Saturday, January 26, 2008

Have you heard the sound of earth?

Happy Republic Day, to begin with.

From January 26, 2001 on, the significance of Republic day has changed for me, and perhaps, for all of Gujarat. A much destructive earthquake chose to happen on a date one cannot possibly ignore even by choice.

It was 9 AM in the morning and as usual, I was sleeping. I had slept off the previous night urging everyone to wake me before the republic day parade began at any cost, for I wanted to see an uncle who was going to lead a battalion.

I heard the shouts of my aaji and my sister, but that was normal when they wanted me to wake up, so I ignored the faint, far away to and fro of instructions. I was in deep slumber and felt I was shaking all over, in fact, that the entire bed was. In that dreamy, semi conscious state of mind, I assumed it was my sister gone real nuts and innovative in trying to wake me up. Seriously, that's what I thought. And then, the entire bed started shaking too furiously for me to ignore it anymore. Almost preceding this tremendous rattle by a split second was the most ominous sound of my life: the sound of earth. The sound of a furious, fearsome earth.

It started out as a mild, concentrated groan and increased exponentially. In the next second, the circular drumming sound was throbbing right through the bed, and all over me. It was not scary. It was sinister. In a second, I was wide awake, and in the next I had jumped out of the bed. I don't know how I had realized that it was an earthquake, but so I had and had instantly started galloping out.

My aaji was more worried about putting off the fan switches and ordering Indi to switch off the gas before they both proceeded out. I was more interested in shoving aaji ahead of me and seeing that she got out. We have three small steps in between the dining hall and the sitting hall; it was a bit difficult to find a footing. But we were out in decent time, so were all the neighbours. Our ailing neighbourhood grandpa was bedridden and father presently came carrying him out as well.

Let me tell you, we were not scared at that moment. The tremors had stopped completely and our houses were intact. We were all laughing and sharing who was doing what when they realized that it was an earthquake. Indi was boiling milk and when the vessel began to shake, she just thought the milk had come to boil. Aaji was doing the pooja and when she noticed the washing machine was shaking a bit too hard, she just screamed at Indi for having done something wrong with it. Sis, where was she? She must have been around and she was definitely not asleep. Baba was reading the newspaper and it is he who shouted, “It’s an earthquake, get out!” I complain till this date that no one actually came to wake me up and that everyone was already running out when I joined them.

The telephone lines and electricity had conked off immediately and so we just spent more time in animated talks. We were saying that finally, now it's here. Bhavnagar, a city nearby, was in the news for a long time before this major earthquake for experiencing constant tremors of small magnitude on the Richter scale. There were already speculations going on, as to if and when will Ahmedabad experience a tremor, and how strong it would be. We used to joke and fantasize about it, the adventure of experiencing an earthquake and living later on to talk about it. And then it happened...

In about half an hour or even earlier, the electricity and the telephones were revived. News then started pouring in. Sanjana said the building which stood two minutes down the St. Xavier's lane had collapsed and people were stuck inside. Relatives called up with news of damage to different localities. Someone told Mansi Towers has collapsed. We realized something of a very serious and destructive nature had just happened in that mere minute. The string of doom was not to be stopped. It took some time for the worse news to start pouring in.

I decided to sleep with my shoes on after reading that after-shocks were possible and sis made fun of me, accompanied with giggles and pinches. But around four the next morning, there was indeed a sudden, solid jerk that pushed me to one side of the bed. Everyone was again out in an assembly of animated discussion and I chimed in to boast of my decision to wear shoes at night. Aunty organized a reading of Sunderkand in the family the next day.

I couldn't imagine, and still can't, how in those very seconds, less than a minute, lives had turned topsy turvy for so many people of the city and all over the state. Entire buildings had collapsed; people were dead or alive under heights of concrete and construction.

Bhachau was flat, Kutchch was miserable. Trucks of food and medicines were dispatched and people were urging for band aids and medicines and ration. In the neighbourhood, two families had arrived with their bags and baggage to take shelter and so, there was an addition of two young girls and two young boys to our highly talkative gang.

