I counted myself among the lucky ones, while the city drowned. How lucky to be dry. How lucky to have water to drink, a toilet that flushed. How lucky to be parcelling food and not waiting for it. How lucky to be in my own clothes, and to have excess to give. And even when the power went out and took all lines of communication with it, how lucky to have little to do on a lightless night but to tell stories.
In hundreds of cultures, there is a legend about a Great Flood. The most well-known one comes from the landlocked region of the Abrahamic religions: Noah, and his ark of animals. Strangely, the elements of this myth are echoed in folklore everywhere: from the Aztec story of Tapi to the Masai story of Tumbainot to the Alaskan story of Kunyan. The common tale is as follows: that the world is punished with a terrible deluge because of human wickedness, and a chosen person or family build a vessel in which pairs of animals also took shelter. After days or weeks at sea, they finally release a bird or beast that returns, bringing a symbol of hope and dry land.
Hindu lore also contains a similar story: that of Matsya, the fish or fish-man, the first avatar of Vishnu. He warns Shraddhadeva Manu, a Dravidian king, of an impending deluge, and instructs him to build and fill an ark with animals, grains, seven sages and his own family – enough, as in every version of this tale, for a new world to come.
There are plenty of other twists, other downpours and other tales.
The Yuma of Southwest America have a flood tale which is also the origin story of the desert: a divine deluge is sent to eradicate dangerous animals, but when people insist that some of them must be kept for food, the waters are evaporated by a too-powerful fire. A beautiful Nigerian story goes that the moon and the sun were married, and their friend the flood demurs to visit their home but they insist; finally, the waters come through the doors and rise so high that the couple must live in the sky. In many South American flood stories, human survivors are turned into monkeys who slowly regain human attributes.
Primordial water is the origin of all life. A flood myth is essentially a second chance, to recreate: what must we do, once the earth is once again beneath our feet?
So many stories to tell by candlelight, in a storm, as one waits for the next opportunity to give, to get back out there and connect people, gather supplies, support the bravest among us all who wade into the worst-hit areas. I will not romanticise what it is like to wait, in that same darkness, for rescue.
When the floodwaters abate, there will be other stories. Among them, most of all, will be stories of ordinary heroism; ordinary because the massive outreach effort that the people of Chennai have shown is how humanity should always be. It should be ordinary to care. It should be habitual to think of others.
Flood stories are about destruction and punishment, but they are also about cleansing and renewal. They are about the obligation of survivors to question the methods of the past, and to build a future based on the wisdom of loss. What will we do differently, Chennai, now that we know how much we want that difference?
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 7th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.