There were ample warnings about the impending cyclone Tauktae arriving in Maharashtra. Being carefree residents of the City that never sleeps, we slept at peace not giving much of a care to a cyclone named after a lizard. Many come, many go.
We saw Cyclone Vayu and Nisarg drift past us in the last few years and we assumed Tauktae would be just another one of those – windy, howling crybabies. But no. Tauktae was different. Tauktae was hungry. Tauktae wanted something. And Tauktae took it. My digital life, my electricity and my beloved wifi. Cyclone sent me back to the Stone Age, and that is from where I write this piece.
The pocket of Migrants
According to the 2011 census, Vasai-Virar accommodates around 12.2 lakh people, with a large portion of the population being migrants and individuals belonging to the lower rungs of society. The numbers might have gone up since then, but not much else has changed. And so, as local trains draw out of Churchgate station, one can gradually see the scenery changing - from the affluent south Mumbai neighbourhoods, to the somewhat seedier areas that border the state capital.
The gap is perhaps best felt when a crisis strikes. Earlier this week, even as countless individuals in Mumbai took to social media platforms to share visuals of Cyclone Tauktae, residents of Vasai and Virar wished for electricity and network coverage. Some fifty odd hours later, they continue to hope to see the light.
When the state government declared that there could be a devastating Cyclone on 17th May, everyone I knew took it rather lightly. After all, Cyclone Nisarga had been (if you will forgive the pun) a breeze. And Virar is no stranger to flooding and other associated issues come monsoon. There was also a strong sense of fatigue as everyone fought the second wave of COVID-19.
At around 2 or 3 am on the 17th we saw electrical fluctuation, eventually growing certain that power would soon be cut off. Areas under VVMC jurisdiction have their wiring overhead, and even a slightly stronger than normal bout of wind or rain can cause an electricity cut. The clouds got darker as the day progressed, most were undaunted. Indeed, I saw several people queueing up for vada pav amid the rain.
As the day passed, the winds got stronger and the news updates started pouring in. Parts of Jalgaon and Sindhudurg were badly affected and closer to home, strong winds were whipping through Mumbai. Visuals from the city that afternoon were not reassuring, with trees falling and buildings suffering damage. There were reports of injuries and death, and the Navy was busy trying to rescue people from a capsized vessel.
As I was skimming through these details, I realised that my phone battery was now at 20% and quickly switched it off, informing everyone at my workplace. As the day passed, I started hearing noises all around my building. Since nobody had power, people were now opening their doors and windows, even as others looked for alternative activities. I personally opted to read a book (the paper version).
Kids asking their parents to turn on their mobiles as they wanted to watch cartoons were now being taken to the windows and shown the great outdoors and told stories. I live on the 10th floor, and with the elevator out of commission, neighbours who had gone out for groceries were now making their way laboriously up the stairs. People who had backup generators were asking their family members to use it wisely - we all knew what was coming.
With the storm raging, the night caused a bit of a dilemma. While the strong winds threatened to damage the windows and our belongings, one could not sleep comfortably with no electricity and all doors and windows sealed shut. It also made somewhat terrifying sounds as it swept through the gaps. With a large part of my family living in Gujarat, there was also the added concern of the Cyclone's trajectory and the fact that we could not contact them.
While we hoped that things would improve on the morrow, the sun did not shine through the clouds. The downpour continued and water now began flowing down the stairs and into homes. After a point, people began gathering on the terrace in a bid to staunch the flow of water from the terrace, even as others frantically scooped water out of their homes. This burst of activity however was short lived.
While the situation was not ideal, it was unfortunately nothing new for me. Having grown up in Virar, I was certainly accustomed to lengthy power cuts. According to an update by MSEDCL, there were a total 90 lines damaged across Vasai-Virar and work was apparently on at "war footing" to restore 36 lines.
At around 8 in the night, I heard cheers ring out across the lane. Power had come back in some of the buildings, and the sudden brightness gave the rest of us hope. But it would not be our turn for several more hours, although I was able to charge my phone at a friend's residence. The influx of missed calls and messages however made me wish (briefly) for the "switch off" mode. Checking on my family in Gujarat, I learnt that while there had been some damage, they were all safe.
More than half a day after the first buildings had power restored, however, my house remained dark, and the second night passed much in the manner of the first. I write this having given up on the situation and made my way to my office (in south Mumbai). Some areas still remain dark, and while hope for change springs eternal, I'm not certain that the city of dreams has much regard at present for the people of Virar.