SRINAGAR: Falak (named changed on request) was preparing for her wedding at her Jawahar Nagar residence on Saturday, September 6. Everything was in place: the necessary repairs needed in the double-storey house were done with; furnishing, curtains were replaced to suit the occasion; and the invitation cards were piled up in a room on the ground floor for distribution.
In the evening, Falak’s father returned home from his shop at Residency Road here. He had the news that a red alert has been sounded in Srinagar. Jhelum was flowing above the danger mark at several places; flood threat was evident. But there was no official call to evacuate any particular area of the city.
For the experienced patriarch living in the posh locality unknown to floods, flood threat was inconceivable. “There is no reason to panic,” Falak recalled her father telling her. “If at all water enters our house, it will be up to the plinth level only. And if enters the ground floor, the level won’t be more than one feet.”
Falak, and others in the house, including her parents, her sister with her 20-days-old baby, and a maid, went to bed. In view of the assurance and the collective experience, everyone had a sound sleep till a frail sound of announcement from the loudspeaker of local mosque woke them up.
It was midnight. Falak couldn’t understand what the announcement was about until their next door neighbour came running in asking them to relocate belongings to the second storey. To find the fact among possible rumours, Falak said they made calls to the Station House Officer of the local police station first.
“I am near Jhelum. Its level is normal. There is no need to panic,” the officer told them. And then they called the police control room here.
“Madam aap gabaraye nahi. Ye to precautionary announcement hai. Don’t sleep and sirf apni precious cheezey upar lejaeye. Jawahar Nagar mai kabhi salaab aya hai? (Madam, don’t panic. It is just precautionary announcement. Don’t sleep and relocate your precious belongings to upper floors. Has there been flood in Jawahar Nagar ever?” she recollected the response she got.
As instructed, Falak helped her parents rollup three freshly-purchased expensive carpets and place them on the railing of the staircase; nothing else from the ground floor was moved.
The announcements didn’t stop for several hours, though no clear call for evacuation was made. Falak and her family stayed awake till 5:30 am, monitoring the possible movement of the water into their locality. Then, sensing no threat coming, everyone in the house returned to bed.
At 7:30 am, on Sunday, Falak woke up to good news from her mother: “water didn’t enter Jawahar Nagar.” The decision of not doing the labour of shifting belongings to the second storey in the dead of the night had started to appear wise. The torrential rains that had been lashing Kashmir Valley for four consecutive days had stopped too. It was close to a routine Sunday morning. With less to worry about, Falak had breakfast with her family in good mood.
“But that was a short-lived delight,” she says.
About half an hour later, water started flowing in slowly through underside of the main gate. Falak repeated what she had done during the night—call the local police station and police control room. And they repeated the answers “don’t panic” and “don’t evacuate.”
About two hours later close to 9:30 am, water started gushing in from two sides of the house. “It was flowing like the Lidder in hot summers,” Falak told Kashmir Reader.
Time to salvage the belongings had come and gone already. In a hurry, Falak managed to save her documents and her sister just carried the baby food. All rushed to the first floor for safety.
Within 30 minutes, water occupied the ground floor and started entering into the first floor where Falak and her family was in the lobby, watching the devastation through a window.
“Everything from furniture to utensils was floating in the water,” she said. “I lost the hope for life. I was chanting the verses from the Holy Qur’an which a Muslim ought to recite before death. That literally seemed the end,” Falak said.
Her sister barged into the washroom, opening its small window to scream for help. The family followed her, screaming louder. “Our neighbours were watching us, and crying. And we were crying too,” Falak said. “But no one was in a position to do anything. I saw a Sikh man and his family on rooftop of a nearby house. Seeing us cry, he said ‘have faith in God. He will save you’.”
In the adjacent four-storey house, Falak’s neighbours were watching her family trapped in the washroom. Somehow, they managed to find a ladder. “This family has two sons, both married. They placed the ladder on the slab of their servant quarters in between our houses. One by one, we went out through the small window of the washroom and jumped onto the slab, which is not conjoined to our house. And then we climbed the ladder to enter the third-storey of their house,” Falak said, as she struggled to comprehend how they managed to come out through the window, “which is too small for even a child to pass.”
