City Life – Delhi Floods, 2023
The bridge under the Yamuna.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Delhi has more than 15 road bridges spanning over the Yamuna. In the city’s worst flood in 45 years, here’s a sequence of interactions with the citizens and the city in and around the Nizamuddin Bridge.
The sound and the fury
If you close your eyes, you might as well be standing by some angry mountain stream falling noisily over the rocks. In ordinary times, Delhi’s Yamuna is a discreet river, the banks under the busy Nizamuddin Bridge remain dry but often stay lush-green, carpeted with vegetable fields, and with plots of marigold flowers (when marigolds are in season). The Yamuna does stay visible all through the year, but the river is so meager, the flow so sluggish, that it is all sight and no sound. But now, the heavy roar of the flooded river fills the humid air.
A walk along the bridge reveals the river in a rare avatar. The galloping muddy water touch the grey overcast sky in the distant horizon. The riverside farms have disappeared. On peering through the bridge’s metal netting, the fast-moving water makes the mind dizzy. As if the ground is shifting rapidly, right under the feet. The surface of the river is dimpling into numerous water eddies.
Meanwhile, the pedestrian traffic on the bridge at this time in the morning is mostly of the barefoot kanwariyas, the pilgrims carrying the sacred Ganga water in large vessels slung along their shoulders. The men look exhausted but focused on their walk, barely glancing at the water of the other sacred river that is flowing fast and furious under the bridge. A numbers of cars however slow down, with the faces of the passengers craning out from the window for the view of the river that is suddenly so much in news.
At the starting point of the bridge, a popular fast-food joint is doing brisk business. Customers with plates of piping hot pakoris are gathered beside the bridge, under a painted board that says ‘Yamuna View Point.’
The second outlet of the same eatery stands at the other end of the bridge. It is shuttered at this moment. Ramban’s family is sitting down on the ground in front of the closed joint. Their home under the bridge is currently under water.
Friend of the flood
They would have been no Tuffy if there were no flood. “He came to our life in the previous baar (flood),” says Rita Devi. The homemaker lives with husband Brihbali and son Brijesh Kumar by the riverbank on the west side of the Nizamuddin Bridge. “We were fleeing our house and climbing up towards the highway when a little black dog with a brown head appeared from nowhere, running to us,” recalls the son. “Tuffy never left our home,” says the husband, who runs a nursery by the river, growing “many indoor and outdoor plants.” The current flood has ruined all his work, he says, gazing towards the river.
The family is sitting by the edge of the traffic-heavy road that goes over the bridge; their back towards the traffic, they themselves facing the flooded lowland. “That is our house,” Rita Devi waves her arm towards a few trees marooned under the water, the top branches like a dark-green phantom against the brown water. “We managed to took out some things while escaping, but much is lying back in the home, submerged in water.”
Every monsoon, the flooded river enters their residence, Rita Devi says, obliging them to spend a few days in the makeshift camp that they rustle up from tirpal sheets. “This time the water came up to my neck, it never happened before,” she says. As they were leaving the drowned house, Tuffy was the first in the family to get out. “He swam ahead, and stopped after reaching the dry slope, he then turned back, and waited for us.”
The family now waves towards a half-sunk house below. The women and men down there are casually wading through the water. Two boys are swimming, their legs flapping.
Tuffy wanders about the adjacent rocks, and returns, settling down quietly beside Rita Devi. She keeps her arm around him. “We named him after Salman Khan’s dog in (the film) Hum Apke Hai Kaun.”
Tuffy suddenly starts to bark. Minutes later, he goes down the slope, entering a camp directly underneath. It is the makeshift refuge of Rita Devi and her family.
Measuring the losses
Most citizens living close to the Nizamuddin Bridge either manage small nurseries along the fertile river plain, or grow vegetables and fruits. Their houses, which they call jhuggi, is made of tin sheets, wooden planks and tirpal. The children, if they go to school, mostly attend the ones in nearby Pandav Nagar Almost all of the riverside residents wash their daily laundry in the river; a routine they are following even during the ongoing flood. Here is a detailing of the household things that a few citizens, currently living in camps close to the bridge, said they could not salvage while fleeing their drowned residences.
Kamlesh: “I lost my husband’s cycle, our khaat, most of our kitchen utensils, and my saris, which were in a trunk.”
Budhram: “I lost my TV, two string beds, pressure cooker, tea set, four mattresses, 2 table fans.”
Reena Devi: “I lost some of my cash, and my two pajeb.”
Kamal: “Sab beh gaya, except some clothes and kitchen bartan.”
Baldan Singh: “I lost two goats. But I found one goat the day before yesterday. May be the other one too is safe somewhere, and will find her way back when the waters recede.”
Ram Rati Devi: “My husband is a rickshaw walla. We lost his rickshaw. Many of our other things too went under the water, but our rickshaw was very important to us.”
Mukesh: “As the water started to rise, we managed to save most things, but we forgot the trunk that had our winter clothes.”
Reshma Devi: “My husband runs a nursery. It is under water. We lost all our plants. We can do nothing right now but wait for the flood to end.
In the flood relief camp, an ambitious student
She is half-reclined on the bed; the backrest is a pile of folded mattresses and blankets. Her one hand is holding a pen; another has a mobile. A book is lying opened on her lap.
Ninth grade student Sangeeta is trying to be at home. Although her home under the Nizamuddin Bridge has been under the river water since some days. She is in a camp by the roadside, steps away from the bridge, within sight of the flooded Yamuna.
“The coming time will be very tough,” Sangeeta says, briefly keeping her book aside. “Next year will be my tenth standard board exam, I’ll have to study really hard to score good marks.”
It is holiday in her school today but Sangeeta decided to invest her morning with her school textbooks—she is currently finishing an exercise in the “science and technology’ subject. Her concentration is intense, though the world around her is a blur of flood-induced action: volunteers, food distribution, canera crews, and everyone’s belongings laid out in the open, including a birdcage without a bird.
Sangeeta attends a school in nearby Pandav Nagar. Her textbooks and notepads “haven’t got even a drop of water.” She explains that her school is run by an NGO and has very many facilities, including a dedicated locker for every student. “We knew that the water may enter our house, so I transferred all my books into the school locker.”
Sangeeta’s father maintains a nursery on the riverbank. She has spent all her years by the Yamuna, admitting that “the current situation is nothing new to me, I’ve been seeing floods every year around this time. A few more days, and we’ll go back to our house.”
Now her little cousin approaches with a bowl of dal-chawal that is being served by a team of volunteers. Sangeeta will have her meal later. “I want to become an air hostess,” she says, returning her attention to her school assignment.
Some flood sites beyond the bridge