A month after the August deluge in Kerala, Onmanorama team visited Ranni town, more than half of which was fully decimated. Years of hard work had been laid to waste. Many of the shops have still not been able to even get rid of the slush Pamba River had dumped on it. It seems a lost case, but people in Ranni are made of sterner stuff. They are discovering new ways to get back from the dead.
The one-and-a-half-kilometre stretch between Mamukku and Ittiyappara at the heart of Ranni town might come across as a quarantine area. People move around in face masks, and seem highly focussed. There is not much talk. They are busy fixing things, moving stuff, painting walls, drilling holes, clearing dust, decontaminating, disinfecting...
The town also seems to have acquired the quality of an old photograph after the swollen Pamba swamped it in the middle of August. Fine dust that hangs in the air, like a brown-yellow fog, gives the sights along Ranni town an almost sepia tone. In a sense, the old town is now just a memory.
Pamba had flown over the nearly 1,000 small and big shops on either side of the Mamukku-Ittiyappara stretch of the town. Unlike the Cheruthoni river in Idukki, Pamba did not shoot through the town like a rampaging herd of horned beasts. The river grew in size in quick time, but entered the shops almost stealthly.
"I closed my shop as usual at 9pm on August 14," said 70-year-old Abraham who runs a stationery shop. "It was after midnight that I got a call from one of my workers saying that the town is getting flooded. I live just two kilometres away and I rushed to the shop. By then the water was on the floor of the shop. We started shifting the items kept at the lower level to a higher place. We did not expect the water to rise above the knee. Within an hour the water came up to our hips. We then desperately started throwing items to the first floor. Soon we realised it would be suicidal to remain in the shop and got out," Abraham said. Half an hour later, not only was Abraham's shop fully submerged, the water rose up to two feet of the first floor. He lost stuff worth Rs 5 lakh.
Inside the shops, the river devoured and crushed everything like some mythical python, and slithered out. Left behind was just the town's wood and concrete shell, like the outer shell of a wild fruit spat out after the juice had been sucked out. Not a single institution on either side of the stretch was spared. Supplyco has pegged its losses in this stretch alone at Rs 4.5 crore. Even the smallest bakery or textile shop has suffered losses worth at least Rs 2 lakh.
Sreelekha, secretary of Pazhavangady panchayat, under which falls the Mamukku-Ittiyappara stretch, said the government had not yet taken a decision on granting compensation to traders. Still, many traders have resumed business after securing loans at high interest rates from money lenders. But with banks still not fully operational and ATMs still dysfunctional, business is alarmingly dull.
Nonetheless, from what looks like a point of no return, Ranni town is defiantly staging a return.
'Speed' Biju | Two-wheeler mechanic
Biju's garage is perhaps the saddest sight in Ranni town. It is virtually hidden, at the back of the line of buildings that make up the right side of the Mamukku-Ittiyappara stretch. The concrete garage with tin roofing looks abandoned with five to six two-wheelers half sunk in the slush that has now solidified. One bike can be found inside the garage whose clay-caked shutters are half-open.
Both the garage and the owner are called 'Speed'. "He is a very skillful mechanic who fits two-wheelers with certain things that can increase its speed. So he is known in these areas as Speed Biju. Speed is the name of his shop, too," said James who runs a tuition class nearby. James phoned Biju to inform that someone was waiting before his garage. Biju rushed to the place in his moped. He was disappointed when we said we were from the media. "I thought someone had come with their two-wheeler," he said.
It is occasional calls from two-wheeler owners that sustain him these days. "When such calls come I go to their places and do the work. If the places are a bit far, they come here and pick me up. I thought you had come to give me some work," he said.
There is no way Biju can use the garage again. "I cannot even take out the bike inside the shop," he said. The tin roofing looks boxed in from above, and it has got inextricably stuck on the two-wheeler. He was not able to even salvage his tools from the wreck. For two days consecutively he had made an effort to get the two-wheeler, an Yamaha RX 100, out of the garage. "There was no way I could pull the thing out, and my hands were bleeding. I stopped because, standing ankle-deep in slush from morning to evening, my toes were burning," Biju said. His toes are now bandaged. "The doctor said the nails have melted and mixed with the soft tissue underneath. They have plucked the nails out," he said.
He then asked the owner of the place to help him out. "He asked me to employ a JCB and clear the place. Renting a JCB for even a few hours will cost upward of Rs 20,000. The owner knows I don't have a single paise in my pocket," Biju said.
