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First Things First
Vagaries of nature sometime destroy our material belongings but leave us with a clearer perspective of life

It had been raining for hours in Kolkata, India. Already water had flooded the road and reached the first step to the veranda. I opened the front door and leaning over the balcony, I began to be concerned at the level of the water. By then the rickshaw pullers were finding it difficult to drag their vehicles through the filthy water. One went by carrying a woman and child with a load of shopping. As the rickshaw passed, it created small waves which washed up to the third step.

I saw rubbish flow by: a broken umbrella, half a lettuce, a dead dog and a bright red plastic bucket. Through the curtain of rain streaming from the roof, I could just make out the drenched figure of a man, waist deep in water, pushing a half-submerged bicycle. Looking down, I realised the water had reached the top step!

The sound of the rain had changed. No longer a welcome patter, it fell like bullets onto the roof. I thought how the noise, so seductive in the early monsoon, was now terrifying.

Sitting in the small front room, on the edge of a chair, I waited for the water to creep under the door. Suddenly, inevitably, the watery invasion began. A thin line of murky water reached the legs of a glass-topped coffee table. I sat, transfixed, until the water edged through the front room into the hallway.

Quickly, I jumped into action, thinking of my young baby, sleeping peacefully in his cot in the back bedroom. Paddling through the water, which was now ankle deep throughout the flat, I snatched the drowsy baby from his cot where water was already swirling round the legs of the bed.

At this point the dining room table was still high enough to provide a temporary safe refuge. I gently laid my son on a changing mat on the table as I watched the water slowly rising up the side of the refrigerator until it flooded the motor. A bright blue cushion and a sodden magazine floated past, up the hallway. I noticed the face of a famous Bollywood actress, gracefully disappear below the water. Wading into the kitchen, I was faced by an array of cooking vessels and empty water containers floating defiantly out of the door, joining a pillow and a sari, like a long, wet banner, drifting into the main bedroom.  Looking through the metal grill of the window, I could see the water level had risen alarmingly. The rubbish dump at the corner of the road had been lifted up by the power of the swirling water. It floated, a strange exotic island, down the road with broken branches, cardboard boxes, candle stubs, vegetable peelings and old tyres poking out through a tangle of water weed and other rubbish. By now I realised I could not stay in the flat with a young baby who was crying hysterically. I opened the door which led to the upstairs flat and the roof. It took all my strength to push against the water, which was waist high, swirling around in the stairwell and lapping the third stair.  I picked up the child, wrapped in a white shawl, the only dry thing in the house. Holding him in one arm, I battled to push the door open against the flow of the water. 

Somehow, I put one foot on the third stair and dragged myself up by the iron railings at the side of the metal staircase. My sari, heavy with water, was pulling me back. I managed to get rid of the six yards of soaking wet material and watched them wrap round a banister post. Now reduced to my petticoat, I struggled up the wet, slippery stairs, one hand on the railing and one round the screaming baby!

How I needed Ashok, but he had left for Delhi that morning to visit his dying grandfather. My husband was always calm, whatever the crisis and I missed his reassuring presence dreadfully.

The upstairs flat belonged to our landlord, Mr Dutta, a devout Hindu and successful businessman, his wife, sister-in-law and one very pampered toddler.  At the top of the stairs the door to the Dutta’s flat beckoned but I felt awkward, standing in my blouse and petticoat. I looked back at the water in the stairwell which had now reached the fifth step. I had little choice but to bang on the locked door.

I could hear footsteps coming along the stone passage and the key being turned on the other side. The door opened to reveal the formidable sister-in-law with the chubby toddler in her arms. Standing In a state of undress with a screaming baby, I felt foolish. However, speaking kindly in a Bengali dialect from East Bengal (Bangladesh), the woman invited us in.

“Come in. You must be flooded out and with a young baby too! I was just talking to Mr Dutta. He thought you had gone to Delhi with your husband, or we would have rescued you earlier. “

I found myself reduced to tears by the concern in the woman’s voice. Just hearing a reassuring voice was overwhelming. We walked down the passageway into the main sitting room. Mr Dutta appeared and assured me,” The water won’t come up here. My family have lived here for years, and it never reaches beyond the sixth stair.”

Slightly reassured, I gratefully accepted a bottle of warm milk for the baby. This seemed to pacify him. He quickly fell asleep on the regal sofa. Meanwhile, Mr Dutta and I climbed the steep stairs up to the roof. We stood in a wide, flat space criss-crossed by washing lines. The rain had stopped, and the dark, heavy clouds had cleared. Looking up you could see countless stars shining in a friendlier sky. It was now a dark blue velvet; the pinpricks of stars seemed to promise a calm night.

I looked down on a stricken city. In every direction were flooded roads looking like canals. Kolkata had become the Venice of the East. In the nearby bustee, the fragile huts had been flooded out and even destroyed. The inhabitants of the slum had collected on higher ground, their few possessions gathered around them. Looking down into the dark water of the street, I could see all types of debris floating past. On the roof opposite, candles and lamps had been lit. As I looked further down the road, I saw lights shining and winking from every roof top. It seemed the city had magically moved itself to a higher level, shunning the mud, water and filth in the streets and leaving the slum dwellers to deal with it. People were waving and shouting across the drowned world below. I thought of our flat flooded and our possessions. I decided to go back and rescue a few items. Slipping into the dark, stinking water, I started to swim into the bedroom. Mr Dutta bellowed down the stairs, “Come back the electricity is live and there are snakes in the water!”

For me the combination of an electric shock and a poisonous snake bite was too much. I swam back into the dining room, holding my breath and trying not to swallow any water. As I began to climb up the stairs, I held back angry tears. All the money we had saved to furnish the flat was gone along with the wedding presents and, above all, my son’s fluffy blue bear which was always beside him when he went to sleep.

A week later the water had all but disappeared and Ashok had returned from Delhi. Yet nothing could prepare us for the scene of utter devastation which met our eyes. The front room was a metre deep in filthy mud, debris and a sickening stench from the streets. A sad piano looked as if a madman had been hammering at it. The white keys were sticking up, at least four centimetres above the black. Not even a discordant note could be extracted from the mortally wounded instrument. The kitchen was full of soaking wet, fluffy toys: sad bears, sodden tigers, solemn pandas; the remains of Noah’s Arc which had not escaped the Great Flood. Even blue bear was beyond rescue. The refrigerator motor was wrecked, filled with black mud.

Ashok sighed, “We started with nothing and we’re back to nothing. No, that’s not quite true, the three of us have survived. This morning, on my way home, near Howrah Station, I saw the bodies of small children, lying at the side of the flooded track.” Blue bear faded into insignificance.

Later that afternoon, we set off to the market to buy a simple wicker cradle for our son. After all, first things first!

Image by Evie S.
Notebook and Pen

Sarah Das Gupta is an English Teacher living in Cambridge, UK. She has had work published in over 40 magazines/journals from US, UK, India, Australia, Canada, Nigeria, Mauritius and Croatia. She has lived and taught in India, Tanzania and UK.

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