The First Twin Temblors and After-1

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Nepal Rock ‘n’ Roll 2015

PART ONE

Saturday, April 25, 2015 (Baishakh 12, 2072 BS)

It was a sunny but not a pristine day. The morning suggested neither a hot day for cold shower nor a balmy one to make my spirit soar. It was a typical April day of cloudless skies, yet it could give me a muggy feeling. The Kathmandu horizon was one of dusty and hazy mirage in a dry season’s warm afternoon. It would be such an unremarkable day.

I live in Kupondole of Lalitpur (Patan) District, Kathmandu Valley, Nepal. I would divide this area in two: the lower part is the Hanuman Thhan, at the head-end of the Patan Bridge on the Bagmati River connecting Kupondole on this side and the Tripureshwor-Thapathali junction of Kathmandu City on the other. The upper area is located at and around the Kan Devta (‘Telephone’ God) Thhan. I live behind this area, and my house abuts the foothills of Pulchowk in the southeast, with Bakhundole to the southwest.

This being Saturday and a weekday in Nepal, and also an off-day at Republica, the newspaper I worked at, I spent the morning casually – listening to the news from Radio Sagarmatha FM, drinking my morning tea, scanning the morning papers, doing my light stretching exercises, and the like.

I had planned to visit a roadside tailor at Hanuman Thhan, near the Friends Club. This I did and came home at 12:30. ‘Lunch at One!’ announced Ranjana, my wife. This lunch would be a weekly meal shared together by everybody present in the family.

‘Okay,’ I said and entered my study room and changed into a short. Since there was no outage at the moment, I watched a C-grade Hollywood movie which showed a group of people marooned on the thirtieth floor of a Las Vegas hotel that had a fire erupting from below. After lunch, I would do my weekly laundry and ironing in the late afternoon. This was how I spent my Saturday, doing my essential weekend chores before indulging in extracurricular activities.

There was some commotion in front of the doorway. Some family members had arrived from their morning visits elsewhere. Lunch would be served very soon then!

But then the TV went off. Well, that was Kathmandu power supply. In milliseconds, however, my room heaved and shook all over. Instinctively – for we’re accustomed to tremors every once in a while in Kathmandu – I stood up and darted through the door to the living room. The furniture started heaving, the wall hangings swayed and the windows rattled. This was a major shakeup I had ever experienced in my life. Rapid-response instinct told me it was a massive earthquake and not an ordinary one. This one was an unprecedented shocker because my dash-off wasn’t working, I was moving against my will. I aimed for the doorway, but I was lurking to the left and the right and then the left. My forward run was being pushed back, I was forced to tilt back and forth. Then a flying chair hit both of my kneecaps, and I managed to push through and door and out onto the opening and free space by the side of the kitchen cottage. Panic had taken over by then.

Some seven of us stood at the end of our spacious and open kitchen area outside the main house, shaking and swaying against our will. The entire community was out of their homes, some muttering ‘Hey Ram!’ and ‘Hari Hari!’ and ‘Hey Bhagawan! Ke bho yasto!!’

It turned out that I was the only one inside the house. My ‘office’ room was at the farthest northeast end of the floor. I heard my wife calling out for me. Perhaps I managed to run out of the house in five seconds, with no foreshock warning to prepare me in advance. The earth was so suddenly gripped by an abrupt seizure: that was the sensation! What I then saw was the neighborhood filmed in rising dust and pale powder falling down from trees from where birds were cawing and chirping off and flying away aimlessly. Perhaps these were nesting birds! Dogs were barking all around in the milieu of people milling around and calling out to one another. A sandy pall had settled on our area while the earth was still shaking. It was unreal to see trees swaying, the boundary wall in front of me ribboning along like a slithering snake, the whole house bouncing up and down and swaying at the same time. The loosely built sheds and water tanks on top of the houses danced and made a noisy racket.

Roughly ten seconds had elapsed, and the tremors were still rocking the landscape. And, while the major heaves were petering out and the surface steadying, there was another immediate jolt that was as forceful as the previous one. In fifteen or so seconds, the second visitation wrought the same confusion again – more dog barks, people panicking again, and more dust and haze powdering our habitat.

The twin temblors of equal matching pack lasted half a minute between them, each one of fifteen or so seconds. Their magnitude on the Richter’s Scale remained unknown. Cellphones collapsed, electricity was off, TV was out of the question, and our lunch remained uneaten. The land slowly settled, the walls stopped zigzagging, and houses stood still. More people emerged from their houses, and we gathered on the vacant lot next to my house. I found myself barefoot, my slippers having been left in my study in my hasty evacuation. Everything – my wallet, my cell phone – remained in the room which I would seldom reenter for many days, except to grab something in great haste.

By the time the second rock ‘n’ roll shudders shook people in the midst of the first hitter’s thaws, there was already a sense of utter resignation, a hopeless sense of helplessness, a fatal sigh of resignation. An unknown something was in our midst, a sense of fatal finale had arrived when nothing had meaning and substance anymore, an awareness of a certain nothingness which must have been felt by a condemned one whose neck was placed on the block below the guillotine’s blade. The noose must feel like this, too, not quite different from a firing squad. All these were what I saw all around me – fatal fear, angry sadness, rueful regrets, perhaps mean remorse, too – with tonics of wise counsels, foolish and nonsensical advice and soothing encouragement to behave and cease and desist from doing and saying foolhardy unbelievable and unacceptable and unconvincing sweet nothings, all at the last moment before such an unwelcome end. Were these catastrophes, come for no faults of mine, writ on my face and person, too? Well, I held no mirror to myself and nobody told me. The twin temblors made me tremble but I shook not a millimeter on my own. Reckoning of what was happening made me stand still, non-committing and neutral.

