How Cyclone Amphan wrecked Kolkata: Six personal diaries12 min read . Updated: 30 May 2020, 09:00 AM IST
Uprooted trees, broken windows, roofs blown away—locals tell Lounge about their experience of living though one of the worst storms to ever hit the city
‘I had never heard a sound like this...’
Bhaskar Chitrakar, 42, Patachitra painter
WHERE IN KOLKATA: Kalighat
Aisi awaaz maine zindagi mein kabhi nahi suni (I had never heard a sound like this in my life)," says Bhaskar Chitrakar, a resident of Kalighat, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in south Kolkata, and also chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s homeground. The 42-year-old artist is one of the last patua painters in the area where hundreds of artists, including six generations of his family, once practised the famous Kalighat painting—cloth scroll paintings depicting myths, legends, sociopolitical commentary and satire on the ruling class, especially the babus.
Chitrakar had been keeping up with news of the cyclone on TV channels and social media but nothing prepared him for the actual landfall on 20 May. As dark clouds hovered and high-velocity winds picked up, accompanied by lashings of rain, an eerie howling sound filled the air. “It sounded so dangerous," says the artist, who was at home at the time with his mother and elder brother. The family shuttered the windows and huddled inside, waiting for the ominous sounds to die down. “Ask anyone in my neighbourhood—including the buzurg (elderly) who have weathered several storms—but no one has ever witnessed such a terrible one before," says Chitrakar, who uses the word bhayankar (frightening) several times when talking about Amphan.
A couple of hours later, he gathered the courage to peep out. Everywhere, trees had fallen. “Kolkata is famous for its trees. Some are as old as time. But most in my neighbourhood are no longer standing," he says. As a result, the roads in the area continue to remain blocked. “No matter what the emergency is, the milk cart always comes by. But for the first time it did not come," says Chitrakar, who has been unable to check on his brother, though he lives nearby. The day the cyclone struck, the network was down. A day later, it was patchy. The road was blocked with fallen trees.
Still, Chitrakar considers himself lucky as he reads news trickling in from the villages—especially from those in the North and South Parganas—where entire homes were blown away. He is, in fact, more worried about the lockdown. “Cyclones will come and go. But this lockdown has changed life drastically. Paisa aata nahi hai but kharcha hota jaata hai (no money comes in but expenses continue)," he rues.
He hasn’t stopped creating work. Chitrakar is known for combining the traditions of Kalighat painting with contemporary themes drawn from everyday scenes. Today, one can see the impact of covid-19 in his work—with the Bengali babu, his wife and cat practising social distancing, the changing scenes of domesticity, and a crow trying to find a cure for corona.
He is trying to translate his experience with cyclone Amphan on to paper as well. “Abhi soch raha hoon (I am still thinking). I have already got an order from a Bengali collector in London. But it will take some time to accept and assimilate all that has happened during the cyclone. Kalighat patachitra is vyong chitra, full of satire. I am trying to find humour in this tragedy," he says. —Avantika Bhuyan
‘Some of them (the booksellers) say they will start selling vegetables now’
Esha Chatterjee, 31, Marketing head, Patra-Bharati and CEO, BEE Books
WHERE IN KOLKATA: College Street
On 21 May, harrowing photographs of College Street, in north Kolkata, emerged on social media. Clusters of books floated in ankle-deep water, their pages soaked and tattered. The beloved hub for book lovers looked devastated: The tin roofs of stalls had been blown away or crushed under branches of fallen trees.
“I don’t know if the small booksellers will ever return," Esha Chatterjee, marketing head of the Bengali publishing firm Patra-Bharati (owned by her family) and CEO of its English affiliate BEE Books, says on the phone. “Many of them had inherited their businesses from their fathers and grandfathers. They don’t belong to any union, or have trade licences. Some of them say they will start selling vegetables now."
Chatterjee has also suffered grave losses. Water flooded her book store on College Street and the warehouse on nearby Amherst Street. “No one expected it to rise to 3-5ft," she says. “Books fell off the shelves, glass panes shattered." Since printing paper prices fluctuate, publishers keep a bulk in stock. That inventory is ruined. Chatterjee is yet to take stock of the condition of the printing machines. Long spells of power cut, followed by sporadic outages, made it difficult to pump out the water. The losses may run into lakhs of rupees.
