In the first week of September 2014, the muddy water from river Jhelum —our loved and revered nurturer of life— breached its bund.
I thought our residence, located in a low-lying area, would get submerged as the water started overflowing on the road in front of our house. In panic, I shifted my father and other family members to places that I thought were safe. Those so-called safe areas were submerged first. Mobile phones were down and the last call from all my relatives was “save us and arrange some boats”. Do you keep a boat at your house — just in case?
The Jhelum, which originates in South Kashmir and flows through Srinagar before entering Pakistan in North Kashmir, spilled over its banks with a water volume of 1.20 lakh cusec — almost five times its holding capacity. No one knows where all that water came from. There is no explanation for it so far. The meteorologists called it a rare climatic phenomenon. They say a non-monsoon western disturbance, two cyclonic monsoon storms, cloudbursts, and heavy and incessant rains for almost a week led to devastating floods deluging Srinagar and other parts of Kashmir.
On the evening of September 7, there was no place to go. I was at Tengpora Bridge, clueless and hopeless like hundreds of others. With phones down, people were presuming that the flood had killed lakhs of people. At that time, people would say Pakistanis have received thousands of bodies of Kashmiris across the Line of Control as bodies were flowing from Jhelum to the Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and they started burying them in mass graves.
With whole houses under water except for the third stories, such claims appeared to be true.
Some were saying they have seen bodies being tied to the trees for verification of their relatives once the water recedes. With all members of my family in flood-hit areas, I lost all hope.
Today, if it rains for a day in Kashmir, it is fine. Everything looks breathtakingly beautiful. If the rainfall continues for the second day, it brings anxiety and panic among people. They start enquiring about the water level of the Jhelum and its tributaries. The memories of the 2014 deluge when Jhelum submerged most of the Valley comes back to haunt Kashmiris.
In such times, officials here keep the people updated with the latest gauge readings. A river gauge measures the discharge and water level of a river. But many anxious Kashmiris instead of believing the government —for whatever reasons— visit the water bodies for a first-hand account. This is what a natural calamity does to its survivors. They fear its recurrence.
On that September evening in 2014, a miracle happened. Out of nowhere, a truck wading through floodwater was stopped at the bridge. I had no idea then how it reached the bridge. I still don't. And then all of a sudden, hundreds of people rushed towards it. The truck was carrying cooked food in polythene bags. I saw people madly rushing toward the truck to get something to eat.
I somehow jumped into the same truck to take me wherever it was going. With the road being almost invisible, we reached Santnagar in uptown Srinagar. There the truck driver asked all people to disembark and look for a place to stay for the night. Where would you go and in whose house would you stay? Particularly when you have no food and all of your clothes wet and you have no money. In such cases, you rely on the kindness of strangers.
While walking, I realised how lucky I was as there was no water around. I was in an area not touched by the flood. I met a friend who took me to someone else’s home. We were both strangers there. They gave us clothes and food. That night we didn’t sleep. We thought everything was gone beyond that area. There is no meaning in living when you feel your future is uncertain. A routing began the next morning. I started walking towards the flood-hit area where all my relatives were trapped and I had no idea about their fate.
Everyone was walking. Some were crying and others were looking for a boat. It was a strange caravan. I survived. We survived. Survival is key in all calamities whether political or natural.
According to some researchers, around 300 people were killed in the Kashmir floods. The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries estimated losses worth Rs 44,000 crores.
After the floods, 68,000 tonnes of rubble were removed from Srinagar alone. The libraries and colleges in Srinagar lost around 20 lakh books. Over 4.50 crore books from private schools were washed away by the floods. The artworks of great artists of Kashmir were damaged beyond repair. The building that housed them, the Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Culture and Arts, sits on the bund, overlooking the Jhelum.
In the early 1990s, the conflict in Kashmir added words like ‘crackdown’, ‘curfew’, ‘bunker’, ‘AK’, ‘surrender’, ‘encounter’, ‘fake encounter’, ‘militant’, ‘Nabud’, ‘custodial’, and a lot of other words to the Kashmiri language. In the same manner, the floods introduced the Kashmiri language to ‘gauge’ and everyone in the Valley is familiar with it now. Since 2014, two things have changed. River gauge has assumed importance in our lives and people are constructing washrooms even in the attics now.
Life has not been the same since the 2014 floods. That time it drowned not only people but the government led by Omar Abdullah. The civil secretariat, the police headquarters, the 15 Corps headquarters at Badami Bagh, the police control room, and all major hospitals were drowned. Kashmir’s commercial hub Lal Chowk was under floodwater. Doctors conducted operations in the upper storey of the Lal Ded maternity hospital in candlelight.
CM Omar Abdullah was running the government from the infamous Hari Niwas Palace with a few officials and a few packets of snacks. There was no trace of bureaucracy anywhere. Six years later, Omar was lodged in the same official guest house as a political detainee when the Union government abrogated Article 370 on August 5, 2019, amid a communication blockade and arrest of thousands.
In all tragedies that Kashmir faces, whether political or natural, ‘communication blackout’ is common. In September 2014, the first thing that drowned was communication. The police personnel untouched by floods were using a good old wireless system.
Rumours, news, and flood were flowing at the same time and that too dangerously. It was all about Rajbagh getting drowned and everyone there being presumed dead. Rajbagh is an uptown posh locality in Srinagar. Many later blamed the ‘jeans-wearing girls’ of Rajbagh and residents of Rajbagh for celebrating the birthdays of their pet dogs for causing floods rather than the heavy rainfall of seven days.
What saved Kashmir from those floods was the habit of Kashmiris of constructing large houses. Satya Pal Malik, the former governor would always say Kashmiris have big houses. He was so jealous of the big houses of Kashmiris that he would often talk about them derisively.
Like other places in the country, Kashmiris are born with houses. No Kashmiri, however, can imagine life without their own house. They build huge houses and then construct a big hall on the third floor of their house. It is these houses that saved Kashmiris during the great floods of 2014. Kashmir is considered to be in seismic zone 5 and I don’t know what will happen to these houses if an earthquake of 7-magnitude hits the region. Meanwhile, Kashmiris keep their eyes on the river gauge and build big concrete houses for refuge if we ever see a return of 2014 floods.
In many ways, Kashmir and Kashmiris have not recovered from the 2014 floods. Maybe the trauma and anxiety will never go from the lives of those who witnessed its horrors. We can only hope for our younger generations that they don't suffer as we did and that they don't have to add to our vocabulary of trauma — we already have enough words. But then so did the generations before us.