Mumbai rains: Psychologists decode why rains send Mumbaikars into panic mode

Updated: 24 September, 2017 15:45 IST | Anju Maskeri and Gaurav Sarkar | Mumbai

Thanks to knee-deep dangerous treks home and crumbling infrastructure, the city that once had a rhyme to call for rain seems to have had its fill, psychologists tell you why

On August 29, when the city recorded 298 mm of rainfall, the highest for a day in August since 1997, according to data from the India Meteorological Department, Sushma Shivaji Rathod was warm and dry at her Mankhurd home. "Fortunately, it was my day off, so I didn't move out," says the 26-year-old, who works at a Vashi beauty salon.

Yet, she stayed up all night. "I couldn't get a wink of sleep. I thought the water would gush into the house like it had on the night of July 26, 2005," she adds.

That evening, 12 years ago, also a Tuesday, the Rathods saw their belongings washed away. At the time, the family was living in a ground floor home in Maharashtra Nagar, a locality in Mankhurd. "The water level rose to over seven feet. We couldn't save anything. Our priority was to save ourselves, so we rushed to my aunt, who lives a few buildings away," she recalls. The family of eight — including her sisters and parents — stayed put at the aunt's residence for over a month, till they found a new home. Later, they rented a house on the ground floor of a chawl in Patil Nagar, not too far, where they currently reside. Here, too, the family often faces leakage during heavy rain. "It's not bad as what we experienced back then, but I carry a sense of fear," she says.

Rathod's despair will find resonance across the city.

For many Mumbaikars, the recent incidents of heavy downpour disrupting normal life, have evoked hellish memories from the past. Enough for panic to set in.

Srived Datta, 24, points to the ground floor flat in Kalina’s Air India Colony where a house help drowned when the water level rose to 10 feet, while she was trying to save some residents. He says nightmares surrounding the accident continue  to plague him. Pic/Dutta Kumbhar
Srived Datta, 24, points to the ground floor flat in Kalina’s Air India Colony where a house help drowned when the water level rose to 10 feet, while she was trying to save some residents. He says nightmares surrounding the accident continue  to plague him. Pic/Dutta Kumbhar

In 2006, 24-year-old Srived Datta, a resident of Kalina's Air India Colony witnessed the death of a house help who was trying to save a couple of residents. He says nightmares surrounding the accident continue to plague him.

"Vijeta [maid] forced a mother and her baby to leave the flat they were in, bolted the door from the inside and tried to save some belongings by moving them to a higher level in the house. When she tried to re-open the locked door, the water inside the second-floor home had risen above the lock's level, preventing her from opening it. She climbed a loft perhaps thinking that the water wouldn't reach that high, but it did. We could hear her screaming for help. At this time, the water was 10 feet above ground level in the house. A few people tried to swim to the door of the house to open it, but it was impossible to open the lock. The screams then suddenly stopped. Her body was removed after the water had receded," Datta says.

It's an incident that had made him dislike the rainy season. "Each time it starts raining, I feel it's going to be that bad."

Today, Dutta refrains from stepping out of his home even if the rain picks up slightly, in which case, he skips office. "More than the floods, it is the fear in your mind that prevents you from stepping out."

According to psychologist Havovi Bhagwagar, extreme signs of fear might be linked to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). She describes the condition as having three main symptoms — hyper arousal (constantly being on alert), avoidance of emotions and places or situations that remind them of the trauma, and intrusions or constant flashbacks of the event that had occurred.

According to her, even those who are new to the city have been reacting abnormally to the heavy rainfall witnessed this year. She calls it vicarious trauma. Here, people who haven't experienced a traumatic incident personally develop a sense of fear after listening to others' narratives, and refrain from venturing out of their homes.

Andheri resident Avneet Jotwani (seen here with her kids) says dramatic climate changes across the world make parents like her panic. Pic/Rane Ashish
Andheri resident Avneet Jotwani (seen here with her kids) says dramatic climate changes across the world make parents like her panic. Pic/Rane Ashish

Better safe than sorry
According to the IMD, on August 29, the Mumbai suburbs recorded 354 mm rainfall including the downpour that continued till the next morning, making it the second highest downpour on a single day since July 26, 2005, when the city experienced 945 mm of rain.

