Flood99. Does it ring a bell? What does it remind you of? Nothing at all? Give me a few minutes, and you’ll hear church bells chiming.
This piece of Kerala lore is courtesy my father, who told us about it over dinner. In 1924, a massive flood swept across parts of Kerala, reaching Aluva and drowning thousands. Women and children had to be evacuated to higher ground in gigantic urlis. The cause of the flood is a mystery. It is known that the Periyar overflowed its banks, but what caused the river to burst its bonds? Nobody seems to know, and some outlandish theories have been propounded. My father says it’s possible that the cause was a breach in the Mullaperiyar dam, since it was the only dam in the vicinity then. The flood was given the name “Flood of 99,” because the year 1924 corresponds to the year 1099 in the Malayalam calendar.
Now do you hear the church bells chiming? No?? OK. No worries. I thought Flood99 might remind you of Dam999, the Sohan Roy movie that has been banned by the Tamil Nadu government.
While my father’s hypothesis may be incorrect, it does show the extent to which the Mullaperiyar dam issue has occupied the foreground of Kerala’s consciousness today. Here is something else my father told me about the dam. In the late nineteenth century, the British Resident of Madras Presidency twisted the Maharajah of Travancore’s arm and coerced him into signing the lease agreement that is the source of Tamil Nadu’s right to water from the dam today. Moreover, the lease was inked for an unprecedented period of 999 years, whereas the usual lease period is 99 years (so I’ve been told). This is why the Sohan Roy film is called Dam999.
Even as I write, there are reports of vehicles from Kerala having been damaged by vandals in Tamil Nadu, and retaliation in kind this side of the border. This is a tragedy in the making if the political temperature is not cooled. Of the four southern states, Kerala and Tamil Nadu can be called sister states. Malayalam’s birth mother is Tamil, a fact that the heavy borrowing of words from Sanskrit only thinly disguises. A large number of Tamils have made Kerala their home, and an equally large number of Keralites live in Tamil Nadu. The two states are interconnected and entwined in many ways. I spent six happy years studying and working in Tamil Nadu, and have a deep affection for its people, its culture, and its food. So, I hope this issue can be resolved amicably without raising the temperature further.
The CPM is organizing a human chain from Mullaperiyar to Cochin today. These street posters are, I think, to raise awareness regarding the event.
Here’s a thought about the interdependence of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Kerala depends on Tamil Nadu for vegetables and fruits, which are brought into the state in lorries. These vegetables and fruits that Kerala imports from Tamil Nadu are plucked from plants in Tamil Nadu that were nourished with water from the Mullaperiyar dam.
Now, that’s as good an example of a symbiotic relationship as any I can think of.