As cyclone Amphan fireballed and ripped through Kolkata, Nishi Pulugurtha gives a first hand account of how she survived the fear and the terror of the situation
Forecasts and news did not prepare us for the actuality of it all till it actually happened. We had taken all necessary precautions but what happened on the evening of the 20th of May 2020 rattled and disturbed a lot. Cyclone Amphan was moving slowly over the Bay of Bengal and was expected to make a landfall in the southern parts of Bengal and lash the city of Kolkata as well.
News of this nature is troubling and more so in times of the pandemic. As it is we are all at a loss, stuck at home, worried about how things would turn out. As news kept pouring in about the cyclone which turned in to a super cyclone, the common refrain was why now. Things seem to be getting worse. At a time when we needed to maintain social distancing, people were being evacuated into cyclone shelters. This had to be done, the cyclone would wreak havoc and arrangements had to be made for lives to be saved.
At home, I heard my mother’s carer, Kajal, talking constantly about it over the telephone. She was calling up home and talking to her family members about it. Her home is in Namkhana, South 24 Parganas which would bear the brunt of the cyclone very strongly. Her sister who lives in Bakkhali by the coast, had been evacuated well in advance before the cyclone made a landfall.
Kajal kept telling me that this was worse than the cyclone Alia as there had been announcements in Namkhana and Bakkhali about how high the waves of the Bay of Bengal would lash out as well. As it began to rain she spoke to her folks, they were all at home, and expecting the river waters to rise had moved everything at home to higher places. Her home is just beside a river. The last time she spoke to her family members was when it was lashing the place. The asbestos sheet that was their roof had been blown away and they were unable to move out of the house as three trees had fallen on the house and one was blocking the door. There were tears in her eyes as she said there was no way anyone could come to rescue her folks.
At about four o’clock I decided to venture out a bit just to have a look at what was happening outside and that is the first time I heard the sound of the wind. It was loud, real loud, of the kind I do not recall hearing in recent times.
It began raining heavily in Kolkata and at home we began securing the glass windows. The intensity of the wind began increasing and we readied candles and match boxes. I even made dinner early as I was sure the electricity supply would go off. I made arrangements for water, both for drinking and use too. Living with someone who is in an advanced state of Azheimer’s, I needed to be prepared with how to deal with things. Living in the moment is something that dementia instills into us.
Friends and cousins started enquiring about how we were holding on. Holding on is something that Amma and I have been doing since her diagnosis had come in. And it is something that every one of us is doing in times of Covid-19. As the storm raged on, the sound and intensity kept increasing.
The tumult of it all was frightening and scary. I opened a window to look out to see how things were outside and that is when I could hear even more loud noises. Many houses in the neighbourhood had fibre sheds on the terraces and as the wind raged, the tins intensified the roars. The sound was fiery and nightmarish. Within our compound was a two storied house that had such a shed on its terrace. As I looked out from the window, I saw a fibre sheet rip off and fly. It frightened me out of my wits.
What if it should hit someone outside. It would lash against electric poles and wires too. It was getting dark too. It was a scary scenario. I closed the window and rushed to be with Amma. She does not speak at all now for some years, the ravages wrought by Alzheimer’s, but it was clear that she was very perturbed. We were enclosed in darkness. I started speaking to her and sat beside her, comforting her. We sat huddled up together not knowing what would happen.
At about 7.30 pm, it seemed that the noises were less. I opened a window again to look out. The wind was no longer raging though it was still raining. My neighbours were out in their verandahs, torches and mobile flashlights on, trying to make some sense of the damage that had been done.
It was too dark to make sense of how things were but we did see our whole compound was waterlogged. It was important be indoors, to try and be calm. I asked Kajal for news about her family and the state of her village. The last she heard of them was when they had been evacuated and were lodged in a neighbour’s house, all safe. That was at about six in the evening. She said she was unable to get in touch with anyone after that. She tried calling all those whose numbers she had, not just of her family members but also of local villagers, but to no avail.
We had dinner in silence, the electric supply was restored. Amma was taken to bed but she was awake for most part of the night, making noises once in a while. She usually sleeps till twelve, is awake for some time and then falls asleep again. She slept in the wee hours of the morning. I went out to have a look at things in the morning, water all around, my small garden in a mess, the plants mostly bent, fibre sheds strewn around in the compound, glass pieces on my car parked outside.
Thoughts of the pandemic were pushed back, all of us in Kolkata and all over Bengal and Orissa were more concerned about the cyclone and all the devastation it has brought.
I got a call from the local grocer at 6.30 in the morning, I had ordered a few things yesterday before it started. He called up to say that they were on the way. I told him that he could wait. He replied that things were all ready for delivery, moreover I might be in need. The young boy who delivered them told me that there was knee deep water in places.
I asked Kajal if she had any news of her family. She said she had been trying throughout the night but to no avail. There was no news at all. She was with Amma as she usually is. They were holding each other’s hands.
Dr. Nishi Pulugurtha is Associate Professor in the department of English, Brahmananda Keshab Chandra College and has taught postgraduate courses at West Bengal State University, Rabindra Bharati University and the University of Calcutta. She is the Secretary of the Intercultural Poetry and Performance Library, Kolkata (IPPL). She writes on travel, film, short stories, poetry and on Alzheimer’s Disease. Her work has been published in The Statesman, Kolkata, in Prosopisia, in the anthology Tranquil Muse and online – Kitaab, Café Dissensus, Coldnoon, Queen Mob’s Tea House, The World Literature Blog and Setu. She guest edited the June 2018 Issue of Café Dissensus on Travel. She has a monograph on Derozio (2010) and a collection of essays on travel, Out in the Open (2019). She is now working on her first volume of poems and is editing a collection of essays on travel.
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