The Longest and Shortest Night: Cyclone Amphan in the midst of a pandemic
There is silence all around. From inside my flat I can only hear the sounds of birds and a pressure cooker going off in a neighbour’s kitchen. It is calm, so calm that one wouldn’t know that just yesterday Amphan tore through West Bengal, Odisha and Bangladesh, flattening whatever lay in its way. My state is devastated. The poor have lost everything, yet again, in the midst of a pandemic. I shudder to think how much worse the storm could have been, had it not weakened from a ‘Super Cyclone’ (wind speeds upwards of 200 kmph) to a still incredibly formidable ‘Extremely Severe Cyclonic Storm’ (wind speeds 120-165 kmph).
A denizen of Kolkata for nine years now, I prepared for Amphan with the suggestions given by my family in Delhi. I checked the drains were clear, windows and doors secure, devices charged and drinking water stored.
The morning began with strong winds. An Amaltas blossom flew into my balcony from a neighbourhood tree. I watched as, over the next few hours, the wind denuded that tree of its blooms, showering them on the street below. I watched as a single Kolke (Kaner) flower went spinning through the air like a top. I recorded videos of trees swaying and straining against rising gusts of wind. The laden mango tree right in front, hosting a big nest in its upper branches, was captured in all its glory. I took photos, also, of the two huge Radhachura trees (yellow Gulmohar) nearby. These tree people have been more than friends to me over the past eight years here in Kolkata, and especially since the coronavirus pandemic intensified. Since March I have communed with the outside world largely through my tree comrades, watching the seasons flow through their branches.
I am glad for these digital memories, for these trees are now gone, lost in the blink of an eye. The storm made landfall at 2.30PM, and raged in Kolkata from evening to almost midnight, with an hour’s respite in the middle. Everything went unearthly still, as we entered the eye of the storm.
An Amaltas blossom flew into my balcony from a neighbourhood tree. I watched as, over the next few hours, the wind denuded that tree of its blooms, showering them on the street below. I watched as a single Kolke (Kaner) flower went spinning through the air like a top.
I sat inside listening to the howling winds and rattling windows and doors. Heavy objects went flying, there were sounds of things breaking, and fibre rooftops were being ripped off. Power had been intentionally cut across the city, and gas pipelines switched off. Once dusk fell, there was nothing to see outside; one could only hear the tremendous sounds and perceive the collective anxiety of the neighbourhood. I lit my evening incense stick, trying to calm the anxiety that was beginning to form, despite myself. I knew I was privileged and safe, but such was the ferocity of Amphan that I ended up quickly packing myself a ‘disaster backpack’, should we need to evacuate. Important documents, bank papers, cards and cash; water, biscuits, chargers and powerbanks. The moment brought out latent ‘prepper’ tendencies in myself.
Communications are down the day after. I can only guess at the details of how the city and impacted districts have fared. The Sunderbans-– which yet again acted as a natural barrier to the cyclone, and swallowed some of its intensity–what remains there? Will we again disregard how Kolkata was shielded by mangroves some hundred kilometres away? We are sloganeering for the local and being ‘atmanirbhar’ now. Do we truly have the capacity to understand how such natural ecosystems allow us to be thus ‘atmanirbhar’, how local natural formations provide regional security? Forgive my rhetorical question. For if we truly did understand this interconnectedness, we wouldn’t defy that logic by sanctioning the mega dam in Dibang Valley, Arunachal Pradesh, coal mining in Dehing Patkai (India’s largest rainforest), Assam, and the Hubballi-Ankola railway line through the Western Ghats, to name but three recent ‘development’ projects. We continue to dig our graves with disastrous environmental decision-making, even as we live through an apocalyptic 2020.
Communications are down the day after. I can only guess at the details of how the city and impacted districts have fared. The Sunderbans-– which yet again acted as a natural barrier to the cyclone, and swallowed some of its intensity–what remains there?
On a related note, allow me to point out that it is one thing to face natural disasters and pandemics over which we have no control. It is quite another to build a world where the impact of such disasters lead to the worst possible outcomes because of poverty of political will, and socio-economic and governance failures. We have chosen to build societies where defence expenditures exceed that of healthcare. Where inequalities are systematically built into the system and budgeted for by national governments, industrial and corporate sectors. Where cities grow on the backs of migrant labour, many of who are skilled traditional artists and artisans and/or adivasis pushed out of their homes. Where our GDPs and economies grow by devaluing sustainable indigenous economies, built around natural worlds. We budget for ‘Smart Cities’, biometric IDs, bullet trains, but not for building infrastructures and distribution networks that could mitigate crisis situations like what we are now in. Had our Public Distribution Networks remained functional, perhaps our fellow citizens would not have been forced to become social media stories of individual heroism on their arduous treks towards their villages, trying to stave off hunger and the attacks on their dignity. Had we insisted on building country-wide socio-economic safety nets, perhaps relief and rehabilitation post-Amphan would have been made easier. It might have prevented what now looks inevitable-the creation of the next wave of distressed, out-bound migrant workers from the affected districts.
Post-Amphan, as the metaphorical dust begins to settle, I pray. I pray that the five lakhs evacuated in West Bengal and 1.5 lakhs in Odisha were protected from COVID-19 in their shelters. I pray they, and all relief workers, find courage in their hearts as they begin to rebuild. Most of all I pray that our collective 2020 experience highlights with brutal clarity, for even the most obtuse of hearts, that we have to change how we build our societies. We can barely see a future for ourselves right now; what will we leave for our children?
PC: Outlook India
Koyel Lahiri is a writer, trying to finish her PhD. The views expressed are the author’s own.