Mere seconds before, everything was tranquil and normal: I had anticipated a leisurely lunch, and then expected doing my laundry and other weekend routines. The guillotine wasn’t expected, nor the noose imagined, and the firing squad not at all thought of.

But the flash didn’t precede the lightning and thunder in the two cases of these twin temblors. Each earthquake gripped, grabbed and groped the earth the very first millisecond and did not seem to let go. There was not a single foreshock warning of gentle vibration before the mighty punch struck in rapid succession.

Crowded confusion, in such cases, must be the last experience on this earth before the final end comes. The mental disarray can be so crowded that it becomes a numbing blank, an emptiness of sound and fury. There were no foreshocks of foreknowledge. Instead, in late retrospection, there would be an unlimited number of aftershocks we were shuddered by in the earthquakes of April and May 2015, with more new epicenters later to wreak havoc in many districts, mostly hilly, of Nepal.

The latter rattling, however, are not the subject of my story here. My story takes only on the unprecedented torpors created by the twin terrors of Saturday, April 25 (Baishakh 12) and the massive mover and shaker of Tuesday, May 12, 2015 (Baishakh 29, 2072 BS).

***

I bade my family of six (the house girl included, while our two dogs would be able to take care of themselves) to leave our high perch and join the fifteen neighbors on the flat of the vacant lot, purchased many decades ago but still unoccupied and not yet developed by the owners. We soon unanimously agreed that our homes had turned into the most dangerous places, and it would be wise to spend the coming nights and days in the open, away from the shades and thresholds of our homes. The people had decided to abandon their homes.

While we ran into our respective rooms – mine was in a shambles, books and magazines thrown all over the floor, the bookcases, closets and settees turned in funny angles from their original settings, broken glass, pens and pencils strewn on the carpet, a couple of hung frames flat down on the floor – to gather our essential articles and evacuate, our son Jimmy prepared the groundwork on the vacant lot. His five travel-tour business vehicles, including one roomy Nissan Patrol, as well as my wife’s Hyundai Santro, would be so useful for the next seven nights and days for the refugees. I had my battery and solar radio sets, and via the FM stations we knew the Richter-Scale magnitudes of the twin tremors, the first such historic earthquakes since 1934 AD (1990 BS). Reportedly, the first hit’s epicenter was Barpak in Gorkha, mid-west from Kathmandu, and its immediate twin had surged from Kavre Palanchok, in the east. The west-east double push had squeezed the Kathmandu Valley in the middle.

While we men set up the neighborhood camp with tents for shade and shelter, carpets on the ground, and bedspreads on the converted flatbeds inside the vehicles – these six vehicles would house some twenty sleepers at night for an entire week – the ladies prepared food and drinks for all displaced persons. One couple entered their kitchen to prepare some hasty noodles for an early dinner. It was then the third quake shook us all over again. Needless to say, the previous upheavals were sending their strong seismic aftershocks every twenty minutes on the average. The third seism reportedly had its epicenter somewhere in Sindhupalchok, further east from Kathmandu. As the evening darkened, there were two additional hits from new epicenters, these ones from Nuwakot and Rasuwa in the north of the Valley. After those subterranean upheavals, we found it convenient to stop counting.

***

As a layman, I calculated that the aftershocks of a single earthquake would allegedly continue for seventy-two hours, each return’s frequency being hourly, and its reverberations decreasing steadily over the ensuing hours. The twin strikes would have its double aftershocks every thirty minutes for the next three days, as we were already experiencing them within the first one and a half hours. By early evening, there were five major attacks in as many hours, from the west (one), then east (two) and then north (two). Their successive aftershocks would unnerve and upset the residents of the Kathmandu Valley every fifteen minutes on the average. And this pattern was the case throughout the evening and night till the next dawn. ‘Ayo!’, ‘Feri ayo!’, ‘Hallayo!’ ‘Feri hallayo!’ were recurrent shrieks and screams in the evening and at night when we were doing our level best to be comfortable at the common camp and inside the vehicles for our sleep.

We could hear similar high howls from the nearby neighborhoods of Bakhundole, Kan Devta and other places when each shakeup occurred. The Kathmandu City skyline was bright but this side was in darkness. Light beams of vehicles crisscrossed the skies overhead like searchlights in war. Campers were making and receiving calls whenever their cellphones operated. Our family received worried calls from overseas. They were watching on TV the disasters that had occurred in Nepal, citing BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera, and their national channels; at Kupondole, we were in the dark, for the fear of entering the houses to watch TV. In many places of Kathmandu, there was the customary outage, at other places the power grids were damaged, tele-towers were also destroyed by the quakes, and thus operating one’s cellphone was a matter of luck. As a result, creative rumors flew all around and imaginative speculations circulated.

Not a single tremor was registered from the south of Kathmandu yet, but that was at best small consolation.

(This is the first article in the series of five. The second in the series will be published on July 8, 2016)

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