Creative Nonfiction

In the Wake of the Earthquake

2 March 2015

I am writing this in the wake of the earthquake in Nepal. It was deadly: 7.8 on the Richter scale, five countries shaken, death toll of almost ten thousand. But how does one put a number to human suffering, chart a terror still unfolding? It’s hard to find words – like digging for meaning beneath the debris, names of people and places now buried in the rubble.

I’d spent the summer in Kathmandu. I didn’t like how it looked through the lens, or printed in glossy guidebook spreads. A treasure trove of sights, smells and sounds! More like a grim jumble of touristy must-dos. I still took pictures: aim, focus, click. Pause to fiddle with the aperture. They turn out nice enough, but are flat, lacklustre.

Pixels didn’t do it justice – the city was alive. Mornings were hot, and the afternoons simmered. But dusk was a pleasant hour, as the screeching of traffic and the yelling of street-vendors ebbed in the lull of evening. I can see it now: families emerging from neat terrace rows. My host father, Nardev, sitting on the porch step, newspaper in hand. Shila, his wife, clattering about in the kitchen making dhal bhat for dinner – the same dish eaten three times a day. ‘Dhal bhat power, twenty-four hour!’ she says, a reference to the electricity cuts that often plunge the street into darkness.

Half an hour later we’re gathered in the tiny kitchen, ladling hot curry, lentils and rice. Nardev warbles along with the radio. The kids are bickering in local tongue. I smear some bread with olive oil and salt, a new favourite at the traditional table. Dinner is a simple, messy affair, and the best part of the day. It’s been maybe two weeks, but the city seems friendlier. The days acquire a rhythm of their own; a tempo I’m glad to follow. ‘Nepal time!’ locals would shrug, testament to their freedom from the corporate world, where the minutiae of daily life cluster around the opening and closing of shops, the ringing of a telephone, the steady, solid thud of the nine-to-five. Here, time is fluid, not pinned to grids on schedules.

But travel isn’t always hippie paradise. Several incidents in Nepal had me cursing my general lack of foresight. Momos (cheap dumplings) on the street? Delicious, but you’d better have the nearest public bathroom marked out. Mysterious road-closures aren’t uncommon. And bus tickets are better booked in advance, lest you end up stranded on a pleasant hill, a day’s drive away.

I found myself speeding through the streets on a friend’s motorbike. “The best way to get around the city,” Raj told me, “if you actually want to see it.” And see it I did. Not just heritage sites and temples, but glimmers of life within. The most luminous moments were the ones unsought. One day I follow the low, distant hum of prayer along the Pashupatinath river. Women in red, elderly and young, are gathered in prayer for the Saraswati festival honouring the goddess of wisdom. Bright orange petals from woven garlands dot the water; I smell fragrant incense and hear the sweet sashay of silk.

Another day I take a shortcut under a bridge and uncover a hidden slum, its pulse feeble under the sprawling metropolis. Two wrinkled women carry water to a makeshift hut, stray dogs nip at my ankles, and matted-haired children draw in the dirt with sticks. Men squat by the river, peering at their reflections as they exchange the day’s news. I wonder if their stories would ever be told.

I also saw the problems – the political tremors – that shook the city. Roads were often flooded with chanting crowds, blocking traffic within a five-block radius. National strikes emptied the streets. Several times, peaceful protests escalated into violence. And now? A different kind of chaos. Anxious families huddle in the cold, the once-regal Kathmandu Durbar crumbling into dust. Already, thousands have lost their homes. Watching shaky video clips panning the rubble, I wonder if earth-shattering is the right word. Is the quake the final blow, or can it spark positive change?

The Nepalese flag is uniquely non-symmetrical – indeed, it reflects social and historical imbalances that are yet to be rectified. In 1996, Maoist protests broke out into a decade-long civil war and, shortly after, the massacre of the royal family threw the country into political limbo. Since then, poor leadership has divided the people. Corruption remains rampant, and agreement over a new constitution seems unlikely (just months before, parliamentary disputes erupted into a brawl, sparking public outcry).

I’m no expert on the politics of Nepal. But I have walked her streets, spoken to her people, heard some of their hopes and fears. Despite its abundant resources, the country has been balancing on pillars cracked and straining with its history. These toppled, new ones can be built. With disaster comes devastation, but there is also the opportunity to start afresh.

Hopefully the quake will prove a unifying force, and not a divisive one. The government has to respond efficiently, of course – local elections would better ground it in popular support. An effective new constitution would also break the political deadlock. These steps can pave the way towards national stability, where Nepal’s people can stand in solidarity instead of sorrow. The path ahead may be fraught, but I hope that the country will be rebuilt on stronger foundations, and display its prowess in time to come.

Now, it’s been a week, and some semblance of normal life has returned. In the capital, people are packing up their tents, moving indoors and distributing fresh produce again. The worst might be over – but what do we really know of these terrible things? I fidget, open new tabs, check my email. After a delayed, one-sided correspondence, there it was – Raj, frank and familiar as ever. There is sad sort of humour in his words: ‘…I know it’ll be a goddamn two months before you reply so stay well and come back someday.’

Perhaps I will. After all, there are some things that stay the same: a glimpse of the valley at dawn, a cup of Shila’s home-brewed chiyya – with any luck, the sound of laughter at the Pandevs’ dinner table. How is it that the poorest countries have the happiest people? Though they know they don’t have much, they smile and laugh and never seem to notice. The people, the things around them – these are all that matters. I wonder how it is for them now that they have even less. They still say they’re the lucky ones.


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