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Musings: Year of loss

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Kathmandu, April 29, 2016

It was an overcast morning. The early summer wind was picking up near noon. A Saturday, most folks in Kathmandu were in their homes, lazing about the house after a heady Friday night, or cooking up plans for an outing with their family later in the day. Little did they know that their lives were about to be forever altered in next few moments. When the first big one hit at 11:56 am, there were very few people in Kathmandu, or anywhere else in the country, who were prepared.

And a monster it was. I was in the kitchen and had just sat down with my lunch when I felt a deep sense of unease, as if something was happening inside my head, something disturbing. And why was my chair now suddenly wobbly, the table uneven? For the first few seconds I was in a complete daze. Then, after a few moments, the realization hit: gosh, this is the long-feared temblor. Hot dal spilled all over my hands, I clutched the table, tight. Surely, the waves of terror would soon die down.

Wishful. The table and chair started shaking even more violently. The water filter in front crashed to the floor with a mighty clatter. I heard another almighty crash in the living room, quickly followed by a disquieting thud from my parents’ bedroom. For the next 10 to 15 seconds, I was literally frozen to that chair, waiting, praying, and fearing the worst. When the tremors finally stopped I raced down the stairs and out of the house. Thankfully, my family was safe.

But then I started hearing all these terrible news: the Dharahara had apparently toppled; four people had been crushed to death near my home in Gaushala; thousands of people, according to FM stations we quickly tuned into, could be dead. But there was no time to take stock of the loss for the ground beneath our feet just wouldn’t stop rumbling. It was as if nature itself was determined to teach us a harsh lesson in existentialism.

Incredible to think it’s already been a year, the same year Nepal got its long-awaited constitution, a year in which the country witnessed its third (and perhaps the most crippling) economy blockade; in fact a truly forgettable year characterized by death and destruction and scarcity and privation. The five-month-long blockade, which followed hot on the heels of the earthquakes, had galvanized the country (at least most of it) against the common foe: India. The pain of the earthquakes was soon replaced in people’s minds by sudden anger, at being so cruelly denied their means of livelihood.

But events after the earthquakes have not in any way blunted the edge of the sheer terror people felt on that April day last year. Whenever there is now even a hint of storm in Kathmandu, people get panicky, their minds taken back to that horrendous Saturday. There are still families who to this day stock their cars with all the important stuff—vital papers, medicines, clothes, some fuel, mattresses, even toothbrush and toothpaste—that they will need in the event of another big one.

Some of my friends are still receiving counselling for PTSD. If you cannot depend on the ground under your feet, what else can you rely on, one of them asked me recently? And how can they relax when all earthquake ‘experts’ keep warning them that the worst might not be over?

In my case, there has not been a single Saturday in the past one year when I have not thought about the earthquakes, not just the ones we have already had, but even the ones we are repeatedly told we will witness in the near future. I think of how we can make our house safer. I think of around 770,000 families who are still putting up in makeshift tents in the 11 worst-hit districts. I think of the Kathmandu Durbar Square and the Trailokya Mochan temple where I have spent countless hours reading, or just watching people go about their lives; now gone, all of it.

I then think of Dharahara and about my old wish to climb it one day. I never did. There is not a day I don’t rue the missed chance as I pass its ruins on my way to office. Then I wonder.

I start thinking of the truly momentous changes in the country over the past few decades, even without the earthquakes. The monarchy that created modern Nepal is now gone, so are most of the old symbols of nationhood. This is now a country whose citizens are increasingly starting to question what it means to be a Nepali.

It seems along with the earth, our core beliefs about who we are and where we stand in the world have been shaken this past year. The destroyed homes we might rebuild. But how do we go about repairing our badly damaged psyche?

By Biswas Baral