For the last few days, many of us have had nothing else on our minds except what’s been happening to Chennai and a sense of helplessness in not being able to help apart from making long-distance contributions. I left Chennai a long time ago but there is a part of me that still lives there and so much of it still breathes in my blood stream. It is as much home as is Bangalore and Mundakotukkurussi in Kerala.
The thing is cyclones, water-logging, etc., wasn’t anything new to most of us who have lived in Chennai. Most Deepavalis were wet; there were several instances of low-lying areas being flooded every year. I remember in 1986 how it wouldn’t stop raining for many days and of my brother pushing his Lambretta laden with supplies through waist-high water and of me standing in the balcony and watching him approach, wondering if he would get sucked down some open manhole. Chennai has seen rain; but never rain like this. And Chennai has also shown a fortitude of spirit like nothing we have seen in recent times.
As always when something both troubles and amazes me, it is to literature I turn to try and make sense of what is happening. Among my books I would almost always find a story that would dissipate the sadness and light up the gloom. In my library is a book that has been waiting to do this for a very long time: Black Rain by Masuji Ibuse.
As much as the title of the book, what also made me pick it up were these lines by the translator John Bester that reminded me of the many accounts of humaneness triumphing in Chennai: ‘‘Against the mighty brutal purposes of state, he [Ibuse] lays the small, human preoccupations and foibles. Against the threat of universal destruction he sets a love for, and sense of wonder at life in all its forms.’’
A documentary novel, Black Rain, is a portrait of a group of human beings affected by the devastation caused by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and it won the writer Japan’s highest literary honour—the Noma prize. The basic material is drawn from actual records and interviews however Ibuse in Black Rain relates the bomb to the everyday no matter where we live.
Read this: ‘‘The boy had carried out a stepladder and placed it under the branches of the tree. He climbed the ladder and, putting his lips to each of the fruit in turn, whispered, ‘Don’t fall, pomegranate, till I come back again.’ But then a ball of fire had blazed in the sky and there had been a great roar. The child had been killed outright.’’
There is no distinction to the aftermath of a disaster, whether manmade or caused by nature. There is nothing to redeem it except a sense of hope that things will change; everything will get better. As Shigematsu in Black Rain tells himself knowing very well the improbability of it ever happening: ‘‘If a rainbow appears over the hills now, a miracle will happen. Let a rainbow appear—not a white one—but one of many hues…”
That is the power of literature when it tackles subjects sometimes too big for even art.