Smita Prakash Column: Chennai spirit and other musings

A salute to the display of compassion by Chennaikars who braved the rains and the floods

As the year winds down and I end my innings at mid-day after writing this column every week for several years without a break, I doff my hat to the Spirit of Chennai. Smiling in adversity, Chennaikars stoically and patiently waited for help to reach them in the devastating floods last week. When assistance arrived, they waited for their turn, allowing the underprivileged to first be taken care of. The visuals that have been beamed to our homes from Chennai have left us moved to tears and amazed at the display of compassion and humanity under such trying conditions.

When assistance arrived, Chennaikars waited for their turn, allowing the underprivileged to be taken care of first. Pic/PTI
When assistance arrived, Chennaikars waited for their turn, allowing the underprivileged to be taken care of first. Pic/PTI

My favourite shot would have to be of a lady on the rooftop waving to the army chopper that one packet of food was enough; she didn’t need more. No greed, no panic, no hoarding. One person tweeted about his daily ‘milk lady’ delivering milk despite having to wade through thigh-high water logging. Similarly there were heartrending photographs and video of women hitching up their silk sarees clinging to their small bag of possessions, leaving their homes in boats to safer zones. Men carrying young children and pets in their arms wading through shoulder high water, housewives preparing food packets, men driving their vehicles valiantly in stagnant water recharging people’s phones, taking people to hospital, students pitching in with their bit. Just everybody helping each other selflessly. There was no looting of unguarded shops and homes, no stealing of vehicles, no chest beating complaints, no haay-haay, and no politics. Well, almost none.

One anchor interviewing a DMK leader pointedly asked her to not do politicking and then questioned her whether her cadres are working along with the AIADMK on the ground. She gently replied, yes, not a time to play politics or score points. Dissatisfied with the gracious answer he persisted, “do you think the administration could have done more, reacted sooner.” Ah! Viewers know exactly when journalists are trying to rake up muck instead of ‘just asking’.

As Chennai limps back to semblance of normalcy, it will require weeks and months of work to rebuild its broken infrastructure and help people reconstruct their lives. Just like Mumbai did in 2005 or Srinagar in 2014. No city it seems learns from the mistakes of others. Unplanned haphazard growth, knee-jerk unscientific decisions by municipalities to solve problems have made our cities urban nightmares.

In this column I have written often about decaying towns. Simla and Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru. It doesn’t matter which city or town I wrote about here, changes in state or central governments made no difference to them. Revisiting those columns written years back, I notice they could have been written today. Nothing would be different.

An op-ed I had written here two years ago titled ‘Alzheimer’s and Amma’ on the long goodbye that my grandmother is going through has received many responses. An update on that: Amma at 93 recognizes none, has gone silent, needs nursing, but she watches her TV serials and smiles when she sees children and puppies. We cling on in the hope that she might one day say something or recollect a memory.

I had written about depression and my brother’s battle with it. ‘Untouched by Pain’ when he went into a state of catatonia. Rohit came out of it, and I am happy to report that he is slowly recovering. We don’t talk of ‘normalcy’ in our house anymore. We are grateful for each day, and celebrate every small achievement.

My columns in these pages dwelt a lot on India-Pakistan and the issue of Kashmir. Revisiting the columns I see that nothing much changed in that sphere either. This week foreign minister Sushma Swaraj heads to Islamabad to take part in a conference on Afghanistan. Officially we are told this visit has nothing to do with India-Pakistan peace talks. But it’s a huge symbolic move that the BJP government under Narendra Modi, which had a hawkish stance before elections and was not expected to make any bold moves with regard to Pakistan, would be making.

As the year winds down, the BJP seems to be making some course correction by engaging with the opposition. One a half years into the term and two state elections lost, the BJP realizes that a huge mandate does not mean an easy term. The sheen wears off every government sooner or later. Bold announcements can only help; not do the job. The deliverables need to show in another’s year time or it could be late.

The coming together of Nitish-Laloo here would have to be the political event of the year. Nothing is impossible in politics. At least not in India. Best wishes for the New Year. Au Revoir!

Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on twitter @smitaprakash

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