Washed Away

by Gautam Pemmaraju

It is that time of year in Bombay when the city collectively awaits relief from the heat and humidity of the summer months. “The creature of grandeur and complexity that defies comparison with anything” (see here) is but round the corner, and if recent newspaper reports are to believed, relief from the sweltering heat aside, we are to expect a graver visitation – “the ghost of 2005”. It was on July 26th of that year that the city witnessed an event of unprecedented magnitude. Lashed by rains in excess of 944mm within 24 hours, the flooded city came to a standstill, hundreds died, and the loss of property was enormous. Of biblical nature, much like the hurricanes and tsunamis that have wreaked havoc across the globe in recent times, the flooding was truly, a deluge. A dangerous combination of high tidal movements and higher than normal rainfall are anticipated in June and July this year, according to the city's civic authority, and this indeed was a primary cause for the dramatic 2005 flooding. The colonial era hierarchical network of storm water drains was overwhelmed, and the rushing waters that would have otherwise been carried out to sea, were spat back upon the city, and effectively, in the words of a civic official I spoke to more than a year ago, “the roads became the storm water drains”.

Turner-delugeI was amongst the lucky that did not venture out early that day, but instead saw the onset of the storm from my balcony. The skies darkened rapidly shortly after noon as if in a time-lapse shot, and as it began to rain, the light progressively failed till it became almost pitch dark past two in the afternoon. The electricity went out. I could barely make out the large rubber tree right across from me, and as for the neighbouring building Immaculata, I could no longer discern its shape. It appeared as if I were staring at an opaque curtain, so densely composed of water, that it seemed to be of one seamless form, rather than of discrete water droplets. It seemed, as I sat out watching in bewilderment, that everything around me was, “enchafed”, and I could only but darkly imagine the condition of the sea, a short walk away from where I was.

A raging sea is invoked early on in Bram Stoker's Dracula. Mina Murray's dairy entry at Whitby, during her visit to her friend Lucy Westenra, records her anxiety at not hearing from her beau, Jonathan Harker. This anxiety is further heightened by an approaching storm, as the “sea is tumbling in over the shallows and the sandy flats with a roar, muffled in the sea-mists drifting inland…and there is ‘brool' over the sea that sounds like some presage of doom”. The fishing boats are hurrying home and the old man Swales speaks disconsolately of impending danger: “wind out over the sea that's bringin' with it loss and wreck, and sore distress, and sad hearts”. The coastguard tells her of approaching ship (the Demeter), which to his mind is “a Russian, by the look of her; but she's knocking about in the queerest way…She is steered mighty strangely, for she doesn't mind the hand on the wheel; changes about with every puff of wind.” A newspaper cutting from the Dailygraph pasted in Mina's dairy immediately after this entry, reports “the greatest and suddenest storms on record” to have ever been witnessed at Whitby. The correspondent describes the weather conditions in great detail and he too mentions that the only ship to be seen, a ‘foolhardy' one at that, was a “foreign schooner with all sails set” and,

Then without warning the tempest broke. With a rapidity which, at the time, seemed incredible, and even afterwards is impossible to realize, the whole aspect of nature became convulsed.

11th_century_unknown_painters_-_Noah's_Ark_-_WGA19708Flood legends and deluge myths are to be found widely in literature (particularly, religious literature) and rooted in the traditions of most ancient civilisations. The general pattern is mostly the same: an angry god sets upon mankind a destructive deluge to cleanse an evil, corrupted world. From the Mesopotamian epics of Ziusudra, Gilgamesh and Atrahasis, Puranic stories (in particular, the Matsya Purana), Deucalion in Greek mythology, the Old Testament Genesis narrative of Noah and the Ark, to legends from central and south America, the deluge is a common thread. (See this great resource & this list). The cataclysmic event linked to the sin of man and the accompanying diluvian punishment of an enraged god underscores several of these myths. In the deluge entry of the London Encyclopedia Vol VII (1839) we find at the outset pointed quotes from theologians and writers: from Bishop Hall's “If there had not been so deep a deluge of sin, there had been none of the waters” to Alexander Pope's “At length corruption, like a general flood, shall deluge all”. We also find, fascinatingly, a discussion of the amount of water that would be required for a universal deluge. The entry refers to Dr. Thomas Burnet's Tellus Theoria Sacra in which he argues “that all the waters in the ocean are not sufficient to cover the earth to the depth assigned by Moses”. Even if all the seas were drained and all the clouds rained down “we would still want the greatest part of the water of a deluge”. Further, the hypothesis of a Mr. James Tytler is described, wherein:

If therefore, we attempt to calculate the quantity of water sufficient to deluge the earth, we must make a very considerable allowance for the bulk of all the hills of its surface. To consider this matter, however, in its utmost latitude: the surface of the earth is supposed, by the latest computations, to contain 199, 512, 514 square miles. To overflow this surface to the height of four miles, is required a parallelopiped of water sixteen miles deep and containing 49, 878, 148 square miles of surface…To make all reasonable allowances, however, we shall suppose the whole solid matter in the globe to be only equal to a cube of 5000 miles; and even on this supposition we shall find, that all the waters of the deluge would not be half sufficient to moisten it. Manu

