The Movie Flood

As a rule, the monsoons in Pune, India are comparatively mild with gray days of drizzle and moderate rains to clear the air. I always loved this season. There were few visitors at the Rajneesh ashram where my daughter, Gyana, and I were living and it was quiet, only the most dedicated sannyasin workers remaining to man the basic facilities. But many things in India happen in seemingly haphazard ways and rivers and monsoon rains are timeless phenomena to be lived with but not relied upon.

In late 1978, toward the end of the monsoon season, the Mutha river, the southern leg of the Mula-Mutha which runs through Pune, overflowed its banks. Swollen with water from months of daily downpours, without warning it flooded the lower lying areas of the city.

For Gyana's seventh birthday present and as part of my program to give her as broad an experience as possible even though we were living in the third world, I'd decided to take her to a movie in a real movie theater. Indian films were all modeled on one simple template. They used the same small stable of actors, similar undemanding plots, the same music performed by the same singers. It was just the beginning of the birth of Bollywood, Bombay's Hollywood style film industry, but even in this simplicity, the Indian public loved it. One of the oddest anomalies in Indian film was the adamant substitution of music and dance routines for any romantic scenes. Indian propriety did not allow kissing, touching between genders and certainly not anything remotely hinting at sex to be shown in film. So, whenever a moment of intimacy might rear its head, the director would abruptly break away to a fully clothed musical dance number, often with a whole troupe parading and whirling across the screen and waves of ghazal music, Indian love songs, filling the theater. The first time or two I saw one of these, it was mesmerizing. Later, when I realized this was the only type of film made in India, I lost interest.

However, on this particular day, there was a treat in store for us. Playing at the Apollo Theater in Deccan Gymkhana, a busy shopping area across town, was My Fair Lady with Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison, in English. Gyana was already very much in love with music and dance and so I knew she would be thrilled. In the late morning we walked out the Ashram front gate to nearby Bund Garden Road and grabbed a rickshaw to Deccan. It was a usual monsoon day, humid and drizzly but we were used to it now and would soon be grandly entertained in a plush, air conditioned movie theater so we were excited.

As we held on for dear life, our rickshaw driver over-reved the little yellow and black Bajaj three-wheeler, bearing down on every pedestrian, his horn blaring continuously. The horn on the Indian roads, is accorded same status as the throttle and break pedal. You can't drive without one. So, while the city seethed around us, we tore down Jangali Maharaj Road, past Mangalwar Peth, through Shivajinagar in a cloud of smoke and sound and finally arrived at the Apollo as larger raindrops began to fall.

We bought our tickets and found our comfortable seats in the theater. Ashram life was so self-contained that Gyana and I rarely got out and into the city together. This was a luxury. I hugged her and told her a little about the story of Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins as the film began to roll.

The screen, small by American standards, was a modern marvel in Pune. Both of us were quickly, totally absorbed in the fantasy of the story, so different from the relentless life just beyond the theater doors.

About halfway through the film, I thought I heard some electrical buzzing and the projector, picture and sound, ground to a halt. The theater remained dark. In India the electricity was forever going out, particularly in monsoon season where it was an every day event. The public generally took this in stride. But the air conditioning was still on, I could hear it humming, so we sat and waited with the rest of the theater goers for the movie to resume. We waited for 15 minutes, seeming forever in the dark theater, without any PA announcements, no ushers coming to explain, and then the air conditioning went out. We had waited patiently another quarter of an hour as the temperature rose, when I felt something at my feet and suddenly realized the theater was filling up with water. I looked back to see it now rushing down the isles at an alarming rate. Everyone around us began talking excitedly and bolting toward the doors. I couldn't believe this. It was so incongruous. This was Pune's most modern theater and it was filling up with water as we sat here. Could a pipe have burst? You'd have thought they would have managed to stop or re-route it before it poured into the screening room.

We joined the crowd pushing into the lobby where the water level was even higher, well over my ankles. The theater was raised above street level but water was pouring in the front doors. I was starting to get really scared. I couldn't imagine what was going on here but being so far from the Ashram, our home and our friends, in the midst of some kind of calamity, made me feel very vulnerable. I grabbed Gyana and we finally fought our way to the boulevard where we were confronted with a horrifying reality. We were now standing in four feet of rising flood water that engulfed everything, as far as we could see in every direction. All the roads were water-filled canals. Rickshaws and taxis floated past, busses listed to the side, about to capsize. All the ground level stores were flooded. People were screaming as they tried to pull themselves through the torrent.

Gyana, at 7 and small for her age, couldn't find footing at all and would have been washed away by the strong current if I had let go of her for a second. The entire body of water was sweeping us down the street. I held her close and tried to fight the tide but kept slipping and falling over. The water was dark, cold and filled with personal belongings and unidentifiable objects as it rushed down the street. The unseasonably cold rain continued to cascade over us. With the crackling of the dying theater electricity still in my ears, I wondered if we were about to be electrocuted by some falling power pole. India's haphazard electrical grid and nests of ad hoc wiring were always shorting and wiping people out. Also, being well acquainted with Pune's public toilets, mostly just open pits behind little walls on street corners, I imagined the fecal bacteria count of the water as it continued to rise above my waist. Every disease known to man lurked on the Indian sub-continent just waiting for a opportune pathway to a human host.

Gyana and I slowly battled our way up the street and to slightly higher ground. I clearly identified small animals, rats and dogs, in the current. It was like dragging ourselves through cold honey. We were completely waterlogged but the water was finally shallower here, only just above my knees. I looked back. As far as I could see, in every direction, it was a shimmering silver floodplain. Chilly rain continued to pour from dark skies. My body was shaking both from the cold and from shock.

I plowed on, hauling us away from the worst of the surging flow and carnage of less fortunate citizenry. About two blocks further on, in only a foot of water now, I found a lone rickshaw wallah. In the midst of the melee, he was desperately attempting to re-start his vehicle. I flashed a wet 50 rupee note in his face, perhaps a month's profit for him, yelling, "Koregaon Park, Koregaon Park." He shook his head "Nay" and continued to work feverishly on his little engine. We jumped in the rickshaw, with water flowing over the floorboards, and refused to get out. I continued to wave the rupees in his face and yell as he coaxed the engine, coughing, into life. In an uncharacteristic move, I shamelessly forced my foreigner status to intimidate him and commandeer the situation, bawling in Hindi and English at him. Eventually, he looked at me with resignation as I made it clear we were not getting out. There were no other rickshaws or working vehicles anywhere sight. Finally defeated, and probably reconsidering the 50 rupees, he jumped in the front seat and we began to plough our way out of Deccan.

When we at long last reached the Ashram in Koregaon Park, after many detours to avoid washed-out areas of the city, we found there had been no flooding there at all. The rain had subsided and the canopy of peepal and monkeypod trees dripped onto steaming streets. It was as any other monsoon season day. Gyana and I stepped down at the front gate, still drenched, as though out of a dream. As always in India, catastrophes come and go and life goes on.