When the Houses Danced

In bed because of the flu since the past few days, I am watching the movie Wild to kill time. My wife is readying to go out to meet her friend, and is asking for the laptop from another corner of the room, where she is standing and wiping her face on a cloth towel. It is noontime of a very ordinary day – and it is precisely at this unremarkable time when an earthquake chooses to strike. Over the past several years, we are used to a minor tremor here, a slight shake there. But this, finally, turns out to be the devastating earthquake that we in Kathmandu, which is on the list of cities most vulnerable to seismic risk, had been long dreading.

The house first shudders and then swings like a rocking chair.  My heart races and I quickly get off the bed to head out of the house. But my wife, who had taken part in an earthquake drill at her office just a month before and was taught what to do during an earthquake, pulls me to a corner and makes me kneel down on the floor. Not feeling safe, I spring up, reach for the pillow and come back to the corner and hunker down, the pillow covering my head.

The swinging doesn't stop and I hear the clatter of kitchenware in the kitchen and something breaking down outside. The house we are living in is old, perhaps the oldest in the locality, and I think, now we are done for. Somehow it doesn't cave in, even though it judders for what seems like eternity.

When the house finally stops its dance, my wife folds up the laptop and puts it inside the closet and leads me outside to a circular open space in the midst of the colony. People have already gathered there.  I look around. The watertank on top of the house next to ours has fallen down and crashed into a car parked below and the watertank on top of another house has flipped over and the water in it is coursing down like a shower from a waterfall. But all the houses seem intact and the people safe. 

The people start talking about the earthquake being big, very big, maybe bigger than the much referenced earthquake of 1934, which killed over 10,000 Nepalese. They share tales of their heart skipping, of their feet trembling and seeing death before their eyes. A lady walks to the open space, tears streaming down her face, calling to her son who had gone out to play football.

We take off our slippers and sit down on top of them, the green grass just ticking our backsides. And then, as if the earth had gone slightly mad, it just gives a wild lurch, we can almost feel it creaking underneath. The children cry out and race to the safety of their parents, who join their hands and mutter the names of all the Gods that there must be. “Ram, Ram, Ram,” says a lady. “Jai Narayan,” says an elderly man in a traditional cap. One of them starts chanting the Gayatri Mantra. 

I check Twitter on my mobile, wondering if there are any updates on the earthquake yet. And sure enough, all the tweets on my timeline refer to it. Somebody tweets that the magnitude of the earthquake is 7.9 Richter scale. It isn't as big as the 1934 earthquake, but big enough to wrought much damage to the city, of 30 million people, with few open spaces and houses built cheek by jowl and most of them against the government's housing standards. Soon enough, reports of the damages begin to filter in on social media. One tweets: I see puffs of dusts billowing up  Kathmandu. Another says, A house in Basundhara has gone down. Still another tweets, Houses near the Fire Brigade have been flattened out.

I relay the news to the people milling around us. We have lived here so long, and it is perhaps the first time that the community has come together like this. Some of them are tuning in to FM stations for news of the earthquake. Some others are calling to friends and family to inquire after them or to convey that they are safe. The network is down, and often they can't get their calls through. A pilot reaches our grounds soon after, and recounts a tale of horror of seeing Kathmandu trembling from the skies and landing his plane despite the injunction to not land by the air controller  An irresponsible person tweets that the walls of the zoo have been torn down, and the tigers have escaped into a carnival being held just beyond. This news, thankfully, is soon rubbished. 

Just then our landlord comes rushing on his motorbike to check on his family, and informs, “The land revenue office in Baluwater has completely flattened out.” He adds, “I saw it going down as I was checking the examination papers at my school.” Then somebody shares the news that the earthquake induced an avalanche tearing through the Everest base camp, killing many mountaineers.

 The majority of us listen to this news, and share it, and a collective nervousness seems to transfer through the group.  There is no end to the tremors, which keep shocking us at intervals with their intensity. I say to myself, “Have the Gods gone crazy?” Nature does, indeed, seem to be furious, for we will have to endure almost 100 more aftershocks over the next 72 hours.  

I call my parents in Pokhara to check on them, and let them know we are all right. Although Pokhara is nearer to Lamjung, the epicenter of the earthquake, than our capital of Kathmandu, it seems little affected by it. I feel relieved to hear they are doing just fine.

