When I woke up on August 22nd, 1994, it looked just like any other rainy morning. I was facing the usual reluctance to get out bed to go to work in morning shift. I was an Engineer working for Gas Authority of India Limited at Hazira, 17 miles from the city of Surat. I came in to work at 7:00am. It had been raining for the past few days and hence the level of water had risen and at 10:00am that day, the authorities decided to open the flood-gates of Ukai dam, 62 miles from Surat. As a result, most of the city of Surat got dangerously flooded by 11:00am. For the next 96 hours, I along with 25 others were stranded on that lonely office building like a micro-version predicament of Tom Hanks in “Castaway”. During these 96 hours, we bonded as a team, supported each other and took steps to dismantle the control systems in anticipation of the rising water level. Somehow at the age of 24, I was feeling a weird combination adventure, panic and excitement. My colleague Shivshankar (not his real name) who was 21 was not taking the experience too well. Who could blame him? He had just graduated from IIT Madras and joined the company recently. He was looking like a zombie, tensed up and terrified, very sure that it was his last day on the planet. I hate to admit that I was not particularly brave and confident, but I did not see the point of ruminating on the impending death. The worst-case scenario would be that I will be one of the hundreds who die because of floods every year on the planet. The best-case scenario was if I survive, I will have one hell of a story to share. I was afraid but luckily fear did not have me. I realized that there is nothing that can be done about it and hence the best course of action would be to do whatever we can to survive, while accepting the grimness of the situation. We had food packets and essentials being air-dropped on the roof by helicopters.
As you can guess, we did survive those 96 hours. However, what happened after that, was truly terrifying and eye-opening. After 96 hours, when the water receded, we could go back to our homes and found ourselves facing a new challenge. Guess what? I thought frying pan was tough, here I was being welcomed by fire! We found out that in the last 16 hours, there was an outbreak of plague in Surat taking many souls to an early departure from their human existence! This was a problem I was completely unprepared for. For the next two days, people kept on dying in the city and the hospitals were flooded with patients. Everyone was walking around with face masks, similar to the apocalypse scenarios in Hollywood movies starring Will Smith. The transportation in and out of the city of Surat was blocked to quarantine and contain the disaster. I did not want to die alone and I felt like a baby in the body of a 24-year-old, wanting to go back to my mother. I started remembering my childhood, when I’d be troubled by challenges and I would come crying back to my mother. A hug and her comforting words would somehow solve every challenge and get my life back to perfection. Here, I felt alone, scared not knowing how things would turn out, remembering the childhood hugs, closing my eyes and hoping that when I open my eyes, I find out that it was nothing but a bad dream. I wanted to go back home to my parents. Luckily, I was joined by many of my coworkers who also wanted to go back to their parents. We were walking zombies, uncertain about who lives and who dies and is it going be today or tomorrow. Somehow, while the crisis is unfolding all around me, a part of me is wondering about the meaning of this crisis. By this time, the entire area had been branded as unsafe according to WHO standards. I went to my boss with whom I had spent the previous 96 hours and told him that I was leaving the city. He asked me why. I replied that during the last 96 hours, I was lucky to see the face of death and how it would strike me. Now, it is all an unknown, we are all ignorant about whether we are infected, or whether we could be infected and how to protect ourselves. We organized a bus to carry around 50 of us out of the city of Surat to the city of Baroda, 2 hours away. We were fervently praying that our bus was not stopped by the police before it reached Baroda. Luckily, we could reach Baroda late at night.
I remember distinctly, the moment we realized that we were out of Surat. All of us, who were completely scared for our life, we smiled for the first time in many days. Those moments were very crucial moments of my life. During those moments, I learnt the following lessons:
- Human beings are very resilient and adaptable: During the toughest times, humans can accept the inevitable and even joke about it. As we left Surat and crossed the city limits, we did not know what the future held, but there was an immediate sense of victory and that made us clap in ecstasy. We could share jokes (none of them are printable) and laugh. Here just two hours earlier, we were pleading with God to spare our lives and now we can laugh with friends. Deep within us are reservoirs of strength, that are largely untapped but they get revealed during times of extreme adversity. This knowledge can comfort us and help us to venture on unchartered territories, go on the solitary path of our own dreams because we have within us immense inner strength.
