Sunday, June 28, 2015


Gorkha Earthquake : a personal narrative

“Please return to your seats and fasten your seat belts; we are shortly going to land in Kathmandu; the local time is 2.45 pm, and the temperature is 25 Celsius”. The shrill voice of the airhostess woke me up from my reverie. I was returning to Kathmandu after a year, and for the first time after the devastating earthquake of 25th April. Ever since I visited Kathmandu for the first time in 1995, I fell in love with Nepal and its people. And this love, having been cemented with my stay in Dharan, 1997-1999, has grown over the years. During my short journey from Delhi to Kathmandu, I could not help but thinking with trepidations that in what shape would I find Kathmandu and its people. Though I remained in regular touch with my acquaintances in Kathmandu and Dharan to know their welfare, I knew it would be a different ballgame to see things first hand.

From the window of the aircraft I was hoping to catch a glimpse of the mighty Himalayas, but was disappointed due to the cloud cover. During the check-in at the Delhi airport, I was surprised when the check-in agent asked me if I had any preference for the seat. That meant the flight was not full. Usually Delhi-Kathmandu flights are always full, so one cannot get a seat of choice if not already reserved on web check-in. I always prefer a window seat on the left side, since it allows one to have a peek at the Himalayas. Predictably, a number of seats were not occupied. Tourists are avoiding going there, and for trekkers it has been a big disappointment, since all the popular treks are closed down due to massive landslides that had claimed lives of so many Sherpas and the trekkers. From the aircraft, I could only see buildings after buildings. Each successive year, I find the green cover of the valley shrinking in geometric proportion. The baggage area of the Kathmandu airport had stacks of relief material all over.

After I checked in a hotel in the Thamel, I went for a walk in the area. Thamel is usually a lively area with mostly white tourists (for Indian tourists, the favorite spots remain Pashupatinath temple, casinos, and various malls and shopping areas). The shopping in Thamel is mostly of the trekking gear, and it is littered with restaurants serving cuisines of every part of the world. It also has some very good bakeries, and my love for apple pie began here only. In a decade or so, an additional ‘attraction’ that has been added here is of ‘dance bars’ and ‘massage parlours’. It was disappointing to see the area bereft of its usual crowd. There were virtually no tourists in any of the shops. The eateries wore a deserted look. ‘Hot Bread’, which usually would sell its unsold items of the day at 50% rates at 9.30 pm, was doing so at 8.30 pm.
Prof Saroj Ojha, head, Dept of Psychiatry at the Institute of Medicine, Kathmandu visited me at my hotel with his wife. And after preliminaries, the talk soon shifted to the ‘Gorkha earthquake’. Listen to Prof Ojha in his own words, “We were having lunch with my aged mother and two kids, it being the Saturday, and suddenly felt as if our chairs and the table were pushed by a train engine with a deafening roar. After a momentary hesitation, we realized it was an earthquake, and went underneath the dining table, hoping it would be over within seconds. But the seconds stretched to never ending time. I felt we were pushed and pulled simultaneously in opposite directions, with a force over which we had no control. I was stunned into total silence, remained huddled underneath the table, clutching my two children, while my wife and mother kept chanting prayers all the time. All I could think was death, death, and death; all other thoughts had deserted me; I could not even frame my parting words to my family. Once the violent jerks stopped, it took us a few minutes more to come from underneath the table, which seemed to be providing some security, and we immediately rushed outside into the open area, which seemed to be the safest place on entire Earth. The scene outside was chaotic; no building had fallen down, but the entire neighbourhood had come outside; people were crying, even when none seemed to have died there, shouting, screaming, whispering, some were in total shock; people rushed to me for advice as to what they should do now. What could I tell them; I was as confused as they were. I was totally paralysed, not knowing what to do, should we go back inside, or just run away somewhere. I wanted some divine intervention to suggest to me the safest place on the Earth, where I could head to with my family.” Prof Ojha decided to shift his family to his office in the Institute of Medicine, where he lived with his family for the next one month. It seemed to be the most convenient place; besides his own, IOM is working place for Mrs Ojha too, who is gynaecologist there. Food was available in many canteens within the hospital compound, or from many eateries in the vicinity. In case of any emergency, medical help was available 24 hours. For next few weeks, Prof Saroj Ojha remained in great demand with the TV channels and print media for his advice to people on what should they anticipate, and how they should look after their emotional health, but ‘I myself remained a bundle of nerves within myself; I did not know whom to turn to for advice’. 

Sudhir K Khandelwal
Despatch from Kathmandu

26 June 2015