By luck or chance, I am in a condition to speak of three earthquakes, which Nepalis who lived during the last eighty two years narrate with some familiarity and confidence. As is natural for the people of my generation, the earthquake of 1934 came to my share only as a historical reality. I heard first-hand accounts of it from my grandparents, who lived 103 and 96 years, till a few years ago. But I did not sense much amazement or anguish in their description of the calamity. Their narratives sounded like the mention of a lightning or gush of wind – something that had just come and gone as a rule. The earthquake was one of the numerous ordeals they had undergone in their century-long survivals. It was perhaps less remarkable than other occurrences that had actually shaped their lives: malaria, smallpox, snakebites, falling off trees.
I experienced the earthquake that hit eastern Nepal in 1988. I was preparing for SLC send-up examinations around that time. It was the morning of August 21, when something that sounded like a hailstorm slowly approached our house and shook it from the ground to the roofs. The shouts of Grandfather confirmed that it was it. I had no fear, no revelation about the nature of the disaster until I began to hear stories of houses damaged and lives injured and killed.
Radio Nepal reported extensively about the losses in Udayapur, Sunsari and other neighboring districts. In my own place, the most shocking damage was of a three-story house of one of my classmates. The house had sunk to the ground burying two of my friend’s sisters and nephew. His younger sister was rescued alive. She lived visibly traumatized for a long time in my own neighborhood. After I saw this devastation and the condition of the girl who survived it, and heard of more deaths and damages in the surrounding places, earthquake went into my nerves.
But, like many people of my generation, I lived unawares for twenty seven succeeding years. It never came to the extent of upsetting my understanding of life as it did early 2015.
April 25, 2015, was not a very good day, from the morning. It was misty and unusually cold, and unappealing by all measures. A Saturday of this type is a day wasted, for working people. My wife, who considered as ever that Saturday was her day with me, had from the morning expressed some discomfort. She knew that in such atmosphere of gloom it would be difficult for her to coax me into leaving home for some kind of family trip around Dhulikhel. Some instinct induced me to remind her that her mood resembled the atmosphere outside, and both indicated a sinister.
That day I was invited to join a hymn-singing troupe at the Naimisharanya shrine, which stood on the hilltop about one and half kilometers north from the Kathmandu University (KU) premises, my workplace and residence. My people were willing to join me in the walk uphill to participate in the singing and to take their time further uphill up to the tower. But going to the shrine was by no standards a tempting idea for me, and I was groping for a plea to avoid walking.
I proposed a new idea, which was to visit the residence of a colleague and friend who had kept his ailing nephew for treatment for some time.
The quake started just as we had finished sipping tea. It started like a light quiver that you feel when a child hops on the upper floor of a wooden house. It was unlike the ones that had come intermittently sometimes, because it intensified and lasted much longer. It reminded me at once of the message of earthquake-related programs and posters that had been in vogue in the recent years. I forgot for half a second that my wife was in the other room and the kids were with me. The safety instructions heard from the said programs and posters, which I had never cared to internalize, had vanished from my memory long ago and did not return when they were most needed now.
I tried in vain to open the door to the porch with a vague idea of escaping the house. I did not find the latch, for good. If I had, I would have jumped down with my boys and hurt or kill all of us in frenzy. So, I gathered the children in my arms and squatted by the sofa feigning to be able to hide our heads. I constantly stared at the ceiling and the beam praying to God, for the first time in my life, that they would not crack and crash upon us.
My older boy was only a bit bewildered but carefully poised on my right. The younger chuckled under my left arm at the sudden joy of being shaken with the whole house. When I saw their faces in their bowed heads seconds later, there was no fear, no sense of death. There was just a confused smile. The innocence amid this sudden outbreak was somehow revealing and relieving. I wished I was as innocent.
The quake subsided and we rushed out. Only when all of us came to the open we realized it was a disaster far bigger. The house, because it had managed to stand unmolested, did not allow us to know how big the misfortune had been.
Out in the open more than a dozen people had already chanced to arrive and chant names of their respective gods. Two young females were taking turns to fall unconscious and get their senses back. Then aftershocks of various magnitudes shook the ground and crackled the RCT buildings of the neighborhood, giving the frightened ladies more reasons to scream and show fits of oblivion. A couple of students of medical sciences, who stayed at a hostel to the west-end of the opening, attended these untimely patients with water and good words.
I again valued the innocence that my boys had borne a couple of minutes before, which the spectacles outside were now causing to dwindle slowly.