College Street is gradually picking itself up but may never return to its former bustling avatar. The publishing business was already reeling under the lockdown. “Our sales are heavily tied to the 300-odd book fairs that take place across the districts through the year. The cancellation of these events has hit us badly," Chatterjee says. Booksellers who had makeshift stalls on the pavements, she adds, are the worst affected. They mostly sell used books, with slim profit margins, and depend mainly on daily cash flow. Since the lockdown, many of them had gone back to their homes in the suburbs. Only a quarter were there to salvage the remains after Amphan passed.
At the moment, Chatterjee and others from the industry are trying to raise funds to help booksellers. But the sector’s unorganized nature is making it difficult to disburse relief. “Hopefully, some of the book fairs will resume by the end of the year," Chatterjee says. “But at the moment we don’t even know where to begin." –Somak Ghoshal
‘Continuing without electricity is a big problem’
Mandrita Bose, 30, Spoken word poet and advertising copywriter
WHERE IN KOLKATA: Santoshpur
The cyclone changed the daily routine for Mandrita Bose and her parents. They had no electricity for nearly a week, so they were visiting a relative’s house in the vicinity every day, often wading through knee-deep stagnant water, to charge phones and stay connected to the world.
Bose, a spoken word poet and advertising copywriter, lives at the two-building Narayani Apartment complex near Santoshpur’s Railway Line road area. “Continuing without electricity is a big problem," she says.
Since their complex had no power, they couldn’t pump up water for their home. Bose and her 67-year-old father were carrying buckets from the ground floor to their second-floor flat. Some elderly neighbours, who live on the floors above, had to do this multiple times. A corporation water tap in the complex is the only other source for the 70-odd families living there but supply is limited to a few times a day.
“The ground floor was flooded," says Bose. The water receded only on the fourth day. “We needed water. You can’t do anything without it: We have to use it for cooking and cleaning. These are the minimum essentials."
Food too was scarce. “We couldn’t use the refrigerator and the food, a lot of the fish, was spoilt. Since the nearby bazaar area also didn’t have power, it was difficult to get some of the food essentials, so we resorted to boiled food," she says.
Bose’s family was wary of stepping out too often, not only because of the ongoing lockdown but owing to multiple reports of people getting electrocuted from power transmission lines damaged by trees that fell during the cyclone.
Power was restored nearly a week later but they still can’t use heavy-load appliances like the refrigerator. “I remember the power went off on 20 May at around 5.30pm. But I am relieved and really grateful that things are better to a certain extent now," she says. –Nitin Sreedhar
‘I thought I won’t be able to survive after that night’
Jharna Mondal, 45, Part-time house help
WHERE IN KOLKATA: Jagatpur
It was 1.30pm. After finishing lunch—rice, boiled lentils and mashed potatoes—Jharna Mondal of Jagatpur, about 5km from the airport, noticed the overcast sky and understood that the cyclonic storm the authorities had been warning about would arrive anytime. But she did not anticipate that it would blow away the roof over her head and leave her virtually homeless. “It was about 6pm when strong winds started blowing, I realized that the nails holding the tiles of the roof were loosening, bit by bit. After a while, I heard the crackling sound of the tiles flapping in the wind. In another hour, a large chunk of tiles from the roof of both rooms of my house were blown off," recalls Mondal, who used to work as a part-time house help till the lockdown was imposed in March.
She, along with six members of the family, including her two-year-old grandson, sat all night under a makeshift roof they fashioned from a torn tarpaulin sheet in the house. “It was raining heavily, we could only manage to cover our heads, we were half-drenched. I thought I won’t be able to survive after that night. But I prayed to God about my grandson. I wanted him to remain unharmed," Mondal says.
The next morning was another ordeal. Both rooms were flooded and water from an overflowing drain was entering the home. A sack of rice, stored during the lockdown, was damaged. “Somebody had given me one sack of rice for free during the lockdown, this is all that I had in store for now," Mondal says.
