Chennai is in crisis at present with Mother Nature displaying her fury. Memory takes me back to October 29, 1999 when Orissa was hit by a super cyclone .
What was i doing on that Super Cyclone day? I was giving the most difficult exam of my life, the challenging written exam conducted by UPSC for selection to Civil Services.
The morning drive. On that day, i drove to the exam centre at Ravenshaw College, Cuttack and reached an hour or so before the exam which was scheduled at 10am. I had just recently purchased a new Maruti 800 and was very possessive of it. I looked around and parked it under a huge tree. Someone told me, “cyclone warning, why are you parking there”. I said a bit flippantly, “this tree has not fallen for more than 100 years i guess, so its unlikely to fall now”. Saying this i went up to the exam hall in 1st floor. After i received my answer sheet, i felt a bit uneasy, for no explainable reason. And I abruptly got up and requested to go out. The Principal of Ravenshaw College who was exam in charge initially did not agree but i pleaded with him that the question paper had not been issued and i urgently needed to go out to re-park my car. I went out, parked my car in the middle of a field, and came back.
The First Paper The Exam started at 10. It was a tough paper, General Studies Paper 1 from 10 to 1. Just an hour after the exam, at 11 or so, hell broke loose. Nature unleashed her fury. Rain and wind were terrifyingly loud, noisy and heavy. The window panes all got smashed and it became eerily dark by noon time. I still remember that lanterns were procured from somewhere by the invigilators. Somehow, we gave the 1st paper which was over at 1 pm.
Lunch break without Lunch All candidates went down and wanted to go out for some food. The Exam in charge said “Where will you go. All restaurants, street food etc have been closed and or washed away”. I blurted out Ïs my car OK Sir. He said “yes, it was a wise decision to change the parking spot, the giant tree under which it was kept earlier has been uprooted and would have smashed your car, i am also glad i allowed you to go down that time after initially saying No”. The lunch break without lunch which was an hour went by like a few minutes and it was time for Paper 2.
The second paper It was from 2 to 5, General Studies Paper 2.. I do not know what i wrote in that situation but i managed to write something. At 4.30 i thought enough is enough and i submitted my paper and asked to leave. The Principal had given strict instructions that no one is allowed to leave the exam center and will have to stay overnight. However i was in a defiant mood and was very sure i will take a risky foolhardy car drive back home. The positive point i thought was that since for the duration of the exams I had shifted to my in-laws house, it being only 5 kilometers away, I would make it.
A mad,crazy drive. Somehow, in the blinding rain, i ran to my car and got in. Then I drove it carefully for 300 metres or so. However i had to stop as huge uprooted trees had blocked the road. Reversing, i drove the other way and reached one of the gates of the College. Once again, it was blocked, but by sheets of fallen asbestos. I got out of the car. Somehow gathered some super human strength from somewhere and physically lifted them out of the way. In the process my specs fell off- and FLEW AWAY. Yes, i am not exaggerating, the wind speed was so much they flew away. I got back in the car and started driving again.
The next 20 minutes or so were a nightmare even in retrospective, even now, 16 years after the event. I was driving by instinct alone. Vision was almost nil. Somehow I reached the last stretch of 500 meters or so. Then something interesting happened. Water level being high, somehow it came inside the car. I was driving and i was actually sitting on water. A few minutes more could have led to anything, but i reached home. Definitely i was Scared, scarred but somehow safe. Just somehow
A terrible Night. It was a terrifying night. Wind speed and sound was terrible. Later it came out in newspapers that the speed of the wind was so high that the anemometer at IMD office at Paradeep had failed to record it. That whole night sleep was not possible. Somehow the night passed by and the fury of the cyclone also diminished after dawn. I did not sleep for a minute that terrifying night and nor did any of us. In fact my baby daughter then was 18 months and she cried the whole night long. Now she is almost 18 and she still dislikes the rain and storms. Scientists have held this is true for thousands of children from Orissa who were babies during that time.
The next Day On 30th too i had an exam- Essay Paper. My car was in awful shape and had 2 flat tires as well. So i had to walk the 5 km to the exam hall. When I reached I saw all the candidates sullenly sitting outside, with bloodshot eyes from lack of sleep. Whole night they had to stay in the center, without food, without water, bathroom facility etc. They were in a militant mood to boycott the exam. It was quite understandable and I shared their view.
At that moment the Principal came and we told him that the exam had to be cancelled. He immediately agreed. However a few minutes later the ADM came and conveyed the District Collector’s message that exam has to continue since only the UPSC in consultation with Chief Secretary of the State had the decision making authority to postpone or cancel. The ADM clearly said that forget Delhi, they were not even in a position to contact even Bhubaneswar, as all communication had collapsed. All candidates were stunned. However slowly, one by one, we went inside and appeared in the Essay Paper.
What next After the Essay Paper was over, all of us framed a resolution to UPSC pointing out the circumstances under which we gave the exam and asking for Cancellation of the General Studies and Essay paper. Thereafter the exam(s) continued. My optionals being Political Science and Anthropology, they were over within a week. I distinctly remember that I had to walk all the 4 remaining days to the exam hall as my car could not be repaired and no auto or cycle rickshaw was available too. A bigger problem was that my specs could not be repaired as well for the entire week and I had to study with a terrible headache. However there was no other option.
Subsequent decision by UPSC. A most interesting and administratively brilliant decision was taken by UPSC. Instead of cancelling the General Studies Paper which was on the day of the Super cyclone, they proposed a second Essay Paper and gave candidates the right to choose whether or not they will appear. This was because General Studies being an identical paper for all 10000 candidates repeating it again may have invited litigation , apart from practical difficulties of framing questions etc. Whereas in an Essay paper, it would hardly matter if 62 candidates are allowed to write an essay again. Anyway i took the decision that i will not repeat the exam, thinking if I have to get it, I will, and if not destined to get it , God will have alternate plans for me.
The result. . That year due to the Super Cyclone, the local newspapers had carried out news articles “this year no one will get through UPSC from Cuttack centre due to super cyclone”. They were wrong. I and three other candidates got through. 1 in IPS, 1 in IRTS , 1 in IAAS and myself in IRS. Was it our destiny ? No idea. I only know that the Super Cyclone was a terrifying event in my life. It is indeed ironical that on such a terrifying day, I had to give the most important exam of my life in which I came out successful, with flying colours.
Hope you liked my thoughts. Please share your experiences on living through such frightening experiences such as super cyclone, earthquake, Tsunami etc. Thanks