Tuesday, December 15, 2015

December 15, 2015

Random thoughts on the recent Chennai rains:
  1. Let's get the unpleasant stuff out of the way first: notwithstanding all the talk about Singara Chennai, there is a reason (well, reasons, to be more accurate) that the phrase 'third-world shithole' keeps getting thrown around when it comes to Chennai in particular and India in general. Overcrowding, lack of public hygiene and civic sense, corruption, unregulated and illegal growth, you name it. All this is business as usual, but when something like a once-in-a-hundred-years flood occurs, the rottenness of the system is there for all to see. There are folks who still harbour love for the city in their hearts, of course, but there are two aspects to this: one is the affection and familiarity one feels towards their favourite childhood haunts, the neighbourhood they grew up in, and so on, while the other pertains to the truly beautiful things the city is known for. The first is operative mainly because of the strong sense of nostalgia that glosses over all the squalid bits, while we're fast running out of things in the second category (if you are a regular reader of S. Muthiah's column in The Hindu, you can't help but notice that said beautiful things were all the creation of people who left us at least thirty to fifty years ago).

  2. People will be people. In particular, good people who feel sympathy for others' suffering will help them, while not-so-good people will try to take advantage of others' misery. You therefore have folks wading through waist-deep water, risking their own safety to reach out to people who need help, and also those who take this opportunity to loot homes abandoned because of the flooding, and who jack up their auto fares to take advantage of people's predicament (on a related note, the most apt icon/mascot for Singara Chennai would be a snarling autorickshaw driver). While the outpouring of goodwill during the crisis was indeed admirable, expect good old reversion-to-the-mean to kick in shortly, if it hasn't already. By the way, there are Facebook stories doing the rounds in which one hears that motorists' driving behaviour has become more patient and courteous; these are either made-up crap like the Chickenshit for the Soul stories, or are one-off anecdotes.

  3. At long last I found some use for social media. Nothing like Twitter to bring to you instantaneous pictures of the flooding around your locality and thereby saving you from an injudicious route choice. Newspapers were practically worthless (if you manage to get hold of them, that is), with their lagging-by-eight-to-twelve-hour coverage. Even their Twitter feeds were not as useful as citizen-journalists', probably because of their need to curate what they put out.

  4. If I were made dictator, one of my first acts would be to can the entire meteorological department and replace it with two things: a) a subscription to the high-fidelity Accuweather satellite data and b) a Python script that does ARIMA. Enough said. Oh, by the way, that Ramanan guy is definitely trolling everybody (vittu vittu mazai peyyum, sila idangalil mazai peyyum).

  5. Some practical advice for what to do if you're caught in such a situation in the future (notwithstanding the tendency to attribute all such extreme weather conditions to global climate change, I think it's unlikely that this will recur in the next five years):
    1. Always keep at least Rs 5000 in cash with you in the house. Cash is king in such times. Also, rotate the money every six months. You never know when the government will get serious about black money and declare that all old currency notes--especially 500 rupee notes--are no longer legal tender.
    2. Wean yourself from milk. Unless you're a baby, of course. People complaining about no milk during these times makes me shake my head. You can always stock milk powder.
    3. Potatoes and onions don't need refrigeration. In general, keep a stock of provisions to last you at least a week. And don't forget batteries. Lots of them.
    4. This is a bit of an overkill, but battery-operated amateur radio is a great way to communicate when the cell towers give out.
    5. When you still have your wits/senses about you, make a list of important stuff to take with you when you need to evacuate. Otherwise you will end up carrying out worthless stuff like, I don't know, dosai maavu, while leaving behind a pile of black money for the looters to find when they come calling (true story).
    6.  Make a hard copy of all the important phone numbers in your address book and keep it in your wallet. You never know when you might need to call somebody from another person's phone because yours ran out of juice.
    7. And last but not the least, learn swimming.