The owner does not have a stake in the area either. The spot where the garage stood was revenue land and was supposed to be taken over by the panchayat long before.
Biju feels some of his clients, too, are being insensitive. "Two of them constantly call me saying they want their two-wheelers back intact. They talk as if I was the one responsible for the floods," he said. The two-wheelers in his garage, with their wiring sticking out and their bodies mangled, look beyond repair. "I am also wary of coming to the garage these days because of these clients. They frequently come here in search of me," he said.
Nonetheless, Biju knows that he needs a permanent garage in the town. "Having a place in the town will be easy for people to reach me," Biju said. He said he had zeroed in on an unused garage near the private bus stand. "They are asking huge money. I am bargaining hard. I am also looking for a loan from the SBI," he said.
Shaji and Sarayu | Hotel owners
It was on September 18 Shaji reopened Sarayu hotel. No shop in Ranni could have been more suited for the Pamba to prey upon. It was on the left side of the Mamukku-Ittiyappara stretch, along the banks of Pamba. But this was also one of the few shops in Ranni that were in the underground floor. To reach the hotel, one has to descend a long fleet of stairs from the road level.
Like others in the area, even on August 14 he had no inkling of the disaster that was about to happen. "Ours is a small hotel, and we close by 6pm," he said. By the time he knew the town was flooding, by around midnight, it was too late. "My house was close but still we were not able to cross over to our hotel and move things," Shaji said. It was also a fact that there was no place for him to move the things.
When he returned after the waters receded, what he saw was a mighty heap in the northwest corner of his hotel. Benches, desks, glass cupboards, utensils, fans, refrigerator and even the grinder, all of it shattered and swept up the corner as one big mangled mass. "It took me 15 days to clear out the slush and waste," Shaji said. "We did not have the money to employ people. My wife, our two boys and I worked day and night to scrape the place clean," he said. The concrete floor is still wet. (Those in the town say post floods migrant workers who turn up for cleaning shops and houses charge Rs 1,500 a day.)
Sarayu Hotel, though small, now looks admirably clean. The hotel has a small dining hall, a kitchen and a work area. The hall has space only for three broad rectangle desks, which are now covered in clean colourful plastic mats and each has a bench in front. The wiring has also been redone, and the KSEB has given the hotel a no-objection certificate. Two new light bulbs shine inside the hall, but two ceiling fan holders are empty. Shaji also had to secure 'medical fitness for food handlers' from the health department before resuming operations. He has been running the hotel for the past 10 years and has not employed anyone in the kitchen. "The cooking and cleaning are done by both of us," Shaji said.
Getting business is now his biggest worry. We visited Sarayu Hotel by around 1pm, and no one has still turned up. "By this time normally we feed at least 25 people," he said. His clients are mostly suppliers who pass through the town, staff of textile and jewellery shops nearby, security workers, and people who stay in budget lodges around the town. "People are still suspicious. It might take time," Shaji said.
Water is perhaps the most dangerous commodity in Ranni town. Most wells in the area have shown high coliform bacteria content, a sign that water from drain pits has seeped into the wells. "Though wells have been cleaned, panchayat officials have told us not to drink water from our wells for some more time," Shaji said. Till then, Pazhavangady Panchayat will distribute water in tankers to those in need. "Since hotels need more water we purchase from tankers coming from places like Vadasserikkara," he said. Everyday Shaji needs to fill a 2000-litre tank, and each filling costs Rs 600.
The glass box in front of the hotel, where he normally keeps traditional snacks like banana fry, is empty. "Now we don't have a fridge. At the moment I don't have the money to buy a fridge. So until people come back in adequate numbers we will be using only a limited quantity of rice, wheat and maida," he said. Banana fries can wait. Ceiling fans, too.
Excel Abraham | Jewellery shop owner
It is hard to believe that barely a month ago this shop was one of the swankiest jewellers in the town. Now the shop has a godown look to it. Bare blotchy walls, dim lighting, empty glass boxes, and bare dusty tables full of scratches. "We have just about finished rewiring the shop," said Excel Abraham, the owner of Excel Jewellers. The shop has a temporary look, too. Instead of the lighted name board, the shop now sports its name on a cheap glossy sheet pasted across its forehead.
