The Telegraph
Monday , December 7 , 2015
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Hell & high water in Chennai


The flooded tarmac of Chennai airport and (inset circled) a submerged coaches, as captured on camera by Arka Dyuti Sarkar, who  was trapped in the terminal for three days like the character played by Tom Hanks in The Terminal 

The Terminal (2004) 
Director: Steven Spielberg
Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks), an Eastern European tourist, arrives at JFK in New York when war breaks out in his country. The Department of Homeland Security won’t let him enter or exit the United States. He’s trapped at JFK indefinitely...

The flooded cafetaria of the IT office at Siruseri where Tathagata Guha Mazumder works and (below) the ground floor of his rented duplex flat under water

Arka Dyuti Sarkar arrived in Chennai from the UK for a friend's wedding two weeks ago, little knowing that he would spend two nights sleeping on the floor at the airport without electricity and survive on food from duty-free shops.

Tathagata Guha Mazu-mder was stranded in a duplex for three nights, battling snakes, mosquitoes, scorpions and thirst as he kept track of the rising water level from inside his rented ground-floor apartment at Thoraipakkam, on Old Mahabalipuram Road.

The two Calcutta boys - Arka, 22, a petroleum geology student in Manchester, and Tathagata, a 25-year-old software professional - recount to Metro how being caught in the Chennai floods left them with that sinking feeling.

Arka Dyuti Sarkar

As I stood in front of the huge glass façade of the boarding area watching an aircraft come closer and closer, it seemed like I was imagining things. The water level had risen till the aircraft's engine by then. At a distance, the driver of a pilot vehicle with a yellow beacon on it was struggling to guide it towards the runway. He soon gave up and the vehicle was floating like a boat.

Two friends - Benjamin Owen and Tamara De Ines Anton - and I were scheduled to take an Emirates flight back to Manchester on December 1 after attending a friend's wedding in Vellore. Who could have thought that we would be stuck in the international lounge of Chennai airport from December 1 till early on December 4?

The runway and tarmac were indistinguishable in the waterworld we found ourselves in. Through the glass, I could barely make out that below the canopy on the surface of the water was a submerged stepladder. I had never seen anything like that in my life!

From December 1 till late on December 3, we slept on the floor of the boarding area and bought food from duty-free shops to supplement the rice and dal supplied by the airport and airline authorities. We didn't have anything to do except look out and gape at the rising water level.

The three of us had landed in Chennai via Dubai on November 25. After the wedding, we returned to Chennai. Tamara had sprained an ankle and we had to take her to a doctor. When we woke up on December 1, it was raining heavily. Since we had to take Tamara to a doctor, we hired a Mahindra Xylo from the hotel and stepped out. The streets were getting flooded by then. After visiting the doctor, we cancelled our sightseeing plans and had lunch at a mall.

It took us three hours to reach the airport, a distance that I am told can be covered in an hour. Several autorickshaws and small cars were almost submerged. Since our vehicle was larger, it kept moving through the water. We had to pay the driver Rs 1,000 extra.

When we checked in at the airport, there was no announcement of a cancellation or any delay. We cleared immigration and went to the designated boarding gate (No. 17) on the second floor. After some time, the authorities announced that the airport would be shut down.

There were phone booths downstairs from which you could only make local calls, so we called Sonali (the bride) every half an hour to update her about our plight. She called my father in Calcutta to inform him about what was happening. She also advised us not to leave the airport, saying it was a safe place to be in under the circumstances.

On Wednesday night, power went out. Airport officials said it had been done for safety reasons. The washrooms were dirty and there was no toilet paper. People used the torches on their mobile phones to move around.

Since the air-conditioning system wasn't on, the air soon became stuffy inside the terminal and even passengers in the first-class lounge were sweating.

On Thursday, some of the passengers started leaving as the rain had stopped. A coach dropped us at the domestic terminal. At night, we boarded a bus for Bangalore, where a stranger allowed me to use his phone and I could call my father in Calcutta, who arranged for our tickets to Delhi. From there, we flew back to Manchester.

Tathagata Guha Mazumder

Our last candle had perished. Our mobile phones wouldn't connect anywhere. Our stock of instant noodles, biscuits and cakes had dried up too. This was Wednesday evening and there was still no help in sight. It was pitch dark outside and all we could hear was the sound of gurgling waters.

Water had entered the ground floor of our flat, where three of us lived, late on Tuesday as we struggled to catch a wink. Five feet of water in the lanes outside had become eight feet within a few hours. Our mattresses were floating now. The rain wouldn't stop.

Wading through knee-deep water in our kitchen, the three of us shifted the oven to a higher platform. By Wednesday night, there was nothing left to cook. We were rationing drinking water to emergency gulps. With the insect repellents not working, the mosquitoes had returned.

When I went to the garage to check my motorcycle, I felt something slimy touch my submerged feet. It was a snake. My flat mates spotted leeches crawling up a bed.

Looking out of the windows, we could see a few local residents trying to reach out to those stranded with relief materials. But it was too little.

Just when we were giving up hope of getting some food, we heard a voice. It was around 10.30pm on Wednesday. "Do you want food or water or do you want to be rescued?" screamed that voice.

A man and a woman had swum across the lane, holding on to a wooden plank on which rested food and water. Sambar and curd rice never tasted so good as that night.

On Thursday, we stepped out. The water was up to my nose (Tathagata is six-foot plus). We tied ropes around our hips and took measured steps as we waded through the muddy waters till Old Mahabalipuram Road, where we found a lorry that took us to Thiruvanmiyur railway station.

Our final destination was Chennai Central. On the way, a few shops had opened that were distributing food for free.

Chennai central station was a huge relief camp. At least my mobile phone worked. I called home and WhatsApp-ed my brothers and cousins that I was alive.

We are still not sure when to return to office. On Saturday afternoon, we tried reaching our flat. The area was still under water and not accessible.

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