KOCHI: Lakshmi is standing at the door of her house at Eloor wearing a white saree, matching the white of her hair. The Periyar river is less than ten feet away. But on this day, it flows gently and calmly. It has been a few weeks since the river water rose and submerged her house. But the 80-year-old managed to escape, thanks to alert fishermen, on a boat towards a school which was set on higher ground.
It is a small house: A bedroom, kitchen and a bathroom at the side. “That is all that I need,” she says. “My husband abandoned me 40 years ago. He has another wife and family now. I brought up four children - three sons and a daughter - on my own. They are all married. Now only one son bothers to look me up.”
Asked whether she is scared about the future, she says, “What has to happen will happen. If you want to die, can you do so? Only God can decide that.”
Listening to her intently is a group of people. They include Seeba Bhojani, Dnyaneshwar Ghuge and Bobby Zacharia, trained volunteers who have come all the way from Pune along with their youngest colleague Jahnavi Iyengar. She has just passed her Class XII exams and is on a gap year. With them is K K Sunil of the Kochi-based NGO Chaithram, a suicide-prevention group. The Pune members are part of the group HiCup - ‘Hope, Change, Prosper’, which had been set up by Seeba. They have partnered with a Pune NGO Jnana Prabodhini and Maithri, a suicide-prevention NGO in Kochi.
The Pune team had read about the floods in the newspapers. They felt a need to contribute. “I knew from my own experience that after a major disaster, the most neglected aspect is the emotional damage,” says Seeba. “People have lost their earnings, belongings and homes, and even their loved ones. That is very traumatic. I felt we should listen to their problems, and help in their psychological recovery.”
The Eloor municipality was the most affected.
Nearly all the houses went under water. After talking to the municipality chairman, they decided to focus on wards 1, 2 and 31. Overall, they visited 400 houses. And for some houses, they made three visits spread over a month. After the initial effort to get their houses cleaned, the people were faced with the problem of earning a living. Most of them were farmers, some were carpenters while a few were mechanics. “There was one man who was running a workshop,” says Seeba. “But the welding equipment got damaged. And he cannot use it again. Now he does not have the money to invest in a new one.”
A tailor’s sewing machine was damaged in the floods. The woman repaired it but the people who are giving her clothes to stitch do not have enough money to pay the appropriate amount. “So, she cannot earn a decent income,” says Jahnavi. In another case, a family had 30 sheep and all had died. Unfortunately, the animals were not insured.
Meanwhile, the stress is getting to people. Alcohol consumption has increased. “Many men are running away from reality by drinking,” says Bobby. “Unfortunately, some of them, when they get drunk, end up beating their wives.” Children have also suffered. “Many felt neglected,” says Bobby. “Their parents were focused on the work of getting their house back to normal.”
The children have gone through their own trauma of losing their favourite books, textbooks or a precious toy. Many had chickens, parrots, cats and goats as pets. “They were emotionally attached to these animals,” says Bobby. “So when they died, the children felt sad.”
As for the teenagers, a few felt angry and rebellious. “Earlier, they would listen to their parents, but post-flood, they don’t,” says Sunil. “They prefer to go out with their friends. When we talked to one boy, who is in Class XI, he said that this is the only way he can get some mental relief. He had lost his books, a computer table, and his beloved keyboard. He told us he had no one to share his sorrows, except his friends.”
There are health breakdowns, too. “Many are diabetic and have heart problems,” says Dnyaneshwar. “Most government medical centres in the area had shut down because of the floods. So the people could not get their regular medicines. One woman was going through a fertility treatment and could not take medicines for a month. So her problems have resumed.”
But some people have found simple ways to combat stress. One lady had a hen which had laid four eggs. And they have all become small chicks. When she feels depressed, she goes to the courtyard and spends time in front of the chicks as they run around. “She feels happy,” says Seeba. “Another woman, when she was cleaning her house, saw a small fish swimming in the water. She picked it up and put it in a bowl. Now she keeps staring at the fish. She says that this enables her to de-stress.”
Interestingly, no one is angry with God about what had happened. “On the other hand, they are thankful that God had saved their houses and families,” says Sunil. “They know that in places like Idukki, several houses were swept away in the floods. And so many lives were lost. One woman said, ‘I am very grateful to God that he spared us’. They have become more spiritual and pray a lot now. They no longer take anything for granted.”But the road to recovery is long and arduous. While the Pune group will be returning soon, Sunil said that they would continue to provide emotional support for at least six months, to ensure that there is some form of psychological healing. “We are hoping for the best,” he says.
A first-timer’s experience
“I realised that life should not be taken lightly,” says 17-year-old Jahnavi Iyengar. “The people I met said that life had become so much more precious to them because they came close to death. So I will always keep this in my mind. It has improved my ability to listen and understand people. I have realised that how important human connections are.”