The First Twin Temblors and After-5
Tuesday, May 12, 2015 (Baishakh 29, 2072 BS)
For many days after I rejoined Republica, the editorial hall was mostly half empty in attendance. Many had not returned from their emergency home visits to Tehrathum, Taplejung, Bahrabise, Gorkha and other far-flung places outside Kathmandu. Even within the Valley itself, those staffs from Kopan, Boudha, Thankot, Naikap and other places were still to report for work. The damages of the earthquakes were palpable on everyone in the JDA Office Complex. One of our security men lost his young niece, a student, on the first day of the tremor. Retrieving her body from the rubble in the hope of finding her alive had injured his legs and he was in slippers.
I usually started my work by 10:30 or 11 AM. The Tuesday of May 12 was routine for me. By one in the afternoon, I had copyedited all the pieces forwarded to my desktop folder. There were no more than ten of us in the area, including the receptionist and a security personnel.
Then it happened again: A major jolt matching the twin temblors of April 25. I could immediately feel the tenacity and forcefulness of this big one. The entire 10-story building went boom-bam-boom, boom-bam-boom in vibrations. Our floor heaved. The windowpanes rattled. The trees outside swayed to and fro in swirling sighs. Birds cooed, chattered and flapped away in confused directions.
(A man inspects an area that was severely affected in the May 12 earthquake stands tilted in Chautara, Nepal, Wednesday, May 13, 2015. AP)
I left my workplace and reached the reception area and walked to the entrance. My knee joints still hurt, so I could not run or even walk fast. Climbing up and down staircases was still painful, but walking on plain surface was manageable.
As soon as I faced the interior atrium of the cavernous complex, the second shocker that further panicked me were the female howls and screams arising from every workplace of the building. I had not realized that so many people worked inside the office floors of this behemoth (by Kathmandu standards). The female staffs were out on the balconies and passageways of every level and were helplessly shrieking for help, yelling for their mothers and gods. Most of them were frozenwhere they stood while the entire building vibrated. Their shrill shrieks and despaired screams reverberated up and down the hollow vortex of the atrium from the first level to the top skylights.
It was no longer any good. I would not suffer this foolishness. With the decision of the lonely and alone, I stepped towards the staircases and climbed down four floors on my aching knees. My progress was slowed and swerved by the vibrations of the earthquake. I reached the openmouthed foyer of the building and walked to the narrow public street. By now the tremors had stopped. The entire open space was twenty deep with the scared evacuees of the buildings in the neighborhood. Here and now I once again saw the high and mighty of the society as scared and afraid and as pale and shaking as the common folks herded in that claustrophobic corner there.
I walked through the teeming crowds on the way to the Chinatown Gate. It was cracked and looked shaky and vulnerable. This was the gate that led to my workplace. On its right was the newly commissioned CTC Mall. It was crisscrossed by cracks in the aftermaths of past quakes and tremors. Its facades were diagonally, vertically and laterally striated, all over, as if needing stitches. I warily walked by it, expecting it to splinter and cascade down on me. The traffic junction in front of the Kathmandu Metropolitan City headquarters and the five other main roads and lanes that join here were overcrowded with people and vehicles. I negotiated through the density and reached the other side, Tundikhel, by the entrance to the Officers’ Club of Nepal Army. Here the military police personnel were more organized and professional. ‘Sir, don’t stand by that wall. It’s liable to fall on you,’ said one to me. ‘Bahini, don’t stand below the tree. Go to open spaces,’ another one advised a young lady frantically busy with her cellphone. Incoming crowds were steered away from jumbles of telephone wires, electricity cables and other overhanging objects. Sweating and heavily breathing, people sat in the shade of some prefab structures. Most chose the open space that faced the Shahid Gate. In no time, drinking water bottles appeared and passed around, courtesy of who I did not know.
Phone connections were down, as expected, so I did not bother with my Samsung. Others tried, furtively, with theirs, and the result was the same. Surprisingly, ajanajati girl by my side was receiving her mother’s live call from London, and the voice from the other end was reciting the Richter’s Scale of the second monster of a temblor as well as the latest TV coverage. Well? It was quite marvelous to see our world wired, as it is. Not surprisingly, I saw a TV crew some yards away, filming and talking to people and broadcasting their own narrations.
Perhaps fifteen minutes had elapsed since I got myself out of and away from my workplace. I sat quietly, my mind vacant, looking at the crowds all around me, some settled and many milling around. I sat there for four hours. I saw people entering this southern end of the Tundikhel with quilts, pillows, blankets and other essentials. They had already foreseen that their houses would be unsafe for living for the second time since the days of April 25 and after. I got up and walked on the upper pathway leading to the Dashrath Rangshala. Its pavilion, jutting over a part of the road, looked ominous. I walked carefully in the middle of the road in Tripureshwor, avoiding the rows of houses on either side. As I neared the Tukucha Khola bridge, there was yet another jolt, sending pedestrians yelling and to safety. ‘Quite big, this one, too,’ said one, ‘but not as big as the previous one.’ Laughter, coughing, sighs and other noises rang out in the cluster of people.