Ed Noort's paper on the stories of the flood in Interpretations of the Flood (1998), outlines the varied, numerous, and often contentious debates on flood narratives. ‘All points of view' can be found, he writes: “…from those that make the Biblical text into a direct transcription of originally Babylonian material to those that value the Genesis story as a fully autonomous composition; from those which posit an underlying historical and datable flood to those which appreciate the ‘deluge' as a purely literary topos”. But in the Israelite narratives, he writes, claims of autonomy would be improbable since there are several connections in the narrative structures, a ‘narrative network', which begins with the reasons for the flood and the destruction of the world, accounts of how the waters are “unleashed, intensified and allayed”, and then the concluding sacrifices and “a view of a postdiluvian future”. In the Satapatha Brahmana, for instance, one finds the story of Manu, Noort writes further, wherein he “bridges the divide between epochs. After him a differently structured society comes into being.” Manu is warned of the impending deluge by a fish and is advised to build a ship. He survives the event and runs aground on a Himalayan mountain. Upon performing a sacrifice, he is granted a daughter, and the regeneration of mankind is thus ensured. This moral tale, “embedded in ritual”, Noort writes, is distinct in that there is no guilt associated with it, despite “a justly destructive inundation, the warning of a single individual, the building of a vessel and the rebirth of humanity.” This story is further embellished in the Mahabharata. Influence of the Mesopotamian versions upon Indian flood tales cannot be discounted, he argues further, given some evidence of “reciprocal exchange” between the two cultures. But no such influence can be deduced regarding the distinct flood myths of tribal folk tales, of the Santals, Kols and Karias (see also here).

It is difficult to determine the precise sources of Classical flood narratives, Paolo Magnone writes in Floodlighting the Deluge: Traditions in Comparison since there are “particular accounts of local floods that scarcely have anything to do with a universal deluge.” Pointing to three “possibly independent traditions” he mentions the Ogynian, the Dardanian, and the Deucalion. Indian versions, he argues, extend beyond the two sources mentioned above, and one must look also at the Matsya, Vishnudharmottara puranas, and others of a “more aberrant nature” such as Skanda, Bhavishya and Kalika puranas. While the last incorporates Tantric elements, the second one is the “most outlandish…counterfeiting (as this purana is wont to do) the story of Noah under the guise of Nyuha, provided for the occasion with a Sanskrit etymology!” He points out interestingly, that poets such as Kshemendra and Jayadeva, not to mention the more recent Surdas, and Tulsidas, amongst others, subsequently used the deluge myth. Alluding to key differences between the Indian versions and the Akkadian one, a “reciprocal independence”, Magnone argues that the Satapatha Brahmana version “did not specify a reason for the deluge, connecting it with the cosmogenic context, wherein Manu was confronted with the usual difficult task of peopling the world.” It may be a matter of the deluge being a “cosmic routine”, which although not expressly mentioned, can certainly be implied. In the Mahabharata version, the cyclical character is more explicitly, Magnone writes on, “where the time of cosmic dissolution is said to be at hand”, which rules out any punitive value to the narrative. Further, the building of the ship is absent in Puranic versions; it can be seen as “Earth herself in her ‘diluvial' form…the invariable allotrope of the Earth at the time of the Deluge.” It then becomes part “of a scheme of cosmic pralaya brought about through fire and water” in later texts such as the Matsya purana. And in this palingenetic cycle, there is a leftover residue of the older world to be found in the regenerated one, represented through mythic images, he further indicates. There is a fair bit of sexual symbolism as well, linked in particular to the ithyphallic horn of the fish by which the mythic ship, bearing “the seeds of all things” is steered to safety.

The_Deluge_after_restorationQuoting James Frazer, Alan Dundes points out that many diluvial traditions are mostly exaggerated mythic retellings of actual floods. The question as to why they exist, and why they are told, is a complex one beyond the scope of this essay, and is explored in part by Dundes' essay The Flood as Male Myth of Creation in The Flood Myth (1988). The mythic value we ascribe to the events we witness perhaps offers yet another gateway to our minds, and the antediluvian mysteries held within. Whatever may be found within (or without), the inevitable, the inexorable is that we must journey on, as did the Jumblies (see also Auden's The Enchafed Flood).

They went to sea in a sieve, they did.
In a sieve they went to sea:
In spite of all their friends could say
On a winter's morn, on a stormy day
In a sieve they went to sea!
And when the sieve turned round and round
And everyone cried, “You'll all be drowned!”
They called aloud, “Our sieve ain't big,
But we don't care a button! We don't care a fig
In a sieve we'll go to sea!”