The electricity goes off almost the instant of the earthquake. The mobile connection becomes more and more erratic, making calls and connections difficult. Notwithstanding the slow internet connection, I try to remain up to date with the news. Somebody tweets that the historic Dharahara tower has turned to rubble and hundreds of people up in it for the view of the city are feared dead.  It might just be a rumor, I say. “I hope it is one,” the elderly man sitting near me says, but soon, people start posting pictures of the fallen Dharahara on social media. And not just of Dharahara, but also of centuries old temples in Basantapur, Patan and Bhaktapur, all damaged by the earthquake.  As sadness at the destruction of those historic monuments slowly sinks in, I ask myself in anger, “Why were these temples not retrofitted, even though they were listed as UNESCO's World Heritage Sites?”

All these while, the tremors continue. Experts say these may continue till two, three weeks. And that's possible. In 1934, tremors were felt still two months after the earthquake. People rig up tents, bring chairs from their houses and things to eat and water to drink, fearing a major aftershock. 

As the army and the policemen and fellow citizens volunteer to help in the rescue operations after the initial shock, the picture of casualties begin to emerge and the number of deaths starts to climb. I hear all these news with a rapidly sinking heart, telling myself that the number will increase sharply as reports from the countryside starts to trickle in. Sure enough, the news arrives of the villages in Gorkha, Nuwakot, Dolakha and Sindhupalchowk being severely hit by the earthquake. This news instills even greater fear in us, keeping us outside. And as the night wears on, people prepare themselves to sleep outside, under the tents, inside their cars, far away from their homes which had been built to keep them safe. We, meanwhile, decide to risk it– we try to lull ourselves to sleep in our bedroom on the ground floor, alert to every sound, every whisper, every tremble around us.

By the next day, as we gradually begin to realize the enormity of the calamity, everyone around begins to despair. There is dejection at this outburst of nature, depression at having to live like refugees, and anger at the slow pace of rescue and relief. Our neighboring countries and the international world, meanwhile, are quick to swing into action. We hear thankful news of human resources and funds and goods being transported to our country, even while our hearts bleed at the untimely loss of so many of our country people at a single stroke. The pictures of bodies being pulled out from the debris is enough to send anyone into a state of shock.

Restless and cooped up, we decide to take a look around the city. Carefully, we make our way on a scooter, seeing people who have abandoned their crumbling homes to huddle together under makeshift tents. There is very little food, even lesser water, and absolutely no provision for sanitation and toilets, which has the doctors fearing an epidemic which could be as dangerous as the earthquake itself. There is talk of bodies trapped inside the rubble, decaying and stinking. And yet, even in this darkness, there are rays of hope – selfless volunteers scraping at the rubble with their bare hands, youths lining  up to donate blood at the blood bank, a group of young women cooking for the entire camp, people distributing medicines free of charge, doctors coming together to offer immediate first aid and counseling.

We soak in these sights as we reach New Road, arguably the business center of the city. It is here, in the narrow streets with towering old houses, that the danger is most evident. Let us go back to an open space, I say to my wife, imagine an earthquake in the midst of these terrifying buildings. And then, suddenly, we see people racing all around us, eager to get to the crossroads. They press in against our scooter from all sides, forcing us to stop. And then we know why –the birds have taken flight from the top of the buildings, screeching in terror, as one of the strongest aftershocks yet heaves the ground beneath us. All around, the drunk buildings seem to be ready to topple down on us in a shower of bricks and concrete. The chaos and clamor, the din and anxiety –it is nerve-wrecking. Finally, after a few honks, we tear free of the crowd and race a little farther off, seeking an open space, an outlet, anything that will help calm our juddering hearts. A nurse bides us and other fellow passengers to stop, tells us to abandon our scooter and go seek shelter. “Don't worry about the vehicles,” she urges, “Save yourself from this devastation.”

We hurry home, and resign ourselves to one more night of rumor and fear, the kind that seeps into the very soul and makes everyone tetchy and impatient. As night falls, so does hope. For it starts raining – first a trickle and then a steady downpour. I think of the people just barely managing to crouch inside a cloth tent, the mothers and their colicky infants, the elderly whose limbs are numbed by the constant strain. It is like choosing between the devil and the deep sea. There is, in fact, no choice, for no one dares enter their homes again, wracked by the constant tremors that make us feel we are swaying in boats every hour of the day. Even today, there is barely a single person who has had a good night's sleep, who had had a hearty meal off a place, life is not even ready to limp back to normalcy in this capital city.

May 5, 2015