From the mouth of a river

Koovam. That’s the village in Tiruvellore district where I was born, though my ancestors hailed from places to the West, as far as even Dharmapuri. But here I am in Chennai as the desolate, dirty Cooum, far removed from my original history and habitat. I know you will hold your nose on hearing my name but please lend your ears to my tale of tears.

I would have been happier and healthier had I been just a lake or a pond. Maybe, I would have perished prematurely as small lakes and ponds usually do in the face of human assault. But at least, I would have been forgotten in perfect anonymity and spared all the painful existence and immortal ignominy that is now mine. Alas, nature willed me as a river and fate played further mischief by making me flow into, and through, Chennai.

The world believes I am Chennai’s curse. But it is Chennai that has turned out to be a curse, putting me all at sea even before I reach the sea. Of my total run length of about 70 Kms, 30 Kms is in semi-urban or urban areas,16 of which is through Chennai. And this 16 is the worst part of my entire path. The rest, though not exactly sparkling, is not as bad as my ‘reputation’ here suggests. Just go upstream, say 20 Kms from Poonamalee and take a look. In fact you can even place a foot into my shallow depths without fear of filariasis. But sooner the better, for I am fast vanishing into the clutches of encroachers and sand-mafias. And I can’t keep the flies and filth away for long because, well, your Chennai is expanding frenetically, chasing me right to my womb!

Again, I pre-date Chennai and have always nurtured the city in my expansive banks in many ways like travel, tourism and trade. No doubt sludge floats now, but in my pristine past I have carried ships from foreign lands way beyond the backwaters and deep into the town. My shores are an archaelogist’s delight and a historian’s haunt though they are now known as the gross and gory garbage dumps that even dogs dread to tread. The city grew in my lap, drank deep from my bosom, drew heavily from my bounty and cleansed itself on my surface even about six decades back, till it turned on me suddenly and savagely. That I have morphed into a metaphor for all that is murky is mainly Madras’s making.

And me? A curse? Folks, I was a holy blessing once. Right from birth at Koovam to my moksha at Bay of B, I have spawned temples all the way. Many a temple tank was fed by my perennial flow, not to speak of my water being used for bathing deities. Prayers, not expletives, religious ablutions, not biological ‘relieving’, were what I knew as many a devotee took a dip into me chanting God’s name. Today, many chant my name and dip into public coffers!

There has always been much ado about rehabilitating me and my other siblings, namely the Adyar and the Buckingham canal. Lofty plans and liberal promises have been made in the past decades that I have lost count of. I hear there are several schemes in our names, numerous studies on us and huge funds have been expended, but I can assure you, hardly anything came down our drains to clear the silt and slime. Maybe there were ‘other outlets’. I also gather that experts, officials and politicians have been globe-trotting across South America, US, Singapore etc to save me. Well, they may go places but I remain here suffering in silence and stewing in my own stench. Something can still happen, but my skepticism is soaring, because I am not only synonymous with stink but also sleaze.

World over, when nature itself is rendering rivers beyond redemption, human nature too is adding to our woes. But this is a ‘sacred’ land wherein reverence for rivers is a running theme all through history and culture. But look at the plight of me and my sisters all over India. And there is talk of linking us! So that we make one huge national drainage grid. Dam(n) you all. But of what avail is my wail when even the ‘holy’ Ganga & Yamuna are turning into hellish Cooums?

See how I have been programmed into sullying self? But when the city itself does not mind the scar, what can I say? I have a request, however. Since succour for me is a long way off, why not give me a name change? At least, my native village Koovam will be salvaged from my sordid legacy in future! Anyway, if Madras can survive as Chennai, can’t Cooum, by any other name, still smell as foul as usual?

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Jawahar T R