The effect became intense outside. We could not move an inch for about half an hour. The rattling in adjacent houses made me anticipate that my own apartment could have turned into rubbles because the building where we lived was occasionally lampooned as the most poorly built among all of KU structures in Dhulikhel. I prayed if anything should remain untainted, it should be my laptop because it carried my life’s works. What a wish!
Right then a youngster shouted in dismay that the Bhimsen tower in Kathmandu had fallen. Since it had fallen on Saturday, it meant a big calamity. There must have been several hundred climbers on and inside it and fallen flat to the ground with the falling structure.
A police officer jogged past the place warning us not to enter our houses without inspecting them sufficiently from outside. Suspense began to accumulate. But our apartment was about three hundred meters away through half a dozen houses that might crash on us if we dared to walk past.
The hilltop with the shrine, which we did not visit that day, was regarded by some myth-makers one of the epicenters of a soon-to-come earthquake. So, if my wife had remained adamant about walking uphill, we could have got an opportunity to behold one of those grotesque spectacles of trees swaying and houses quivering, crackling and falling to the ground. Then the myth could be confirmed for a reality, at least for some time. Maybe my reflections on the disaster would lead a different perspective.
We chose to be thrown out of our homes, injured with terror and uncertainty. Nothing had happened to my apartment but some cracks, which looked big at the outset. But after having witnessed houses turned into debris, and people scattered in makeshift huts, the cracks only spoke of the disaster gone by, and a potential damage if similar one were to hit again. The only loss my family bore was a bottle of outdated tomato sauce stored in a kitchen rack. It had fallen off its place and crashed on the floor.
I was not a victim, but considered myself a partly traumatized sufferer for some days. Partly, because you could not tell people that you were fully safe and sound. All of us stuck in the KU premises were in the same frame of mind. The spectacles reported by onlookers, tabloids and television channels sufficed to make us revisit our understanding of safety. And aftershocks would keep poking at our sleeps.
Uncertainty inflicted greater pains than occurrences. Caws of crows, howls of dogs, cries of kids – all burned our superstitious selves. Every one of us left home, even the unharmed homes, to evade uncertainties. What could be more agonizing than abandoning homes like frightened sheep? I saw enough reasons to question my education and upbringing, and of other inmates. Classes, books and degrees had not made us bold and reasonable. We perhaps needed to undergo a couple of other disasters of this magnitude to wake ourselves up to the commonsense and clarity of scientific thinking.
But some of us who lived inside the University did not have much time to bemoan our own moral, mental losses and dilemmas. Many hundreds of students from outside Kathmandu lived in the hostels and the vicinity. Before they could manage to go their homes, they needed to be fed, sheltered outside their usual shelters, and counseled for volunteering activities rather than being engrossed in the thought of strict personal safety. I was myself assigned to take charge of communication within the University. So, for days following the first jolt, and another of May 12, I was busy updating KU inmates with important administrative decisions and helping to document volunteering activities of faculties, staffs and students.
Life, in its dismal part, occasionally felt like a big burden despite being in the comfort of the barely insecure environs of KU. I underwent an acute feeling of retardation. I was waiting to defend my PhD; I was expecting that I would be called any day within April. The date was going to be pushed farther now. The School which was administering my viva voce was semi-dilapidated and the officials were looking for alternative venues to operate. It was morally inappropriate for me to demand an early examination and release. My future largely depended on the aftershocks, or shocks of larger kinds which tabloid reporters and fortune-tellers said were imminent.
As days passed, every survivor appeared to contribute something. I also visited the households of Naya Gaun, Dhulikhel, a few days after the first quake, along with KU students and faculties. We wanted to help the affected villages in the proximity of the University. Our group rescued foods and other important belongings of a number of households. Some people still lived in vulnerable structures unable to devise alternatives. I met up a teen-age girl reading a ‘guess paper’ outside a half-damaged house. She appeared to be preparing for board examinations. Upon my query why she was attending the house which was almost falling, she said with nonchalance, “Where else shall I go?”
In another place, a man and his wife were attending a heap of debris, completely unsure of the way to erect a shelter. They asked if we could find some of their utensils in the rubbles. Our team, which comprised students assigned to develop tangible relief materials on behalf of the University, preferred to give the family an early shelter while the inmates could remove debris and rescue the possessions of secondary usage. Surprisingly though, this family showed ignorance about the condition of their neighbor, perhaps a close relative, next door.
