Like everyone else, I knew it was coming. But I didn’t know when. I had no idea about its magnitude. It’s devastating impact. That’s because, like a generation before me, I had not experienced a strong earthquake. Like most Nepalis, I wasn’t prepared for it. Also, no one can predict an earthquake. So why think about it when you never know when it will strike.
My go-bag (given to me) was gathering dust somewhere in a corner of my house. I wasn’t sure that I would find time to grab the bag before running out in the event of a quake. Would I be even at home? As it turned out, I was several kilometers away from my house when the earth shook violently on 25th April (12 Baishak 2072). Instead of a go-bag, I had in my hands a bundle of investigative newspaper articles that were to be judged for a competition. I was in a teashop that was fortunately only a meter away from an empty road.
What I remember of those 40 seconds is a strange noise. The sound of structures colliding or something to that effect. I was struggling to stand upright in the middle of a blacktopped road. It was as if I had suddenly found myself in a small boat in rough seas. A woman nearby started to cry. Her husband held her. She continued to scream. A group of people gathered on the road. A few of us tried to console her. By the time the earth had stopped shaking, the people around me had been thoroughly shaken.
One of the first things that came to my mind during the first few seconds into the quake was to be aware of the buildings around me. The building that housed the teashop looked particularly threatening. At one point I thought it would collapse. But it didn’t, like many concrete buildings in Kathmandu. A pleasant surprise. There are many explanations floating around for this. The epicenter was too far. The earthquake wasn’t shallow enough. Houses were built strongly. My own observation is that we were just too lucky this time around.
Immediately after the quake I rode across the city. Except for some old houses with load bearing walls and heritage buildings I saw that most residential concrete houses had survived. The perimeter walls of several landmark buildings had crumbled over hundreds of motorcycles that had been parked by the walls. The collapse of the compound walls of the Nepal Police headquarters, the Prime Minister’s official residence and the Narayanhitti Palace Museum looked particularly astounding. But, by and large, Kathmandu had remained intact at the first glance. Later in the day, reports of substantial damage to recently built high-rise apartment buildings started to come in. As people regained composure, they also noticed cracks, small and big, in their still standing concrete houses.
Home, no longer a haven
As I roamed across the city, I saw people out on the streets everywhere. They were standing in the middle of the roads. That was the safest place for them. But it wasn’t. The spectacular collapse of one of the top-heavy gates of the Tundikhel army parade ground, captured in a security camera, on the wide road was a testament.
People standing in the middle of the roads were nervously glancing at the buildings in the even as they talked to one another. They were very cautious. Something might fall off the house or, worse, the structure itself might collapse upon them. The building that one would feel home at had suddenly become a life-threatening mass of concrete and steel. While the earthquake was too powerful and invisible to combat, the houses symbolized the hidden threat and unfathomable danger.
The sight of people standing in the middle of the roads and visibly fearful of their own houses has remained with me. That is what I will remember the most about this earthquake. I had never seen so many people out on the streets in so many neighborhoods of Kathmandu at the same time and not shouting a single slogan.
The Nepali dream
“Owning a home lies at the heart of the Nepali dream.”
I just replaced the word ‘American’ with ‘Nepali’ in that George W Bush quote. A house is central to a person’s life in Nepal. Not everyone can afford to build a house. This is clearly a once-in-a-lifetime project for a vast majority of people. For many, it takes almost a lifetime to build a house especially in a city like Kathmandu where it is not unusual for people to move into a house that is still under construction and far from being completed, let alone fully furnished. That is because an average family won’t have enough money to complete a house at one go. This project can go on for years. Even two generations. One brick at a time. For me, the incomplete houses, with several pillars searing through the roofs in the cities represent unfulfilled dreams of their owners. Many people have no option but to suppress their desire to add one more storey due to financial constraints. Plus, a building in a place like Kathmandu can be home to several families that come from incredibly diverse locations of Nepal. [In this 2008 article- घर हाम्रो दरवार— for Kantipur, journalist Suraj Kunwar and I explain what a house, a house in Kathmandu, means to an average Nepali.] The earthquake briefly forced people to reevaluate their relationship with their houses. As a result, they were not willing to trust the integrity of the buildings.
In a shack
Like tens of thousands of people in Kathmandu, I spent the night of 25th April in a makeshift shack. A lot of people from the neighborhood had gathered there. Because no one had lost their family members or suffered irreparable damages to their houses, the mood wasn’t as gloomy. In fact, it was a strange but positive communal atmosphere that I didn’t know existed in the locality. Neighbors, who I never knew existed, had come together to share the limited and precious open space. People who were strangers until the first jolt were talking to each other about the quake and other mundane things as if they had known each other for ages.
Despite living in the same neighborhood, they represented different castes, classes, ethnic and regional groups. Some were tenants, others were landlords. Some were very rich, others had nothing significant to worry about in the event of another stronger and more damaging strike. The quality of blankets and mattresses and the computers and models of phones that they brought into the shacks and open spaces reflected their class and told a lot about their familial background and heritage. The tones in which they spoke and reacted to what they heard also said something about them. Fear had brought them together. By all accounts, it was an exceptionally eventful day. [This entry was written on the 26th of April with minor additions later on. This is the first time I have delayed posting an entry by more than a week since I wrote my first blog in 2003.]
The first eight photos below were taken a couple of days after the earthquake. People had gathered inside the normally restricted military area of “Shree Number 1 Air Security Battery, VORDME Post Koteshwor” which is part of and at the tail end of the airport in Kathmandu. Some of them had set up the tents while others were still busy doing so.
Elsewhere in Kathmandu: