The sun was shining, Srinagar was drowning

  • Publish Date: May 19 2017 8:28PM
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  • Updated Date: May 19 2017 8:36PM
The sun was shining, Srinagar was drowningRepresentational Pic

‘As in so many parts of Srinagar, it was not the government but the community-based efforts that brought some relief’

My shoes and socks were soaked. As I waded through ankle deep water to get to my log hut at the edge of Nigeen Lake, I ran over my schedule for the next week and decided to visit Lal Ded, Srinagar’s largest maternity hospital.

Little did I know that a river would run through the hospital and most of Srinagar and almost half a year would pass before I would be able to keep the appointment.

For the next four days it rained incessantly. From my room that lay snuggled under the branches of a towering chinar, I gazed at the lake. Birds scuttled for shelter, and pond herons brushed past my window, trying, in vain, to seek shelter. Hari Parbat, across the lake, remained swathed in clouds. It was wild. It was wonderful.

And then it wasn’t. My landlord warned me that I would be asked to shift out if the water levels of the lake rose. On 7 September 2014, as water crept across the walkway near my door, I called my friend Sameena in Rajbagh, who had earlier offered me her home. Hurriedly, she informed me that water was roaring past the second floor of her building. My landlord, on his part, began frantically searching for a family that could accommodate me.

Soon, I was wading through the lawn adjoining the lake with my laptop, a phone and a plastic bag with three sets of clothes. Bashir—who had, just a week ago, at dawn, taken me for a glorious ride in his shikara to a vegetable market—now paddled through the Nigeen waters that continued to rise.

It was a surreal Sunday. The sun was shining, and Srinagar was drowning. Through Facebook, I learnt that the Jhelum had breached its banks, inundating large parts of the city in its angry, swirling waters. At least, I had a roof over my head.

The next day from my quarters, I watched members of the Hanji community that lives by the waters of the lakes, gathering cows and goats, people and belongings—washing machines, mattresses, stoves and gas cylinders—in shikaras, and taking them across the lake.

A day later, the family that had accommodated me, asked me to leave. They feared that the waters would also enter their home. I had little cash and the ATMs had stopped functioning. The cell phone network was dead, and I could contact no one. I traced my way to the Kashmir University and to a relief camp run by volunteers from the academic community. Arzoo, the wife of a professor, invited me for a cup of tea, and then took me into her home, to share whatever she had for as long as the ‘sehlab’ prevailed.

Over the next few days, her husband, Dr Iqbal, set out every morning to help with rescue and relief operations, while Arzoo and I combed television channels, desperate for news; or joined the groups clustered near mobile towers in a frantic bid to catch flickering network signals.

A week later, I was able to find transport to the airport. I joined the hundreds fleeing Srinagar. I could not bring myself to look out of the window of the aircraft. I could not bear to watch the city that still continued to be submerged in the river waters. I could not bring myself to be a witness to the agony that the people of this land were facing.

In late March 2015, I returned to a guest house by the Nigeen Lake. From my window, I could hear the tonk-tonk-tonk of construction and I could see an artisan chiselling beams for a new house boat. I spotted carpenters sawing and masons repairing and rebuilding. A city was reasserting itself much like the green shoots and branches of spring that sprouted everywhere

I visited Munawara. She grabbed my hand and took me on a survey of her house and that of her parents. She showed me tell-tale marks high up on the wall of the ground floor of her residence—‘the flood waters had reached here.’ She told me how she had coordinated rescue and relief efforts in her neighbourhood—how ladders were hoisted and the aged were helped to clamber out of windows and across roofs to the upper floor of her dwelling. She spoke of how an infant was placed in a small carry bag and gently ferried across the rooftops. For several days, Munawara’s house sheltered some thirty homeless people.

We exchanged notes on how terrified we were when, a week after the floods, a sudden storm blew up and lightning zig-zagged across the sky.

Munawara smiled, ‘During the crash of thunder, I told all those who sat huddled in my room that I had spent the best years of my life weeping, I was not going to die like that. I would go laughing. And I burst out laughing. And soon after, the rain stopped. The storm was gone.’

Munawara laughed out uproariously once again.

