Published in La.Lit on 4 September 2020

Cracked Earth

The Saturday evening a week after the earthquake was stunning. I happened to catch the hills of Kirtipur starting to shimmer, getting ready for night. I was in Sanepa, walking from the Yellow House to see some friends in the neighborhood. But I stood still for a couple of minutes by the roadside. The sun had just set. An orange halo surrounded Kirtipur; its outer edges seamlessly faded and dissolved into the rapidly darkening sky. A bit later, eating bara with friends in the front yard of a restaurant, I noticed the moon – almost full, radiating lucid, white light – a strange juxtaposition to the calamity that had befallen us.

After dinner, I took a cab to the flat I was renting near Patan Dhoka. I have not slept there since the quake, living instead out of my backpack, stuffed with an assortment of things – laptop, chargers, pajamas, T-shirts, granola bars, toothpaste, three sets of underwear and socks, a notebook, a water bottle and an umbrella. The times I sneaked in to change clothes and shower, I was scared. The crows in the garden squawked, perhaps warning us of another catastrophe. The tremors and the jolts have been continuous.

On that moonlit Saturday night, I walked up to the third floor and the fear had somehow evaporated. An engineer had inspected the building earlier that day. So I permitted myself to return to normalcy. Would things ever be normal again though?

As I pulled dirty clothes out of the backpack, my mind automatically ran through the week – where I’d slept, who I’d met. What exactly had happened?

The night of the quake, that other Saturday, seemed endless. The aftershocks kept coming. A friend had put together some pasta and noodles. But I had no appetite.

Sunday – sleeping with my family in the living room – provided comfort.

I walked a lot on Monday. All the way from Baneshwar through Sankhamul and up the alleys of Patan. I paused briefly in front of the gray debris of the Radha Krishna temple in Swotha and walked over to the Durbar Square. Locals were barring onlookers from entering, so I walked briskly through narrow alleys to my flat.

For a while, it was difficult to figure out where to go, what to do. I made some coffee while the phone charged. The crows were particularly noisy. Donating blood seemed like a good idea. So I strode towards Patan hospital, went to the lab, lay down and watched a small plastic bag gradually fill with my dark red blood. A couple of hours later, I met people at the Yellow House to start a volunteering initiative. In the evening, I tagged along with old friends to their place in Khumaltar. I slept well that night.

The rest of the week was exhausting. We stationed ourselves at the Yellow House in Sanepa from eight to eight and mobilized teams to go to Kathmandu’s outskirts on relief missions. The nights were blurry, sleep punctuated by fitful moments of wakefulness.

I can’t account for Thursday night. Where had I slept? It had to be one of three places, but my mind was a blank. In any case, it didn’t matter. I’m one of the lucky ones. That’s one thing I have been telling myself a lot these past few days.

Yes, I’m one of the lucky ones, part of the crew who are still living, left to witness. “The dead had it easy,” a villager in Sindhupalchowk told a friend. “I thought I was gone too,” this guy had said, “But, here I am, still living.”

Yes, we are the lucky ones. We are the survivors, shaken but determined to rise. We are also the privileged ones. No one, not a single person in my circle has even been injured. It was only on Friday night that I heard about an acquaintance who had been trapped under the rubble in Patan Durbar Square and is now recovering in hospital. A few friends, living in high-rises, will have to find new apartments. But they will manage. The suffering after the earthquake is directly related to class and wealth. The rich are mostly fine; the poor are either dead or devastated.

So what do the living do? What do we do? What did you do during the days after the quake? I know that some of us surrounded ourselves with friends, had meetings, made haphazard plans, tried to figure out what the government was doing, how soon the aid would arrive. We tried to figure out who was doing what.

The government was initially absent. When it emerged, it sent out mixed messages. Soon, what everyone knew became validated by its response. The Nepali government neither has the capacity nor the mechanisms to cope with a disaster of this scale. Worse, it didn’t even have the imagination to plan and respond. They say power corrupts, but it also became clear that the powerful are also less empathetic. No one is surprised.

I still believe that we are all doing what we can. Some people are brave and generous, some are lazy and stupid. What makes matters complicated, in times of crisis, is when stupid people act brave and smart ones become lazy.

But most of us have good instincts. We think fast and quick. We all know that the able and capable ought to help the disadvantaged. I saw plenty of great examples this week. Young, dazed boys and girls from Kathmandu gathered at the Yellow House. Unprecedented numbers went out to Kavre and Nuwakot, to Sindhupalchowk and Gorkha. The earthquake has somehow softened the hearts of hard-hearted city dwellers.

