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



Thursday, January 29, 2015



I have attended many silver jubilee anniversaries, celebrated golden jubilee marriage anniversary of my parents, and of course participated in many first birthdays, and first anniversaries, but ruby anniversary? I had never attended or even heard of a ruby anniversary of anyone’s birthday or marriage being celebrated. And celebrating Ruby anniversary of a college batch? But that exactly was we bargained for, to celebrate Ruby anniversary of our MAMC batch 1970-74, when during our monthly kitty lunch in December 2013 at the Kwality restaurant, someone reminded that in 2014 we would complete 40 years of our batch. You have to attend one of these lunches to realize what this lunch stands for. For those 90-120 minutes once in a month, we forget who is respected GP in one’s locality, or an accomplished and much sought after consultant, or professor of a premier institution, or an office bearer of a state or national association, or a judge in the consumer redressal forum. We all are there naked (please, don’t take it literally), with no barriers or inhibitions of language or mannerism, and telling and retelling all kinds of jokes, throwing ridiculous ideas and suggestions up in the air, and shooting there only. It is as if for those many minutes we go back in time every month.

However, this time when someone threw up a suggestion of celebrating 40 years of our batch in 2014, people listened seriously. Silver jubilee celebrations had gone back into time, the memories of which were already getting blurred, and golden jubilee was still 10 years away. Who knows what tricks time would play over next 10 years with our health, memory, or even life? When an idea is within the hearing range of Upendra Gami, you better be serious about it, because he will not only make a blueprint for its execution, but would form a team, sell the idea to others, motivate them to join, and would get down to the drawing board for a perfect finale. That was what he did to this idea too. It is not that there were no misgivings; Seekar said in his characteristic style, “naa tel naa kadhai, banane chale mithai”; in fact, he wrote a cheque writing this phrase and sent it to Gami.
But the response, soon after the first email hit the sent button, was overwhelming, more so from our NRI batchmates. So many of them evinced interest, and finally made it too. If Upen et al were working here for the success of the reunion (it was christened Ruby Reunion), Ajit Nagra took the reins for its US operations.

What is to be appreciated, is the perseverance of the team against all odds: batchmates not responding to emails on time, not giving final commitment about attending, not being prompt in coughing up their share of contribution etc. But the team continued to update all those who had expressed interest about the selection of the resort, arrangements for commuting to the venue, detailed programme of activities planned during the stay there.
Chitra suggested the idea of having a dinner on the 18th December as a prelude to the Reunion. That would prepare the batchmates for the emotional reunion that was to unfold on 21-22 December. Batchmates responded in good numbers braving Delhi’s cold and traffic jams, setting the ball roll for the grand finale. As Upen later said, ‘well begun is half done’.

Descriptive epidemiology: finally, 113 people checked into the Best Western Country Club on the morning of 21st December 2014. 65 of these were batchmates from 1970-74 batch, 45 were the spouses of these batchmates, 3 were the daughters of this batch. 47 of these 113 came from overseas, 13 from UK, 2 from Switzerland, and the rest from US.

Meeting many of these batchmates after 40 long years were emotionally charged moments. The batchmates, who had never made any ETEC (eye to eye contact) during their stay at the college, or would not touch the other with a pole, were now greeting others with warm embraces and tight clasping of hands. Every moment was like a photo opportunity, and people obliged one another with photographs multiple times. Ajit Nagra smilingly and untiringly obliged everyone taking multiple shots till the right emotion was captured.
Chitra, Tripat, and Reenu (Mrs Ajit Nagra) had their own reunion; they are school batchmates from Presentation Convent, Delhi.

Poonam et al planned the cultural evenings quite imaginatively. There were some discoveries too. Vimal Sodhi could very well stand up as a historian and bring out old memories from the archive. Ashok Khurana would do very well as stage comedian. Rakesh Sood is not far behind as an improptu comedian, and has a great talent for photography. He would take pains while photographing even a small group, arranging people and the background, adjusting his own posture, and would explain later the composition and texture of the photograph. Ajit Nagra is already perhaps a professional photographer (his photographic gear suggests that); he not only talks about the shutter or aperture, but also of white balance and the compensation, while composing a photo. He takes great pains for a photo to come just right. I am thinking seriously of doing an internship with them (Ajit and Rakesh, please offer a scholarship and free board; your student won’t disappoint you).
We had very interesting meeting with Sudha Jain Khandelwal and her husband Amar Khandelwal. As you would probably know, Khandelwals are a small group of Vaish (baniya) community (unlike Agrawals, which is a very large group), and it is very unlikely to have two khandelwals who do not have some common relatives. And when we were chatting with them, very interesting facts emerged about some common relatives. To cut a long story short, Sudha Jain Khandelwal seemed to develop some identity crisis after some revelations. She cannot decide whether she is my batchmate, or Chitra’s aunt or grandaunt! I do not know how to help her; I usually handle adolescents or young adults if they are going through identity crisis, but have never handled a senior citizen with such a crisis. I am firm believer in this world being very small; in fact wrote a small piece ‘It is a small small small world’ some years ago, and meeting with Sudha and Amar bhai proved it once again.

My special tributes to the spouses of our batchmates for being so generous in taking out time for indulging their better halves. They participated in all activities (singing, dancing, mixing and frolicking with others) with no reservations, and were complimentary to their partners. Like one said, “Many years ago I made a very wise decision in my marriage; now I live off of my wife’s income”. 

Batchmates were overwhelmed by the warmth and bonhomie that came so spontaneously. They were effusive in complimenting the team for its organizing this event.
Titiksha summed it up so well, “Each detail looked into, every one made to feel special & precious, death dealt with delicacy & respect shows the compassionate loving hearts & selfless efforts of all the core group members of 74 batch who could make it possible because of the loving support of their spouses & family.  We feel very fortunate to be a part of this spirited, unique group”.

This reunion took place 15 years after the last, which was the silver jubilee reunion. Someone has already suggested that next one should be earlier this time, after 5 years. Let us hope, we meet up again after 5 years in greater numbers.
Till that time, enjoy fresh air, lot of laughters, plenty of exercises, and frequent social interactions. That will keep the batteries charged.


Sudhir Khandelwal


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