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Their head held high

Their head held high
I was alone, I was a woman, I was in one set of clothes for seven days and I had no way to inform my family in Delhi that I was alive. I spent an entire week taking refuge in one place after the other till I managed to reach the airport.  It was a harrowing experience which will forever remain etched in my memory.

I could not save anything, not even my suitcase packed with clothes nor my bag. It all happened within a flash. I was not prepared for it. In fact no one was. My heart skipped several beats as I pushed through the crowds to find my way to the front. Water was gushing down the road where my home is located as if a dam had burst open. I could see the water forcing its way vehemently inside the lane, pushing through people and breaking through gates. It was stronger than the strongest currents I have witnessed in Pahalgam. I had only heard about floods causing devastation, of uprooting homes, families and lives. It was the first time I was a witness to it with my own eyes.

I stood still, watching the boundary wall break and the waters violently fill up every inch of the lawns, slowly climbing upwards. I was helplessly left standing there watching everything being snatched away before my very eyes, not able to do a thing about it. My mind had stopped functioning. All of a sudden, I had been rendered homeless in Srinagar. Even until half an hour back I could never have imagined this. All around people were scrambling for safety-driving towards undecided destinations, running helter-skelter. Pandemonium had broken out. The entire city seemed on its way to getting submerged. My mind was not registering anything. I just could not get over the sight of my home getting washed away in front of my very eyes. I just wanted to shut off that view which kept playing on my mind over and over. I had only read about such calamities in newspapers or watched them on television. That morning I realised the enormity of destruction a calamity of this nature has on humans.

It took me six nights and seven days to find my way to the airport. I survived it all in one set of clothes which were on me and had nothing else apart from my purse and a laptop. But I will remain indebted all my life to everyone who lent me a helping hand on this never ending and arduous journey. I had nothing to offer anyone in return. There was helplessness all around. The streets were full of people in distress-homeless, uprooted, angry, stranded and deserted. I have never seen so many people looking so lost together.

There were people looking down from buildings, people looking out of windows, people wailing, people sitting on sidewalks, people squatting on roads, people queuing for food, for shelter, for water. Everywhere I looked around I saw anguish and suffering. It made me feel weary and added to my torment and misery. I saw lifeless faces on listless bodies-as if they had given up on hope or had nothing but hope to cling on to.  And in the midst of that chaos, I saw a ray of hope in the warmth I received at every corner from people known and unknown, the helping hands which stretched out to lend support in times of despair.

I would never be able to forget the man who ferried me across to from Bemina to Qamarwari on a dark night, with the help of torchlight and neither will I forget the young boys who helped me alight the kishti when the boat touch landed and carried my bag, refusing to leave me alone till the time they could manage to get me a lift from a relief van. How could I not be grateful to those in the van- visibly tired and weary with relief work all through the day yet who did not leave me in the middle of nowhere, not once losing patience as I took them from lane to lane trying to locate my friend? I owe gratitude to those countless nameless faces which helped me cross barrier after barrier-someone offering me a lift on his car, another guiding me with directions, a third walking alongside me till I could find my way and yet another refusing to charge me for services rendered.

Yes, it felt unfair when I switched on the television set and browsed through the national dailies when I reached Delhi after a week and found it all splashed with the heroic deeds of the Armed Forces and their magnanimity as they airlifted flood victims. ‘Where was the army when I was there on the streets at night?’ I thought to myself. I remembered then. I had seen innumerable choppers in the skies engaged in sorties all day long. The sky was full of them.They were in the air, not in the waters. It felt strange that there was no mention of those young local volunteers out in the streets wading through deep waters, rescuing people all day and night. They had no work timings, they were not being paid for it, it was not expected of them neither were they bound to do so.

Yet they were out there, risking their own lives to save others. Did anyone care to mention gratitude towards these unsung heroes without whom the casualty would have skyrocketed into mind boggling figures? One has often seen the symbolic image of a boy from downtown, face covered with a keffiyeh holding a stone in his hand. I wonder when we shall see the image of that very boy from downtown splashed across the same dailies- wading through neck deep water as he recues a baby or carries an ailing old man on his back.

The state administration lay paralysed and defunct, the police was largely in their homes with families (barring an odd few) and nobody seemed ready to take responsibility at the helm of affairs. There was no one to take charge of the crisis and each man had to fend for himself. In a nutshell, the state was conspicuous by its absence. The communication system was facing the biggest possible breakdown in recent times in the history of the nation- it was a complete blackout. There was no electricity, no internet, no telephone lines working and the water supply as well came to a halt.

Nobody could contact anybody. Kashmir was cut off from the world. The Indian Army’s movements were largely restricted Between Gupkar and Raj Bhawan (VIP zones). Perhaps there may have been an odd intervention here and there but I, for one did not see their presence anywhere. How can I write about something I did not see? I did expect them to be playing a much more active role in the rescue operations. Was it wrong to expect so? I wonder why and when the Indian media turned into PR machinery for the Indian Army.

It does not come as a surprise to me to see anger simmering on the streets of Kashmir-like a live bomb ticking away. Yes, I do not deny and neither can anyone else that the army and the air force have played a crucial part in the evacuation of stranded people. Then where does the problem lie? Why are Kashmiris angry? The problem lies with the fact that it is only the Army which is being projected as the saviour of the flood victims? Were they not already supposed to be doing that? Is it not a part of their duty and responsibility? Was it not that the numbers in need of immediate rescue far greater than the ones who received help?

Maybe if the state and the Indian army had given out a statement of apology for not being able to attend to as many people as they should have and expressed regret at the same owing to lack of resources or manpower or whatever their challenges were, there are chances that the fury against them would be far less in comparison, and perhaps, not any at all. Perhaps they would even have won over some hearts in the process. Unfortunately, when the numbers risking their lives out there in the waters are far greater in magnitude compared to the ones who claim credit for it, then one has to be prepared for sharp criticism.

It is not ethical to rescue people and then boast about it and similarly it is not rational to expect sanity from people who are watching their life long earnings getting washed away, their children starving and their aging parents not being able to run for safety.

Had it not been for my friends calling me and sending me messages all night, I would not have been awake. Had it not been for my landlord who kept banging on my door and window and made sure I did not fall asleep, I would not have been alive. Had it not been for those strangers who did not leave my side while I kept losing my track, I would have been stranded. Had it not been for those friends who opened up their homes and hearts to me, I would have been homeless. Had it not been for the friend who stopped his car when he saw me walking wearily under a hot, scorching sun, I would never have been able to connect with my family.

Had it not been for the large heartedness of the hotel owner who gave me shelter without charging me a single rupee, I would have been penniless. Had it not been for the young boy who saw my desperation to get to the airport and volunteered to ferry me across muddy waters on a stranded boat in the wee hours of the morning, I would never have made it to Delhi. Yes, lastly had it not been for the armed forces, I would not have managed to get airlifted to the airport but then again, had it not been for the person who drove me till there and insisted that I be evacuated immediately on a priority basis, I would have been standing in queue for what seemed like eternity to me. But it took a lot to get till there and while the Indian army and the air force gets its credit, its fame and kudos, the others do not get as much as a mention even on the last pages. Is it fair? Who, apart from God should I be thankful to? It is for you to think. I already know my answers.
Kalpana Tikku

Kalpana Tikku

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