouldn’t even be able to generate food to survive to the next day. Today, technological advances over the past century has seemingly eliminated the need for such harmonious community living by replacing cooperation with technological output. This has resulted in the “modern” world’s individualistic capitalistic philosophy of “economic growth at any cost”. Thinking our technology and cars have eliminated the need for communal living and interaction, we lock ourselves up in our own little materialistic bubbles of technology, attitude and arrogance, convinced of being better off isolated from everything and everyone around us. We have turned around the very force and ecosystem that had made us the dominant life form on the planet. But when disaster struck, it was our community and those good old primeval sense of cooperation between individuals of our species that saved us. Remember, it was those who you cast away with contempt as untouchables who finally saved your sorry ass.

Materialism Not So Much

You watch the water level rise rapidly, the wind getting stronger, coming for you, consuming all that you own. You start feeling that sensation of terror creeping up your body, your heart skips beats, you suddenly feel helpless as it dawns on you, to your horror, that these forces are unstoppable. The water will not back off no matter how many bundles of banknotes you throw at it, no matter what you try to do. As you watch your defences crumble, you experience something you have never felt in your life. Vibrations rise from deep inside you, bile rises to your throat, your hair stands on end, you cannot think, your vision narrows, you feel dizzy, your body trembles. Terror. Something stirs within you, autopilot takes over your body and activates it, from the collective memory of a thousand ancestors, the most basic of all human instincts, the one that kept us alive through the centuries, the one that we all but forgot in this one. The reaction to life-threatening danger, that raw, white-hot, primeval terror. You feel it. You flee. You abandon everything and run for your life.

All that we think we created, all that we think we amassed, all that we take pride in, amount to nothing, only blips on the radar, worth only a sneeze from nature. We built huge houses thinking they would offer us safety from anything but they can’t beat the weather. We bought cars thinking they could take us anywhere but they stalled at the first sign of water. We amassed vast amounts of electronic numbers in electronic databases, stacks of paper and metal bars in ledgers, banks, safes and lockers which crumbled to dust or were washed away by the torrents of death. All those bits of paper and metal couldn’t fetch a glass of water or a loaf of bread. All the castles we build are on sand, or rather, water. All our lives and all that we fight over, pursue, amass and wear on our sleeves as trophies are all just abstracts, ephemeral phantasms in a transient realm, only images of fleeting memories that are here now and gone the next moment. In the end, the only reality is you and your life.

Remember Where You Came From

Most of the world today is free of the violence that had defined most of our species’ history. For every generation since the beginning of time, terrified flight from war, persecution, famine, disease, and from nature’s fury was not the exception but the norm. It was only after the dawn of the last century that changes in life philosophies have made it possible for much of humanity to thrive and grow without having to experience the vagaries of desperate flight. Most of us have never had to flee our lands in terror, run for our lives clinging to our parents, clutching our children’s hands, abandoning all that we knew and called ours. We don’t realise what it is to live in zones where there is no guarantee of us being alive the next hour. We don’t know what it is to desperately stuff ourselves into trains, buses or boats to escape untold horrors in search of safety or a future. We haven’t known what real hunger or thirst is, the value of clean air and water, the helplessness of being at the mercy of others, the never-ending pain of having lost everything in our life, the terror of impending death. Vagaries like the #KeralaFloods are threatening to bring it back.

Rescuers spoke about how people were so terribly helpless in the face of the floods, possessing not even the basic of skills to save their own lives. Our advances in technology and creature comforts have made us lazy, complacent, arrogant and over-confident. Having left natural living long ago and surrendered ourselves to the whims of our gadgets, we have become living couch potatoes, bags of fat so delicate, sensitive and brittle, literally useless for anything other than to sit on cushioned surfaces and to hold steering wheels and gadgets. Forget swimming or boat-rowing, we have even forgotten how to walk anymore. Descendants of hardy farmers who would think nothing about walking twenty kilometres, we today are so ingrown in our laziness-fueled self-conceit, vainglory and arrogance that we cannot even think of walking five hundred metres. We don’t even cook our own food anymore, instead stuff terribly unhealthy readymade concoctions down our throats, laying down our lives at the mercy of cut-throat medical practitioners. We sacrifice our lives to let the world know that we have “made it in life”. Remember who your ancestors were and how they survived. Your car will not save you when the time comes. Your feet might. Try to re-learn how to use them.

As for me, I wasn’t affected by the floods in the material sense. At the same time, lakhs of fellow people, women, children the elderly, were huddled in the rainy dark, cold, alone, hungry, thirsty, wet and cold and scared, huddling on terraces, under awnings and makeshift shelters, awaiting rescue and help, having lost everything but the clothes on their backs, all taken away in one swoop by the great swathes of brown water that came roaring down in torrents from the hills above. Why was I spared? It was certainly not because of some special ability I possessed, certainly not because of my “hard work”, absolutely not because of my religion, my caste, my gender or my race or nationality or any of those man-made divisions that separate us. In the end, it was only because of pure, dumb, luck that I was where I was when I was and how I somehow escaped all the fury. I tried to compensate for this blessing by trying to help out in rescue efforts, but I wish I had done much more. I could’ve easily been at Aluva, or Chalakudy, or Chengannur when the floods stuck. A landslide could’ve washed my house away. I could’ve been born in a conflict zone in the Middle East, South-Cental Asia or Central America. Instead, here I am, sitting here and writing this. It didn’t happen to me. That does not mean it won’t. It will.

P.S. A lot Malayalees have this belief that their land is isolated from all vagaries of the world, that their blessed land holds no special interest for destructive forces of any kind. “If World War III were to break out, Kerala will be the last place where it will arrive“, goes the saying. Things have changed, haven’t they?

Kerala needs help rebuilding. A million people or more have lost everything they ever had. Please help, no matter how little it might be. Please donate through the CM’s Distress Relief Fund (CMDRF).

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