- Facing imminent probable death forces you to reflect on your life and your relationships: As I was not sure if I might live or die or how the events might play out, I started praying fervently about survival and reflecting on the trivial worries that used to plague me before. Here, I was facing the real plague and those trivial worries seemed so pleasant. I found myself bargaining with God on what I could give in exchange for the gift of life. I realized that irrespective of our ranks and positions within the organization, when our life is at stake, we all become beggars, pleaders driven by the primal fear of death. Today 23 years later, as I reflect on that night of the journey to survival, I wonder if I did make the best use of the life that was gifted to me. I could not achieve the accolades that some of friends achieved by becoming bestselling authors and investment bankers who retired at the age of 40. But, I was very fortunate and grateful for becoming the father of my two wonderful children, my wonderful teachers who always teach me acceptance, gratitude and unconditional love. I was fortunate to become the best son that I could ever be for my respected parents. I am still trying to be the best husband for my loving wife of 22 years.
- Hard Times reveal who your true friends are: When I reached Baroda, I started looking for trains to my hometown of Ranchi. The only train I could find was a train which was going to Patna within the next five hours. I took the train to Patna not just because it was the only train taking me closer to Ranchi, but also because my fiancée lived in Patna. The train was jampacked, but when I got on the train with my face-mask on, and shared with the passengers that I was coming from Surat, suddenly, the passengers near me started to move farther away because of the primal instinct of fear. They were afraid that I was carrying the plague virus and sitting next to me would put them in the danger of death. I was lucky that they did not kick me off the train. Since, everyone next to me on the seat left, I could travel overnight sleeping comfortably. When I reached Patna, I was not sure if my fiancée would meet me because of the primal fear of death, but I was relieved that she was not afraid and met me before I took the next train to Ranchi. When I reached my hometown of Ranchi, none of my relatives came to visit me, again because of the primal fear of my death. The only people who came close to me were my mother and my fiancée. For me, it was great realization that when the stakes are high and life is at stake, whom will you find by your side. I was very grateful for my mother and my fiancée (now my wife of 22 years), who did not fear for their life and stood by me.
- The power of team: When we were struggling together during the floods and plague, I could face it better because I was not alone, I was with my team-members. Whenever there are challenges and we face those challenges as a team, the mutual support and camaraderie carries us through. Hence, it is important to have a strong network of mutually supportive and deep relationships because a strong network provides you the support as you go through the challenges of life. Depending upon who is fighting the battle with you, it can convert and pessimistic and gloomy predicament to an exciting adventure.
Today, 23 years later as I reflect on the fact that I got the gift of life, I stand in awe with happiness and gratitude of how life turned out. Facing the jaws of death made me realize the importance of life. I realized that though Gas Authority of India Limited was a great organization, it was not the right fit for me. Within one year, I got married and subsequently went back to school to pursue a full-time MBA at IIM Calcutta. I realized that life is precious and if you are not fulfilled while living your life, you owe it to yourself to change it to pursue what holds a unique meaning and passion for you. I could have died, but I learnt to live fully and completely only after facing the jaws of death. Let me ask you. Are you happy and fulfilled in your life? If you are, congratulations! If not, what can you do to take one step closer to the direction of your dreams. You don’t need to see the entire path. You just need to take the first step. When I made my decision in 1994, I did not know that I will become an author and would run my business in Chicago. I did not know that I will become the father of two lovely children and the husband of the person who stood by me during the tough times. I only learnt one thing and that was to follow my heart. I only ask you one thing – to follow your heart and let the miracles appear as you walk every step!