By Raghav Ganesh Nov. 04, 2017
I’m no Bear Grylls to tell you how to survive in a hostile environment, but I can share one secret to help fellow Chennai folks tide over this tough time.
I’m standing in the company of a billy goat and an Odiya boy who’s one of the bravest dudes I know, in front of his half-submerged Hero Splendor. Chennai has been getting battered by the kind of rain that made Noah build his ark, so a friend has to go all Ranchoddas Chanchad on us by making a periscope for the bike’s exhaust. Now that we have a DIY exhaust pipe that should ideally rise above these flooded Chennai roads, we are ready to go hunting for essential supplies. We bid the billy goat goodbye and embark on our misadventure. I wipe the rain from my glasses, and black smog coughs its way out of the periscope as we move.
First things first. We have to hunt for food. A dead cat floats by as an old man contemplates continuing to walk or just giving up and waiting right there for the water to dry up. A little birdie finds a hint that bread was last found a few kilometres away and takes off on her wet wings. After unsuccessfully hitting around nine of our usual grocers, we see a horde of umbrellas around a tiny tea-shop. The opportunistic owner has hoarded loaves of bread and packets of milk and is selling them at nearly the price of gold.
I get off and wriggle my way through to him and ask in broken Tamil, “Anna, ten packets bread. Ten packets butter. Milk. All Milk. Evvlo (how much)?”
He looks back and replies, “No milk. No butter. Only jam.”
With a huge rucksack half-filled with jam jars, we now head bravely into the deeper, lower-lying areas of our neighbourhood. The Odiya boy doesn’t believe we will find any cigarettes nearby but I have my faith in Veerappan, our regular cigarette guy. He usually has stiff competition from his Mallu neighbour, a certain Mr Yesudasan. But Yesudasan had been quick on his feet and was nearly halfway to Munnar when the water came. Rumour has it, that Yesudasan could predict stuff and knew the rains were coming. For now, we have to play roulette with Veerappan. Our chances look grim; his shutter is half under water.
It’s the nicotine talking. The water, now nearly until my hips, is flowing past me with the ferocity of a man who is late for a hot date. I try and walk against this current, but something entangles itself around my foot. It feels gooey. I lift it above the grey water to have a closer look and find it is a used diaper. I let out a sigh and finally reach Veerappan’s window, which is cracked slightly open.
I knock. No one replies. I knock harder. I yell out, demanding him to open. He yells back saying, “Everyone’s dead inside. Go away!” I begin to plead. That’s the nicotine kicking in again. He squeezes his hand through the window and hands me five packets of Gold Flake. I ask him for five more. This time, he slams the window firmly shut.
With my pockets finally full of cigarettes, I pull out the now soggy piece of paper that was supposed to be a list of “essential” supplies that we had set out to gather. The rain has made the writing illegible; I can now make out only one smudgy word written in capital letters: RUM.
We have now been gone for nearly two hours and travelled quite a distance away from our hostel. The water is hitting me in the eye and I have to constantly hold my glasses from flying away. It has been a good 15 minutes since we saw any human. Where are the cops? I had even heard of the army being called. I realise I haven’t spoken a word for a long time. I try to but my throat is dry. It cracks open and I ask, “Where are we going?”
Apparently, we were following the stench of alcohol, a pair of drunkards on a quest for rum. Our bike has reached the lands of Vada-Chennai (North Chennai), which were ruled by the cock-fighting mafia. These are the kind of guys who would curl their tongues out and raise a chisel to carve a human for breakfast. I am scared but the scent of booze is growing stronger. Just for the record, it is the Odiya boy who is playing hound.
The drunkards of Vada-Chennai lead us to a small, rain-soaked alley, blocked at one end by an abandoned auto-rickshaw. We bravely venture inside and stop next to a huge half-Jayalalitha, half-Vijay poster. The trail ends there. We wait patiently for about five minutes, before an old Brahmin man with his white-streaked forehead struggles his way through from behind the rickshaw toward the poster. He whispers something to a hole near Vijay’s nostril.
The Odiya boy looks at me with a smile stretching ear to ear. A hand emerges from Vijay’s nostril and blesses us with four full bottles of Chennai’s finest: Diamond XXX Condom Rum.
When we finally reach the hostel, it’s awfully quiet. We find our engineer Rancho with his thumb on his nose. “Annulom Vilom helps in controlling your breathing,” he says. The argument is that it will help us survive when the
water takes us all. What might actually help is maybe growing some gills, but I don’t tell him that.
Meanwhile, the Odiya boy has removed his shirt and is in nothing but his boxers, a pair of flippers, and a scuba mask on his face. The sound of the flippers makes squeaking echoes in the hostel corridors. The billy goat is safe, for now. We settle down to our meal of jam, Gold Flakes, and Condom Rum. We get steadily drunk but we’re still fucking hungry. The candles are melting away and we have to think of something to eat. The brave Odiya boy switches on his phone to check for some network. He declares that he is going to call for food delivery. The poor sod has gone mad with hunger.
Three hours go by and the jam jars are now ashtrays. As we’re contemplating our deaths and discussing our wills, we hear the sound of someone trying to make their way through the water. We look out to get a glimpse of this fool. Blue shirt. Red shoulder patch. And above his head, he carries his wet hot box with Dominos written all over it. He walks through the storm like Vasudev and brings us our Krishna… three hot pepperoni pizzas. That’s enough food to tide us over until the rains stop.
Chennai’s rains are back this week, which is what made me remember my tale of survival. While I’m no Bear Grylls to tell you how to survive in a hostile environment, I can share one secret. Perhaps if you do what I did and get as drunk as I was, maybe, just maybe, surviving in a drowning city wouldn’t feel as bad as it sounds.