Mondal used to earn about ₹10,000 a month, while her two sons together earned ₹12,000 a month by driving autorickshaws and selling fruits. They have been confined to their homes since the lockdown and have exhausted their savings. They have no money to fix the roof and the landlord has ignored their plea to repair it. “Living under a tarpaulin sheet is our new normal," says Mondal. —Sonia Sarkar
‘As a storm chaser, I was scared as hell’
Chirasree Chakraborty, 46, Photographer and storm chaser
WHERE IN KOLKATA: Patuli
Two days before cyclone Amphan hit Kolkata, cloud chaser Chirasree Chakraborty found that the clouds were intensifying into a supercyclone. Initially, she was excited and wanted to visit the coastal areas of the state on the eve of the landfall but she didn’t because stepping out of home would have meant risking the health of elderly members of the family in this time of pandemic.
“I decided to document the cyclone from my terrace. I also decided not to shoot during the landfall as a safety measure. There were risks of being hit by flying debris or lightning during the shoot," says Chakraborty, a member of Kolkata Cloud Chasers, a team of photographers who track, chase and document storms and clouds.
By the morning of 19 May, the clouds had started gathering in Kolkata and the leader cloud arrived from the south-west direction, announcing the onset of the cyclone, at about 2pm. “The pattern was spectacular. I managed to click some images of the leader cloud," Chakraborty says. “I posted those pictures on social media, along with the warnings issued by the Met department."
Then came D-day—20 May. It had been raining since morning. At 4pm, the news flashed on television that the head or main part of the cyclonic storm would hit Kolkata around 5-5.30pm. “The head of the cyclone is the most dangerous as this causes the maximum destruction," Chakraborty says. “I prepared myself to document it. But, at 5pm, it started raining heavily, with wind speeds of around 110 kmph. Sadly, though, all my balconies and doors face the east. Despite taking adequate precautions, our three-storeyed building was flooded."
Instead of taking pictures or recording the video of the storm, the storm chaser got busy mopping the floor. “The sound of the wind was scary, almost resembling the howling sound of a heavy machine. Sometimes there was a whistling sound too. At around 8pm, the eye of the storm arrived in Kolkata, giving an indication that it will calm down," Chakraborty says.
Indeed, it did. Suddenly. Chakraborty went to the balcony to clear it of water and to look at the clouds as her mobile phone was flooded with messages from Kolkatans wanting to know when the cyclone would leave the city. By 11pm, Amphan had departed, leaving a trail of destruction in the city and several other parts of the state. “I have witnessed many storms, including the landfall of cyclones Bulbul and Fani last year and cyclone Aila in 2009. But Amphan sent a chill down my spine. Amphan was one of the fiercest cyclones experienced inrecent times. As a storm chaser, I was scared. I was scared as hell." —Sonia Sarkar
‘I am privileged enough to have a roof over my head’
Chhanda Karanji, 74, Actor
WHERE IN KOLKATA: Salt Lake
As a single woman in the city, actor Chhanda Karanji is always prepared for the worst. She knows she has to fight the odds alone. This time too, when she heard the warning bells of Amphan, she took every precaution possible. She charged her mobile phone. She filled her water bottles. She kept essentials handy—candles, matchstick, torch and a long rope.
At about 6pm on 20 May, when she started hearing the sound of glass shattering in the neighbourhood, she ran to the bedroom of her third-floor apartment to check if the window glass was intact. “I had tied the window firmly with the iron grills with the help of a rope, so they survived the storm, else they would have met the same fate as many others in my residential complex," says Karanji, a resident of upmarket Salt Lake.
Hearing the relentless sound of howling wind, Karanji opened the door of her balcony partly, only to find branches of a gulmohar tree laden with flowers blocking it. Some of her plants had been crushed.
“I couldn’t keep the door open for long because the wind was strong. But I started capturing the scene outside on my mobile phone through the glass windows," Karanji says.
An hour later, rainwater gushed into her bedroom, kitchen and dining room. Water seeped into one of her book shelves, damaging books and special editions of old Bengali magazines. “This was most painful, there is no way I could recover all of them," Karanji says.
The downpour continued all night. But she says she was not scared. “I deeply believe in Rabindranath Tagore’s words: ‘It is not my prayer that you save me from all perils, I pray that I should not fear when faced with odds.’ This kept me going all night," Karanji says.
Karanji, who is also a translator, adds that her inspiration to stay put on the night of the cyclone came from the resilient O-lan, the wife of the protagonist in Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. “I realized that I must believe that I too have the power to face mighty nature," Karanji says. “Plus, I can never deny that I am privileged enough to have a roof over my head which many people don’t have." —Sonia Sarkar