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How millennials lifted Kerala

Millennials and older people are coming together in the muscular, anti-gravity practice of altruism

Young people have come out in full force—on the ground and virtually—to organize rescue efforts during the Kerala floods. Photo: PTI
Young people have come out in full force—on the ground and virtually—to organize rescue efforts during the Kerala floods. Photo: PTI

Kerala’s last terrorizing flood, the Great Flood of ’99, occurred in the Malayalam calender year of 1099 ME and the English calendar year of 1924. It felled mountains and dissolved roads like sugar cubes. This week, understandably, many people have invoked the bare facts of that flood as we contemplate the ongoing destruction and tragedy of the floods of 2018. One document being circulated online made that old flood come alive for me.

This was the appendix from a presumably larger document in 1924, indicating the ways in which schools and colleges helped with flood relief efforts. It lists the bags of rice and clothing and the amount of money collected by students from Cherthala to East Kallada. From 10-19 August 1924, 2,800 people were helped by students in Kottayam, a table informs us. But my favourite bit: the note preceding the table that praises the students for work beyond their collection efforts. It says, “Besides this, they rendered much assistance in clerical work, in collecting the promised amounts in Trivandrum and similar urgent and important messenger work where dependable men of initiative were indispensable." Doesn’t it immediately thrill you, the idea of these young students running, cycling or rowing their way to get important details from one place to the next? The Great Messenger Triathlon of the Malayalam calendar ’99.

Nearly a century later, young people around the country have put their hearts, muscle and great gifts with Google Docs into the Kerala relief effort. This week, I spoke to a young man in Kannur who runs a small office-cleaning business. When I spoke to him, he was leaving for Wayanad with friends to help clean houses before people return to them. I heard of him via a young woman scientist in Bengaluru who was wielding her WhatsApp and spreadsheets like a genial general, sending supplies and volunteers through a network she had created overnight via Twitter. Another was collecting vital medicines in Maharashtra for distribution in hundreds of camps.

At this point, my timeline really only has posts about the flood and relief efforts organized by people of all ages. And several of my older friends have helped after the 2001 Gujarat earthquake, the 2004 tsunami, the 2013 cloudburst in Uttarakhand. In 1999, I met my friend Imran, who had just come back after a month in Odisha. He was 22 and I was pretty sure nothing in college had prepared him for the havoc the cyclone had wreaked—close to 10,000 were killed and millions affected, according to official estimates. But I wasn’t prepared for his quiet answer when I asked him what he had done all month. “Bury bodies. That’s what was needed."

I like to think that what they learnt painfully in these places has contributed (if not directly, at least by osmosis) to the calm and efficiency in Kerala now. Don’t run off like a hero if you don’t speak the language and don’t have actual skills. Don’t send saris where nighties are needed. Conserve your manic energy because rebuilding awaits. Sometimes, what needs to be done is burying bodies.

Apart from the independence struggle, we know too little of what our young people have done and continue to do in heroic ways. We have too few stories of the Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society variety—simple, sentimental and brave—in our history books. And please, I don’t know if your history books were different, but mine were a beige sea of boredom with bobbing boats of Great Men. As this week progresses, I am thinking of how greatness is rising to the surface. Those flying helicopters, those taking out their fishing boats, those bullying, charming or gritting their teeth—all to get someone off the rooftop they have been stuck on for days, all to get a bag of rice to a camp that hasn’t seen food in two days, to figure out a solution for a place that has babies but no feeding bottles, to reach people who are too remote or frail to reach the relief camps.

Heroism comes in unlikely costumes. A young friend sent me this oxymoronic and hilarious message, “My stoner group raised 1 lakh today."

Millennial is often a pejorative. It’s often also just a blur because a millennial in Bengaluru and Nagercoil have so little to do with each other, forget the avocado-eating formulation of the First World. But I thought of the word millennial when I was thinking of Hanan Hamid. Just a few weeks ago, Hamid was having that supposedly quintessential millennial experience—of going viral, being trolled and then defending herself online.

Hamid is a 21-year-old science student in Kerala who came into the public eye when a photograph of her selling fish to fund her college education went viral. The most toxic part of the internet accused her of lying because she seemed too well-dressed to be so poor. But Hamid really is that thing you read of all the time in the context of urban America, the dignified hustler working part-time jobs while waiting for the big break. Hamid is an actor, doing small roles in the movies and supporting herself with any number of other gigs and retaining her dreams and dignity.

This week, Hamid waded through thigh-high water in Kothamangalam to the nearest bank to donate what she had personally raised for the chief minister’s relief fund— 1.5 lakh.

The oddest thing has been happening all week. Millennials and older people are coming together in the muscular, anti-gravity practice of altruism. There are few blueprints or Great Men. There are a lot of cheerful memes. It is a Settlers Of Catan game of their own creation, full of characters waiting to be included in real history books. It’s a Great Flood of Kindness.

This is the first instalment of Cheap Thrills, a fortnightly column about millennials, obsessions and secrets. Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger.

She tweets @chasingiamb

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