Abraham has the air of a man who has stopped worrying about the consequences. He is back to wearing his specially-tailored shirts, and checking his WhatsApp messages. "We managed to shift most of the jewellery to my ancestral house before the water submerged the shop," he said. The river had reached up to the ceiling of his shop. His ancestral house is just a 500-metre drive from the shop, on a hill. "Unlike stationery or hardware items, jewellery is easy to shift. You just have to lift the entire board on which these things are placed, and cart it away," he said. Still he has lost things - jewellery, furniture and electrical fittings – worth nearly Rs 50 lakh; this includes an alloy-tester that had cost him Rs 25 lakh five years ago.
The walls will now have to be repainted, the false ceiling erected, and bulbs installed in designer angles to give the showroom a chic look. "It will take another two months, and many more lakhs, for this shop to get back to normal," he said in a matter-of-fact tone. He sounds almost as if he has no right to complain. "Just look at the textile shop across the road. They have lost nearly a crore worth of goods. The owner has not even returned to have a look at the place. At times, people find it hard to overcome the devastation," he said. The textile shop is a large one, and its shutters were half open. From Abraham's shop, it looked dark inside the textile showroom.
Nonetheless, the number of people who seem to have given up is small. Nearly 70 per cent of the shops have reopened – bakeries, textile shops, hardware stores, provision shops. All of them look new. "For everyone here, it was like opening a new outlet. First there was the cleaning, then the painting and rewiring of the shop. Right from furniture, plug points and lights to the products we sell had to be purchased fresh. I have spent Rs 2.5 lakh till now and more needs to be spent in the days to come," said T C Joseph who runs Chachis Auto Service that sells two- and three-wheeler parts. Mud and slush have seeped into even branded products like bearing cables and piston rings that come in sealed covers. Joseph's racks are now three-quarters empty.
Many like Minar textile shop owner Yasin and Amritha bakery owner Sekharan had restarted after securing loans at high interest rate. The newly-furnished bakeries and textile showrooms look inviting, too. But they don't have what they need the most: buyers. "We have quickly opened the shop hoping at least our loyal customers will return. But these days I am lucky if at least 10 people walk in," said Sekharan, seated inside his freshly done bakery.
Excel Abraham knows people in Ranni are not going to walk into his showroom anytime soon. "People have still not finished cleaning their houses. It is not yet time for them to worry about ice-cream or gold," he said.
Shameer | Fish vendor
We came to Shameer's wayside stall, just where the private buses stop at the edge of Ittiyappara, by around 2pm. This was market day. His stand was packed with three varieties: pink perch (kilimeen), mathi (sardine) and ayala (mackerel). He looked sullen.
"Even if it was not a Wednesday or Friday (Ranni's two market days), my stock would have sold out by now," Shameer said. He then fishes a few notes from his pocket and counts them. Rs 230. "This is the business I have done today, standing here from seven in the morning," he said. Before the flood, it was different. "On market days, I sold anywhere between Rs 7,000 and Rs 10,000. On other days, I sell at least Rs 5,000 a day," he said.
The roof of his wayside stall was lost during the floods. Also the fish worth Rs 1 lakh he had purchased and stocked on August 14, a Tuesday. "We stock things on the eve of the market day. August 15 was the market day and traders in Ranni had stocked up big on the day the flood happened," he said. "There were many dead fish floating around in the flood waters here," he added.
It is not just Shameer who is waiting in vain for customers. The fully-stocked vegetable and meat shop bang opposite his stall, too, had no customers. The Supplyco shop to his left was still to open. "My business depended a lot on the Supplyco shop and the vegetable shop. A good percentage of the people who go to these two hugely popular shops came to mine, too," he said. Then, there were people who stepped down the buses. Morning walkers, too, used to buy fish from him. "Now, no one is interested. They don't buy from any fish seller in Ranni town. They travel to outside places like Erumeli and Maruparuthi to get fish," he said.
Jose and Thampi who run a vegetable outlet near the market, too, had only a handful of customers on Wednesday. "There is a feeling that traders in Ranni town are selling goods soiled by the floods," said Jose. They too had stocked sacks of potatoes and carrots and onions on August 14, the day the flood struck. "Not only was it market day the next day, Onam and Bakrid were also approaching," Jose said.
Their vegetable shop has a higher than normal ceiling, and Pamba had risen above that. "When we returned, vegetables worth Rs 4 lakh were lost. Everything was black and soggy. The place was stinking, and we just dumped everything on the road for the panchayat vehicle to carry away. Now, even though it is nearly a month, people say we are selling flood vegetables after washing them," he said.
But Shameer has no time to complain. "Last week I hit upon an idea. After four in the evening everyday, I put all my remaining fish in my friend's truck and carry it to nearby places where no one knows I am from Ranni," he said.