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How a kayak helped save 250 lives, changed an Udupi man's life

Imtiaz rescued 250 people from floods on his kayak last year, making him an instant hero in Udupi. However, this also led to a run-in with some local influential Hindus.

How a kayak helped save 250 lives, changed an Udupi mans life

Imtiaz was honoured by the Karnataka government for rescuing 250 people on his kayak during floods 


Dipankar Lahiri

Updated: 29 Dec 2021 6:37 AM GMT

Udupi (Karnataka): When Imtiaz brought his kayak home to Udupi's backwaters from Oman two years ago, he thought it would make it easier for him to relax in the evenings.

Little did he know of the midnight call he would receive on 20 September, 2020, and how his kayak would save the lives of 250 people - but also land him in trouble with some local influential Hindu groups.

Last year, the district of Udupi witnessed the worst floods in 36 years. Thousands of houses were washed away or inundated as incessant rains led to the swelling of the Suvarna river. Imtiaz, whose house is a few feet away from the bank of the river, will never forget that night.

"It had been raining for two days. At 2 am, we saw the river embankment had broken. That's when we realized this was no ordinary storm. We waded to our boats, tied them up as best we could, and tried to get some sleep. At 3 am, I got a frantic call from the city. There was a man on the other side who said 15 people were trapped in a house and begged me to rescue them," he said.

Imtiaz had never done any rescue work before. Before that night, the 34-year-old had spent time as a labourer in the Gulf and was a small-time shopkeeper in Udupi, offering coconuts and soda to tourists. The only reason why he had received the SOS call in the first place was that it was known among locals that his kayak would have been anchored somewhere near the Kemmanu hanging bridge.

Imtiaz rescues Udupi villagers on his kayak in September 2020

According to Imtiaz, he was the first person to start kayaking in Udupi, even though now he has company.

"My brother and I took two kayaks and rescued 250 people between 4 am and noon that day. We had to row through such difficult places - trees had fallen onto the water - that no engine boat could have gone there," said Imtiaz.

An NDRF team from Mangalore, whose engine boat had got stuck in the water, was also returned to shore by Imtiaz and his brother.

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"Two aged people were clinging on to the roof, water had reached up to their shoulders. It took me 45 minutes to get them onto my boat," related Imtiaz.

When Imtiaz and his brother finally came to the shore after eight hours of rescue work, Udupi MLA Raghupati Bhat and some other officials were at the spot to congratulate him.

A newspaper report of Imtiazs feat allegedly turned some facts around.

However, when reports of his efforts came out in the newspaper the next day, Imtiaz was surprised to see that it was mentioned that his kayak had been donated by a local temple committee.

"The newspaper people must have done it for publicity. My brother sent a WhasApp message to his friend saying that the paper had made false claims, which became viral. Then the people from the temple committee came to my house and threatened me. I said sorry just to get it over with," said Imtiaz.

On November 1, Imtiaz received the Rajyotsava award - Karnataka's second highest civilian honor - from the Chief Minister for his bravery. An event was organized in his honour in Udupi. A poster set up for the function currently lies torn behind a bush in front of Imtiaz's house.

"I just want to run my business, being a hero cannot be my day job," he said.

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