Next, I visited Sameena in Rajbagh. Lawns, once lush, had transformed into mud-paths, and houses, reduced to rubble, or pulled down, formed an eerie backdrop. Rajbagh was still to recover. Sameena took me to the top of a stairway and pointed to the balustrade from where she had swung her legs over and climbed into a shikara brought by Khanyaar’s fifteen-year-old boys. They took her to Abdullah Bridge where she waited with others who had been displaced. A family took her in and then helped her into one of several flimsy dinghies. The men swam in the dark and dirty waters, gently pushing the dinghies along, until they reached the higher slopes on the edge of the Dal. ‘For them, I am grateful,’ she said.

During the floods in Srinagar, I had watched news channels relaying terrible stories about the Lal Ded Hospital—about patients being left to their fate, while doctors ran away to safer areas. Six months later, I visited this 700-bedded government run hospital by the banks of the Jhelum to find out what really happened.

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Carefully working my way across stone and debris, I went inside to meet Dr Shehnaz Taing, head of the gynaecology and obstetrics department.

Despite a hectic schedule, she graciously shared time for memories of the crisis of the nineties during the years of militancy. Many doctors and paramedics—largely from the Pandit community—had fled. It took a number of years to replace the workforce especially as exams could not be held. An extremely depleted team of doctors struggled to cope since the peripheral health services had collapsed. Sometimes, there were three to five women sitting on the same bed. There were huge difficulties in getting to the hospital for emergencies during curfews. ‘Our ambulances would be stopped and checked. We were made to get down and stand in the street in the middle of the night. It was so frightening!’ she said.

The patients suffered acutely. There were many cases of ruptured uterus and other complications because of the delays and late referrals by the peripheries.

But, eventually, the hospital recovered to become Srinagar’s largest maternal, gynaecological and obstetrics centre with 634 patients given attention in the OPDs till 1 p.m. and at least 750 till 4 p.m.

On the night of 6 September after a busy day, Dr Taing rushed back to the hospital having received a call that water was entering the premises. She phoned the authorities who assured her that the waters would recede after 3 a.m.

At midnight, the power supply collapsed. The generators were turned on but the oxygen supply had stopped. Next morning, around 11 a.m., the bund collapsed and water inundated the ground floor of the hospital. The entire staff—sweepers, nurses, attendants, junior residents, doctors, and others—pitched in to cope. Patients were shifted to the upper floors. Deliveries were carried out by candlelight and despite the lack of oxygen, three patients were operated upon.

‘One of our consultants, Shylla Mir, knew that her locality was under water. She was desperately worried, but she stayed on. My husband wanted to come and fetch me. But I told him I would not leave.’ Dr Taing said.

‘When supplies ran out, we asked patients to drink from dextrose bottles. Some of us ate raw rice and sugar. As a member of the staff put it: ‘Hum toh Titanic ho gaye.’ (‘We are now in the Titanic.’)

Army helicopters whizzed overhead ferrying tourists. As in so many parts of Srinagar, it was not the government but the community-based efforts that brought some relief to the marooned hospital. At 3 p.m., two young boys paddled by in a boat and asked what was most urgently required. ‘They were our angels,’ Dr Taing recalled. ‘Two hours later, they brought biscuits and candles. We distributed the biscuits, first among the children, then the patients and attendants.’

By the evening of 8 September, that was a Monday, the hospital had turned into a giant shelter. There was no electricity, no water and no supplies. They worked in the dark, for there were no candles left, and torn duppattas were used to cover wounds. When it seemed like little else that could be offered by way of medical care, doctors, patients and staff, who had spent forty-eight harrowing hours on the premises, began leaving.

The medical superintendent drew up an evacuation plan and a human chain was formed to help the mothers and their infants squeeze through a gap in the wall and walk across the broken bund, past a footbridge and up towards a community camp set up by politician Altaf Bukhari.

Even now, I try to picture those stirring images. There is a long row of women, who have given birth in the midst of destruction, their babies, a new generation, are tied securely to their bodies with a duppatta. I see them as they walk, slowly, cautiously, confidently, across the broken embankment, past seething waters, to the safety of their community and their people.

Once more, they shine.

(Excerpted with the permission of Rupa Publications India from the book Behold, I Shine: Narratives of Kashmir’s Women and Children by Freny Manecksha)