Over eighty percent of houses demolished in one district? What does that even look like? What are they doing? How are they living? The young and old from Kathmandu are going out in droves, in motorbikes, cars, jeeps, buses and trucks. The folks from the city have been going to the villages.

For my part, I have not gone outside the Valley. I have not even ventured to the old neighborhoods of Kathmandu to see the destruction. Walking through Old Patan was enough for me. But I have decided to commit my energy to volunteering for an indefinite period of time. We all do what we can. I am not going to worry about the rest. This past week has shown that every day is different. We all now know, more deeply than before, that anything can happen to anyone, anytime. We all know what it feels like when the ground shakes.

In an attempt to attain normalcy, on Saturday night, I sat on the balcony the way I used to before the quake. The view was intact. The neighbor’s buildings and garden looked exactly the way they did before. One of the trees was in full spring bloom. The red flowers adorning her made her look like a young bride. The sky was clear. The temperature was mild. There was a gentle, cool breeze. This time, I wasn’t all that unsettled. I felt a deep sense of gratitude for the bright red flowers and the quiet, beautiful night.

It was time to go inside and scroll through the news feed. I had mostly avoided that all week. But I was curious for more information.

Within an hour, I had turned into a voyeur. I watched one YouTube video after another, and googled American and Indian news channels. We are all aware of the perplexing relationship between violence and entertainment. That video of a building collapsing in Bhaktapur – I watched it twice. Although saddened and shocked, I kept clicking. The unlucky ones got it bad. The screams, the fear. The dead bodies, half-broken faces on hospital beds. Entire neighborhoods in ruins; numerous villages decimated.

Conflicting emotions. When the quake struck, when I was under the table, listening to the rattles, feeling the thuds, the banging, I felt strong and vulnerable at the same time. One moment I thought, this is it. This is what we had been afraid of. I will get through this. And the next moment, I was worrying about my life, worrying whether the building could withstand the quake.

When we finally came out, when we looked at each other in disbelief, some people holding on to each other, our faces had been marked by the earthquake. That etching, that mixture of shock and fear, evolved over the hours, as more news came. When we heard of Dharahara, about Basantapur, about people dead or trapped in the rubble, our faces became canvases, outlined with thick black markers of sorrow. We looked at each other for signs, for clues, for something. We have been marked deeply. It is not just Nepal, not just Kathmandu Valley that was struck. Each one of us, each one of us living in this country, away from this country, travelers who have passed through over the decades, people who have admired our architecture and written books about our people, each one of us, I know, during this past week and the days after, have felt, to varying degrees, a bleak, dull ache.

But we have time. We will have time to figure out what has happened, where we want to go from here. No one knows what’s ahead – how the next few weeks, months and years will unfold.

A week after the earthquake, our volunteers checked in with each other. We had dived into this mission without a fully thought-out plan. When we started, it felt like there was nothing else we could be doing, should be doing. We had responded to phone calls all week long, telling other volunteers to take leadership, form groups, get resources, go out, do anything they could. That was the nature of the crisis. It was not just beyond comprehension, it was beyond our means. But a week later, we found a natural closure to one chapter. It felt like we could take a breath, take care of ourselves and move on to another phase. We would continue our efforts, we decided, but perhaps with a more realistic scope. On that note, we cracked a few jokes and drank beer. Laughter helped. It felt like a perfect ending to earthquake week.

In my bedroom, I kept reading. The US Army was deploying 500 troops and aircraft to help with aid mobilization. A lot of people seemed to be doing something. We will need to pick up the pieces, but we also need to figure out what exactly we want to do with our days and weeks. Life moves inevitably ahead, a friend wrote earlier in the week. It may be helpful to step out of chaos and try to achieve some clarity. Our Facebook pages are loaded with earthquake news, photos, stories, catharsis, suggestions. Let’s try to take a little break. Frantic friends from abroad, your funds have helped and we will do what we can. Try to enjoy your short spring.

I decided to close down my computer and get some sleep, a bit unsure whether I would really sleep deeply or for eight straight hours. Sure enough, my sleep broke around 4 am. I could feel the bed gently vibrating again. I thought the fear had evaporated. But I was wrong. Some of it had trickled inside me, reaching depths that was untouched before, just like the impending monsoon will. The rains will fall down heavy and hard, exploring fresh new paths inside our cracked earth.

May 10, 2015