NEW DELHI—Remember back in grade school, that one teacher who used to snap at you for being out of line? That teacher doesn't exist in India. Not anymore. She was trampled to death while waiting patiently for her food ration card in Tamil Nadu.
In India, you don't enter a line-you besiege a funneling mass. There are too many people and not enough doors, so you push and squeeze, get pushed and get squeezed. If you stand aside and wait for a less violent entry, as I once tried to do boarding a bus, you will be pushed aside until the bus is full and left in a grainy brown cloud of diesel exhaust. That's at a bus station. Throw in severe hunger and a poorly managed aid distribution effort, and you have a nice recipe for the stampede that killed 42 people last month in Tamil Nadu's capital city of Chennai.
The scene was a school building where 4,000 evacuees had gathered to collect state-issued food coupons. Record rains had been pounding the region for months, causing sustained flooding and displacing tens of thousands of villagers with nowhere to go and nothing to eat. When a rumor started flying that it was last day of relief distribution, the crowd surged. It was raining at the time, and slippery. Of the 43 crushed to death, 19 were women. Thirty-seven others were injured.
It wasn't the first bloody stampede of this record-breaking rainy season. Back in November, six women died in a similar crush in Chennai. All told, the heavy rains of late 2005 are responsible for the deaths of several hundred people. And that's after the record summer monsoons, which turned Mumbai into a turtle tank and killed 1,000 between mudslides, electrocutions and drowning. Both numbers climb when you throw in the flooding-related road deaths of the last six months.
The rains have racked up an impressive body count in collusion with every Indian's worst nightmare after the cornered viper: the collapsing wall. No Indian death blotter is complete without at least one wall collapse. Walls are always collapsing on the subcontinent; during and after a rain, walls collapse in staccato bursts, as if Krishna were playing xylophone with them. Walls collapse in the city and in the country. New walls, old walls, big walls, small walls, walls of cement, walls of hardened cow dung, and countless freestanding, towering walls of loose Tata-made clay bricks that don't appear to serve any purpose other than their own inevitable falling.
There are so many walls collapsing around India at any given moment that you can even find rhyming wall disasters without trying. Last week a "mall wall" under illegal construction collapsed, killing two workers. Modern malls are going up all over India, but the labor and zoning details behind the projects are often anything but modern. So the walls come tumbling down.
Looking back on last year, Gandhi Porn's 2005 Wall Award goes to the temple city of Madurai, which experienced a clusterfuck of collapsing walls during late October's Biblical rains. This town, in one 24-hour period, reported the following seven wall-related deaths: the mud walls of a house collapsed, killing a family of four; the wall of a park collapsed and fell on a man who was pissing on it; a portion of a fort wall collapsed on a 12-year-old boy; an old man was crushed by his bedroom wall while sleeping; and, finally, as reported by The Hindu newspaper, "[a] wall suddenly collapsed on a shop at around 10:30 a.m. While A. Periyakaruppan, who was purchasing eatables, died on the spot."
Dude hasn't even had his morning tea yet, he's just buying a loaf of bread-and a fucking wall collapses on him. There are no Chicken Littles in India; here the sky really does fall, on a regular basis and from 90-degree angles.
With record rains and collapsing walls battering the south, 2006 begins with another gift from the climate change gods: a record-breaking killer cold-wave. India is a place where millions of people have a good and simple reason to fear severe colds snaps: They sleep outside. Train stations and other public places in the north often resemble big Third World crime scenes, with scattered bodies lying stiff on concrete wound tightly in what American college kids call "tapestries," head to toe. But they're not dead, not yet at least, just sleeping. As of this writing, more than 70 have died of hypothermia in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh alone. The last time this kind of cold air camped out over northern India, in 2003, 800 people froze to death. As for the crime scene further north in earthquake devastated Pakistan-controlled Kashmir: It makes you shudder.