By Ranjeet Kumar Sahani
“During the course of one of my oral history interviews with fishermen last year, I came across a respondent- a woman who was married into the flood-prone village of Kosi. This narrative gives an account of her first encounter with Kosi flood, and how it changed her attitude towards life and about what people living inside the Kosi and Kamala embankments goes through during floods in the Kosi region. Her story entails the manner in which one feels overwhelmed with difficulties and trauma when confronted with a flood, especially if one does not hail from flood-prone areas. However, it also shows that once a person is acclimatized with the new location and events, s/he eventually feels empowered to tackle bigger challenges in life. Having said that, it is important to note how women in general, in rural India have to face the consequence of displacement due to marriage and how environmental events test and traumatize them even further throughout their conjugal life. Here is the story in her words”.
The flood came in the month of July-August. It was the first time I witnessed a flood since my wedding, early in March that year. For the initial two days, the flood water remained in the baadh-ban[i], and the village seemed unaffected by flood, but on the third day the Western Kosi embankment broke at Musariya at around 3 am in the morning. Fortunately people were awake and had been anticipating the flood. Most of them were watching video cassettes on the Television. Since I was newly wedded, I didn’t go for it and was sleeping at home. There was Shoraha[ii] all around when the bandh broke. Everyone started emptying their Kothi-bhandi[iii] and ran towards Kamla bandh located further West, with kids and cattle, daana-paani[iv], and Jarna-kathi[v]. I got up at around 4 am in the morning and the moment I stepped out of my room all I saw was water. There was water outside my house and in my front yard. I hastily walked towards another front yard out of curiosity and found that it was also filled with water. I kept hopping from one front yard to another until I realized that every household was flooded. In between, as I waited at a neighbor’s front yard, I asked one of the women whether the water level will continue to rise. She told me that water will enter every house, sooner or later. My hopping around attracted the attention of one of my elderly aunt-in-law, who sarcastically called out my mother-in-law and said, “you were telling us that your daughter-in-law is scared of water, but look she is swimming around in the flood water.” Having heard this I quickly ran towards my house. My husband and my father-in-law were packing all necessary items and shifting them to the Kamala bandh on the boat, because the road between Jamalpur and Kamala bandh was also under water. I did not have any prior experience regarding floods and was very scared. I stumbled but asked my husband whether we would be safe. My husband answered in jest, “as if you are the only person who’s going to die.” He urged me to stop panicking and help them with taking things outside the house. I knew how to swim, but the amount of water that had collected in the past one hour made me very nervous. Over the next hour, the water reached our verandah and later, inside the house. Finally, we had to leave the house with all our belongings except stone articles like mortar and pestle.
On our way to the bandh, we saw a man with a calf on the boat, a cow tied to it. The cow was struggling to swim in the flood water and only had its nostrils above water. We also saw a boat that capsized in the heavy floods. When this happened, people from the nearby boats ran to save them but unfortunately could not save everyone onboard. This spectacle was very frightening for me, because I, along with my entire family were also on board in a small boat, in the same waters. However, my father-in-law and my husband were professional boatmen and they knew the water in and out.
To prepare me for upcoming challenges, my mother-in-law told me that it was just the beginning of a two-month struggle. I realized this the moment we reached the bandh. We reached the bandh by the evening. It was a nightmare for me. The bandh had no facility for staying or keeping things, and on top of that, it was raining continuously. My father-in-law, who’s very particular about having food on time, was pestering my mother-in-law to cook some food. She was furious and told him, “can’t you wait or not eat one day? How can you cry like a baby for food, even when you can see that we are caught in this flood?” Later, she asked me to cook something. I was not prepared for this situation because there was no stove and all grains were packed in sacks and were lying all over the place. I came up with a naïve suggestion of dry roasting the rice and eating it with onion and salt. I approached one of the neighbours to ask if I could use her clay chulha (stove) that she had carried from home. I quickly gathered some fuelwood and husk, and started roasting the rice. Just when the rice was getting ready, it started to rain heavily. I couldn’t roast it fully. I nevertheless served it to my father-in-law, who ate that hard, stone-like roasted rice without any complains, under the tarpaulin cover put on the temporary machaan[vi]. That was the worst night of my married life. It rained throughout the night, and we were all trying to save the grains and ourselves from the ceaseless downpour.
Finally, when the night was over, the rain also came to a halt. We stacked all the wooden cots one after another on the bandh and put bamboo pillars on the ground to make temporary huts. But there were fresh problems awaiting us. Going to the toilet was the biggest challenge in the morning, because there were no dry spaces, apart from the bandh. Men didn’t have any issues, but for women, it was very difficult. It was also quite nerve wrecking, since we had to go along the river Kamla, which was flowing to its full capacity. Later, my husband built me a temporary toilet- a partially covered a platform from three sides, which opened directly into the river. This entire experience was rather overwhelming for me.
The incident reminded me of my sister who often warned me to never get married to someone from Kosi-kanhha[vii]. But what could I do? My father is a poor man and I could not blame him for throwing me into this flood-prone region. I instead told people that I was lucky to have married into this family because we had a boat and my father-in-law and my husband knew exactly what to do in such a situation. I remarked that my mother-in-law, hailing from Jharba, a village inside Kosi embankment, was also very reliable in such scenarios. Floods can be both thrilling and traumatizing for a young bride, especially if she is not from the flood-prone region. Now after having spent fourteen years in the Kosi-kanhha, I have developed enough courage to face any flood.
[i] Baadh-ban, agricultural and jungle area outside village.
[ii] Shoraha, a Maithili word for panic call.
[iii] Kothi-bhandi is traditional storage vessels made of mud and bamboo.
[iv] Daana-paani entails everything which edible from grains to oil and masala needed for cooking
[v] Jarna-kathi, everything which can be used as fuel for cooking
[vi] Machan, a raised platform built with bamboo or wood.
[vii] Kosi-kanhha, kosi region or flood prone region
About the author:
Ranjeet Kumar Sahani joined the ATREE PhD programme in 2013. His ongoing study is on Floods and Environmental Justice in North Bihar. He is looking at contextual vulnerabilities of historically marginalized communities in the Kosi Sub-basin. He relies on oral history interviews as one of the means to collect data and has been interviewing members of Musahar and Mallah communities in the district of Darbhanga and Saharasa, Kosi north Bihar. The narrative above reflects the effect of geographical locations on one’s perspective towards environmental hazards, such as floods in this case. It also entails the susceptibility and vulnerability that accompanies anyone who not exposed to floods. Moreover, it also shows that the caste and community one belongs to, makes a huge difference in floodplains when one is caught in a flood.
(This article has been published on the blog on the author’s request. The story has been recently published in EPW)
Acknowledgement: Sahani, R.K. (2018). Facing the Flood. Economic and Political Weekly, 53(45).