The girls stayed just beside Mansi towers that had collapsed. They had seen some gory sights they wished not to discuss and their flat, though still standing, had suffered considerable damage. In any case, flat dwellers were too scared to go back and live in flats. I and sis were to be found there for the better part of the day.

In fact, as I am writing this, I am surprised at how pleased I am looking back at those few hours that we children spent in the sunshine chatting away under the doom of something scary and sad, merely a few hours after the earthquake, not fully aware of how serious and how massive the destruction was. The elders sat inside, men talked over cups of tea, the women cried and cooked and consoled each other for a better part along with serving us something to bite on in between.

Was it February 28th? I am not sure, but I remember a day when the better part of Gujarat Samachar was full of paid obituaries. The broadsheet looked like a systematic collage of passport size photos that day. It was nerve-wracking to look at the photos with the constant fear that some acquaintance may just flash back at you from the newspaper.

I stared at the obituaries for a long time, gaping at the dead passport photos. Some were beautiful and young, some seemed familiar and endearing. Aaji and baba were looking if someone they knew was in it. I was also looking for the same reason. We told each other how familiar a face looked and then we all racked brains to remember where we could have met or talked with them. A few days later, I went to my cousin's house in the city. She took me out on a bike and in less than ten minutes, we had seen half a dozen flats fallen in different levels of destruction. One housed her favourite professor who had lost both his daughters and his wife. He was in the college for the flag salutation.

I went for my math tuitions two-three days after the quake. After the tuition, I inquired about my friend who was not present. Someone told me her parents had died. I was thankful that baba was around and he drove me home saying some beautiful things he always manages to say when the need arises. We reached home and I called Fr. the first thing and blurted out the news more looking for comfort than to let him know. I don't know why and how it occurred to me that I should talk to him, but there's a scheme for everything.

Then I called her. I don't remember now how I got the number of her relatives or how I got the address. I am blank. I just remember driving in Paldi from one small by lane to the other in search of her house. And there she was, sitting in the window waiting for me. She shouted, waved and beamed a smile. She put me at ease, the way she caught my attention.

I was ushered in her room and the first thing she did was to apologize for the mess her room was in. The room was spic and span, the bed sheets were freshly made and yet she was not satisfied. Said not much cleaning was possible for so many guests kept coming over and everyone was busy. I was amazed at how life never stopped its routine and how easily she had accepted the loss and was now playing that perfect host, that charming friend who paid attention to things as routine as a clean bed or a hot tea.

She was getting ready for the flag salutation in school and her father was pressing her uniform. Her brother had already left for school. When the quake happened, her father had stayed behind to lock up the house. She had reached out with her mother to safety, but when the building started collapsing, her father was just about coming out. Her mother rushed back in to bring him. And then the building collapsed taking both of them under it, perhaps before her eyes.

I have been lucky to have met immensely brave people from whom I take strength from time to time. She is one such person. Never once, have I seen her dull. Never once have I seen the reverence and enthusiasm for life diminish in her. She always looks forward to all occasions good, be it a movie, a function in a school, a friend falling in love, her wedding, or off late, some good news from the married friend. Never once have I seen her epitomize sorrow. She's this petite maiden who will surprise many a people with her sheer sense of life and living...

The earthquake, for me, begins with that chaotic humour in our house before we finally got out and ends with the news of the death of my friend's parents. The news, the statistics, the lengthy newspaper articles stopped making sense sometime later.

I have always believed, and still do, that death is a very personal thing. Till it doesn't affect your select group of people, you don't feel the pang in the emotional and physical sense of it. There's some invisible shell around each human body which attempts to save him from all that grief that may be counter productive to his future. And it’s precisely for this invisible shell that protects us from grief, that we get the strength to move on and take loss in our stride. Being strong doesn’t mean you are cold. It just means you want to concentrate on what is left and how you could make it better.

After the earthquake, followed endless examples of the strength of the human mind to move on. For me, it was my friend. For others, the inspiration would be someone else. I heard the sound of earth that day a good seven years ago and the smell of death soon followed. And yet life’s still as beautiful as it should be.

-Gauri Gharpure,

January 26, 2008