For the brave men, rescuing Falak’s family was just the start. Using a rope and a plank, they saved almost all their neighbours trapped in the smaller houses.
“They placed the plank between two houses as a bridge. The rope was tied with window panes of the houses. And then the trapped persons were made to hold to the rope and walk over the ‘bridge’,” Falak said. “They did it till there seemed no one crying for help in the houses within the reachable distance.”
Heartbreaking scenes followed the rescue effort, Falak said. “Minutes after we were rescued, I saw the house of the Sikh family collapse in front of my eyes. In another house, a man pushed his wife and children into the (four storey) house. But his elderly mother refused to leave home. He tried to convince her but she didn’t listen. Finally, the man gave up, choosing to stay put with his mother.”
It was about sunset. There was enough stock of food and drinking water to support about 50 persons taking shelter in the house. And the rescuers were nice enough to prepare chicken soup for Falak’s sister.
But the horror was yet to begin. As Falak recalled, “We were virtually floating over water, which was rising, though slowly. Every face was gloomy, lost in the struggle between life and death, helpless and hopeless. An army chopper flew over us. Everyone rushed to the window, yelling for help; everyone was waving shirts or trousers. To define it in one word, it was madness.
“Yet, the army soldiers didn’t come to our rescue. An elderly lady and her son were staying with us. After dinner, she refused to take her daily medicine. When she didn’t listen to her son’s appeals, he told her, ‘mother, please take the medicine tonight. If you die now, I have nowhere to take your body because everything is under water’. I couldn’t stand the sight of a son telling his mother that. I just wanted to die at that moment.”
No one slept during the night. Instead, they monitored and debated over the water level. “We monitored the electricity pole near the house to see if the water level was rising, and it was rising for sure. Yet everyone would debate over it.”
Nearly 24 hours of submerged life had brought the ‘madness’ to its peak by Monday forenoon; the sound of army choppers and boats gave everyone an excuse to express it. First, the chopper returned to the area, making Falak and everyone hope for help.
“It did several rounds, and every time we cried on top of our lungs for help. But it ignored us, and headed towards Tulsi Bagh area. Later, I saw it airlift the troopers from the nearby Bakshi Stadium,” Falak said.
In the afternoon, a private boat, with just the boatman on board, arrived. Spotting the boat, an elderly couple appeared on the window of a house, which had seemed abandoned thus far. Waving a Rs 500 note, the man was pleading to the boatman. “Don’t rescue us, but please bring me a candle with this money,” Falak recalled the elderly man as yelling to the boatman.
But the boatman, a suspected burglar, helped neither the couple nor other stranded people.
In the evening, an army boat with soldiers and NDRF personnel came on a ‘rescue mission’. It headed towards a particular house. “It (boat) came from Gogji Bagh and headed straight to the house in which a Sikh family was trapped. The army knew the exact location of that house. We went on crying for help, but to no avail,” Falak said.
As the boat returned, Falak’s mother brought her infant granddaughter to the window, and it worked. The army agreed to rescue the family, but only partly. “They agreed to carry women of my family and my niece, but not my father. We had to beg them to rescue my father as well. Finally, they agreed,” she said. “On our way to bund, they rescued an elderly woman, leaving behind her aged husband; they ignored everyone awaiting help on collapsed houses or rooftops, making me feel guilty for leaving them behind. The army as well as NDRF men religiously clicked photographs of each one of us being carried into the boat.”
The boat carried Falak and her family to the bund near Ram Bagh. Bare foot, they walked up to the bridge where an auto-rickshaw driver refused to take them to Sanat Nagar as the road ahead was submerged.
They walked further ahead where some local youth took them across the water logged street in a damaged boat without oars; the men pulled the boat to safety near Barzulla wherefrom an accidently spotted relative drove them to Falak’s aunt living in Sanat Nagar.
“I saw two shades of life that day. A taxicab driver demanded Rs 500 from us to take us Sanat Nagar, and was beaten to pulp by people. But an elderly women, on seeing me barefoot, offered me her shoes,” said Falak, who is still living with her aunt.