I only have a hazy memory of that fateful day.
It was 29th October, 1999. A monstrous wind, unseen and unheard of before, ripped through Odisha, a coastal state of India, blasting doors open, flinging roofs several meters away and dissolving the exposed earthen walls. Thousands perished in the viscous darkness of that damp night, unsure if they were dying or dreaming, their tiny lives blown away into the Bay of Bengal. Many did not get a chance to say a final goodbye even to someone who slept next to them. In the deathly silence of the aftermath, broken only by a heart-wrenching wail somewhere, bodies were seen strewn everywhere, in ponds, ditches, under fallen walls and by the road side along with those of the animals. All perished toys of the almighty.
Days later, several hundreds were gently caressed and turned by the forgetful sea, as if in abject denial of the mass murder.
The Super Cyclone of 99 was horrific beyond imagination. It flattened landscapes and memories, snuffed out the candles of more than ten thousand and altered a million more lives forever.
I was away then, in the safety of the western coast, in Mumbai, far from the sight and smell of death. I was busy trying to make an impression on my bald, stoic boss, having joined my maiden job in the city of dreams, only months before. Odisha, my homeland, was suddenly a distant place, only remembered during the pricey weekly phone call. This was the time when a single landline telephone was shared among rows of houses and dainty actresses posed with their brick-sized cellphones that cost as much as a heart for a single call.
I remember being an insensitive expat. The city where money blows in the wind was a priority. I had not really felt the pain. I had not had the shivers. All I had was the memory of passing through a tarry platform several weeks later on my way home, and the cranial photocopy of a few moving images. Of scores of corpses rotting by the roadside, hands and legs up like post-puja idols consigned to water, swollen and blackened.
Even that memory was slowly fading, overwritten by the mundane details of life. But all that changed a few weeks back!
When I suffered a cyclone myself.
Shivering inside the glass-concrete wrappings of my apartment in Bhubaneswar, the capital city of Odisha, watching the raging Cyclone Fani hammering roofs and trees with savage force, listening to the dreadful hissing of the wind passing under my closed doors, as if a thousand snakes have been let loose, I lost my over-reliance on the man-made world.
The glass panels of the living room shook menacingly and threatened to blow up on my face. A DTH dish, uprooted from the roof but still attached to its cable, swung wildly and kept banging near the window, only inches away from the glass pane. The garden I had groomed with so much care was shredding outside. The balcony shade had blown off as I had watched helplessly. Unknown to me, a portion of the boundary wall had collapsed and the car of a relative — he stayed with me the previous night and was the only other soul in the house, my family being thankfully away on the west coast for a marriage— was being pushed against a wall. Water was gushing in through most ‘sound-proof’ windows and the blower of the air conditioner.
As I rushed from bathroom to bedroom to living room, soaking and squeezing every towel and bed sheet I could lay my hands on, I could not help imagine myself on that dreadful October night twenty years back, in a small fragile house. I imagined being lifted off the bed in the dark of the night, still believing it to be only a bad dream, being thrashed around violently among things known and unknown, before the lights in my head switched off.
I was humbled. I felt vulnerable.
Sitting tired on the disoriented living room sofa, I felt the building sway. And then there was a deafening sound outside, as if hundreds of kilos of something just fell from the roof. In a long time, I saw fear. A brick pillar outside my window, a vestigial design element had given way, I learnt later.
For more than three hours, Fani danced an unopposed dance. A macabre Taandav of destruction.
It was nature’s way of taking revenge, people said. That’s their belief. We will probably never establish it as a fact. We will never know if nature indeed takes revenge. But I think somewhere, in our quest for development, for material pleasure, we have taken nature for granted. We have found many ways to torture it, defy it or even tame it.
However, often the trappings of the luxury that you so painstakingly build for yourself makes you stupid. It makes you blind to the forces of nature. It makes you overestimate your own tiny life in the grand scheme of things.
But the cyclone reminded me of my place.
It changed the way I saw nature and people; made me a little more empathetic. It taught me that people are more than their two-dimensional images on television; they are real and their pain is very real. And that human beings are mere specks of dust in the grand creation of the God. No matter how intelligent and capable we think ourselves to be.
Nine days of absolute darkness in the peak of summer brought me closer to that fact. As it hopefully did to many more.
As I write this article on my laptop on a dehumidified afternoon, my air conditioner singing again, my LEDs lit up, somewhere someone is burning a jungle, releasing toxic water into a river, overseeing the mechanized chopping of thousands of trees and releasing poisons into the air.
How long we can keep doing that? How long will nature tolerate us?