The city experienced yet another intense downpour, the second time this season over September 19 and 20, receiving almost as much rain within 24 hours as it does in an entire month. While many schools chose to remain shut on September 20, most offices asked employees to work from home, as a precautionary measure. Several events were cancelled, including the screening of Sanjay Dutt-starrer Bhoomi.

Rajhans Vidyalaya, a school in Andheri West, declared September 20 a holiday after observing the panic among parents. Its principal, Deepshikha Srivastava often has parents calling to check on the kids when it rains heavily. "Even if a single parent shows up to take their child back home, others follow and we can't really say no to anyone," she says. Srivastava feels it's becoming a "bit of a nuisance". In such instances, the school is often forced to reschedule classes or clock in more days to complete the syllabus.

According to Fr Dr Francis Swamy, Principal of St. Mary's ICSE School in Mazgaon, who has 25 years of experience of being a principal across numerous schools, this fear is a relatively new phenomenon. "Heavy rain isn't new, but even as recently as 10 years ago, no parent got overtly concerned or panicked. Social media is responsible for creating problems which in reality don't exist," he says.

Swamy gives the example of continuous 'updates' about a cyclone that had hit Alibaug and was moving towards Mumbai. This was being circulated on Whatsapp groups on September 19. It turned out to be a false alarm as there was no cyclone.

On the same day, a similar message was making the rounds.

Mumbai artist and illustrator Kishan Dev, remembers receiving it on September 19 when he was home. "I hadn't stepped out because a lot of my work involves working remotely. But the updates kept pouring in. A friend sent me one message that said: 'The Maharashtra State Government, taking precaution in advance, has declared Wednesday Sept 20 as a holiday, considering heavy rainfall and cyclone. All citizens are cautioned to stay indoors to avoid any mishap or casualty. Transport services will also be affected and avoid any outdoor movement. It is also not advisable to walk in flooded water. May invite disease' (sic).

Contrary to the news, September 20 proved to be a regular rainy day.

Clovia Fernandes, HR head of public relations agency, Communicate India, headquartered in BKC, said their firm requested those employees who live far off to work from home. "But, nobody turned up. The trauma of the August 29 deluge was too fresh in their minds to take another risk," she says.

On September 19, Mumbai's public transport was slow but stayed afloat. While services on all the three railway lines were delayed, they remained functional with a few disruptions in the morning. Till late in the evening, services were running, though there were delays at certain points.

Panic travels continents
Dr Kedar Tilwe, psychiatrist at Hiranandani Hospital, Vashi, believes that classifying the panic as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder would be farfetched. "PTSD is a severe condition with specific criteria. What we are discussing is a case of anticipatory anxiety and hyper vigilance.

I feel it's because of a confluence of events. You had the floods here, and then came immediate news of the US hurricane."

Reports in the international media have suggested that after the widespread destruction caused by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, many residents showed signs of PTSD. However, mental health experts believe the diagnosis can be concluded only after a month of observation. "Thirty days is the minimum to receive a diagnosis," says Tilwe.

He says anxiety is a normal response, which in fact, helps anticipate emergencies better. "But, when it reaches a state of panic, we start behaving in a manner we normally don't. It could be extreme caution or behaving rashly. For instance, a person won't go to work for days or might leave the workplace in a state of panic, when s/he could have waited out the rain. These are reactions that we are beginning to see."

Avneet Jotwani, a resident of Andheri whose nine-year-old son and six-year-old daughter go to a posh Juhu school, feels the fear is justified. "We know how climatic conditions are changing all over the world, and this fear of drastic weather has parents worried. The thunderstorm the other night [September 19] was so severe, not just the kids, even I was petrified."

You may also like to read: In pictures: Lightning, thunderstorm and heavy rains lash Mumbai

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First Published: 24 September, 2017 09:04 IST

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