No wonder some relations did not get mended even after this calamity. The earth shook all of us without discrimination, but we were shaken differently.
I began to see a house as a living thing. My ancestral home in Morang, which I visited after the second major jolt, felt much more venerable and appealing than ever before. My own residence, the apartment in quarter no. 32, was filled with love and life despite more than two dozen cracks on the walls. I empathized more with the houses than those who made and lived in them. I thought, despite appearing slightly responsible for the losses of life and properties, houses spoke of the attitude of their makers and dwellers. Houses were as innocent as my boys.
It was really heart-touching to witness many houses standing derelict, abandoned by their dwellers. Our own quarter looked so strange yet unhappy when the families rushed out with beddings to the canteen sheds close by. We dared to enter it only for some minutes to gather tidbits during the daytime.
My younger boy kept on asking: “Will it really fall down if we go in to pee or gather our toys?”
Hope was an elixir. Those who said further quakes were unlikely gave us enough reasons to believe that life was going to turn normal soon. But despair was a contagion. Non-believers in optimism were the biggest causes of irritation. There were more people who believed disaster was on the threshold than those who reasoned that a disaster could be as unsure as no disaster. Or, say, the optimists were far inaudible. A good number of my friends and colleagues went around carrying a print of tabloid predictions on fatal recurrences. Even when lunatics experimented with rumors of deadly quakes, Kathmandu and its vicinity reverberated with the talks of annihilation.
Those who could read a number of languages were the unhappiest lot, in fact.
I did not want to be shaken off my faith that the chance of occurrence was as small or big as that of non-occurrence. I wished for the first time that our government had strict bans on rampant tabloidization and internet had been less accessible and more expensive in Nepal. If we were left alone to mind our businesses and mend our wounds, we could have remained happier and more productive at serving the needy. I also wished that digital skills and access to technology had accompanied adequate literacy and commonsense. Bloggers were trying to make fortunes fulfilling our anticipations for dark news. Ironically, even the most educated people appeared the most illiterate at times in matters of deciding through proper reasoning that information available in online platforms needed high critical judgment on the part of the consumer.
We read Juddha Shamsher’s accounts of the 1934 earthquake with greater veneration than Sushil Koirala’s address to the nation.
But there was one positive development. Our mainstream media outlets, which mostly featured politicians and political analysts earlier, gave space to structural engineers, architects, geo-scientists, psychologists, anthropologists and historians. These people, at least, tried to inculcate some sensibility in the educated mass that was otherwise turning more and more superstitious and susceptible.
I was also amazed at the spectacle of people leaving Kathmandu as if Kathmandu would turn into a graveyard very soon. The sight reminded of the dark myths of lice leaving a dying body, or rats deserting a famished house. I even expected that Kathmandu would have a fortune of being less populated because many would go back to revive their households in the villages or suburbs which they had forsaken in the passion for being more modernized in the capital city.
This was perhaps why the lines of makeshift huts looked so pathetic on the roadsides of Kathmandu. I had never felt so critical yet sympathetic towards my countrymen. Not because they had learned lessons of life but that they may not have learned at all.
I received constant calls from parents and relatives with counsels of such intensity that I had lived enough in the seismic zone of Kathmandu and its vicinity. They claimed that now was the time to go back to the village and start a more secure career!
I do not claim I did anything substantial in the aftermath. My role as a teacher and an informed individual was to help people around me to remain intellectually prepared for the aftershocks and the aftereffects. This could be through organizing motivational lectures and workshops for students and faculties of KU. This was through asking students to write assignments recounting their experiences of bad times following the earthquake. I could host Don Morreale, American author and teacher, in KU during September. Don spent a month teaching oral history to undergraduates and trying to get first-hand narratives on the earthquake written. Consequently, stories of my students have come out in Don’s book titled Aftershocks: Survivor’s Tales of the 2015 Nepal Earthquake. Don plans to donate proceeds of the sale to an organization working for rehabilitation in Nepal.
I have never dreamt of living in high-risers. The chance of having such dream in future is nil after the quakes. The most notable aftereffect on my life was that I have bought a piece of land at my birthplace in Morang. I am planning to build there a beautiful bamboo-hut some day to spend my vacations now and retired days later – composing poems and singing songs. But it is only a plan amid many other life’s aspirations. Who knows it may have to wait for another catastrophe before getting materialized.
[Published in Nepali Journal of Contemporary Studies, 15. 1-2 (Jan.-Dec 2015). 23-31]