I walked by the Tripura Sundari Temple, now a heap of debris, and guarded by a security detail from a prefab shed. No dance troupes for movie location shoots this time. I walked on the Japanese bridge to enter my area, Kupondole. There were a few crossers either way, with scant number of vehicles on this strange day. When full of slowly rolling vehicles on it, this bridge vibrates; not so today.
Reaching my neighborhood, I found camps already erected and de-housed people making arrangements for the night. The April 25 quakes and aftershocks had taught us how to improvise our lives right outside our own houses. Now we were merely reenacting our individual refugee status. This was the second round when we found our own homes so strange, unwelcome and unsafe. It would be weeks before the sense of ownership and belongingness would reenter people’s psyche in reliving among the interiors of their own abodes. My story after this day of May 12, however, would be different, most of it out of my control and not of my own making.
Exile for 111 Days
After a kind of mess-tin boot-camp dinner under the tent that night, I was summoned by the family to the kitchen. A single-floor structure with an opening in front, it was a safe haven on an unstable earth.
‘We’re sending you away,’ they said. ‘We’re arranging for you to leave Nepal.’
I protested. ‘No, I’m not going anywhere,’ I said. ‘As the ghar muli, I shall stay here and see through it,’ I added, for good measures.
‘You shall leave Nepal,’ they seemed to read their riot act to me. ‘You’ll be out of Nepal.’
‘No way whatsoever,’ I stood my ground. ‘Out of the question.’
The family explained further: ‘We don’t take you as our liability. You’re our main worry because you’re your own liability. You’ll go back again to the fourth floor of Republica to work. Thus, you’re endangering yourself in many ways – working, walking to and from work, and all that. So we’ve decided to pack your off.’
‘Forget about my leaving Nepal. I have much work to do. My books, for instance.’
‘You can write at a safer place. Kathmandu isn’t safe for you. So we’re asking you to leave.’
‘What about you all?’
In all this exchange, my age of seventy two years remained a moot point. But my age was the factor here. So it was obvious: Tremors-ridden Nepal was no more a habitable country for old men. I felt resigned when I understood their dilemmas on my behalf. It was sad, to say the least. I was mostly concerned about my grandson Prashanna (Papoose), but that sentiment was of no meaning now. I had to leave Nepal, and I agreed with a strong note of dissent.
‘Yes, yes, we understand your feelings. But that’s it,’ they made it final.
We chose the possible destinations for me: Delhi, where we have relatives and friends; Darjeeling, my old hometown but forgotten for almost fifty years; Bangkok, friends there would welcome me as their guest. But getting my visa to Thailand would be problematic at the Royal Thai Embassy because of the present uncertain situation in Kathmandu.
Finally, we all found it utmost wise to visit my son Ratna Deep ‘Ricky’ at Eagan in Minnesota.
‘Your granddaughter’s already three, and you’re the only one who hasn’t seen her. So go to America.’
With an old man like me gone, the family would have one major worry off their hands. I understood this reality. Meanwhile, the earthquakes in Nepal were showing no signs of letting off.
‘But once it becomes normal, you can return as and when you wish.’ That was their final say on my ouster and return.
The USA was the wisest choice. I had my American visa. There were some unused international air tickets. So I furtively reentered my room to fish out stuffs to pack in my suitcase and my hand-carry bag. I left the room in its old disarray, my humble possessions gathering dust.
Two mornings later, on May 14, the telephone started working. With my Samsung reactivated and reconnected, I phoned Republica’s editor, Mr. Subhash Ghimire, and explained my case. It took me seven calls to connect to him. Convinced, he approved of my indefinite leave. Some three hours later, the Internet and Wi-Fi also resumed. So I emailed my leave letter, with more details added to the phone talk I had had with him, to the editor, with confirmation copies to three colleagues at the newspaper.
At the airport, the international passengers had some shockers. For one, I had hoped the foreign exchange counter would be open for business at the only international airport of Nepal. Obtaining foreign currency at the major banks in Kathmandu was mostly futile for many reasons, so I had banked on the airport’s exchange facility. It was closed. So I left Nepal with just four hundred US Dollars, remained unused from my previous travels.
The second surprise at the airport was to find the Immigration Department with no travel forms to fill in for passengers’ embarkation and disembarkation. The officer in charge let us through by waving his hand at us.
Some twenty-six air hours later, I found myself at MSP (Minneapolis-St. Paul) Airport after breaking my journey in Bangkok, Incheon and Los Angeles and boarding three different jetliners. Travels can be great topics for writing, but that is not my point here. My immediate issue was to find refuge and be welcomed and accepted in my son’s house at 4130 Pennsylvania Avenue in the City of Eagan, State of Minnesota, USA, and how to cope with my life displaced four times in as many weeks. I had never had to seek shelter in my life, now I was an earthquake exile for no faults of mine – except for being there where and when the perils struck –and flung thousands of miles away from home. I may have been safely delivered but my family were left behind in Kathmandu where rainy months would begin very soon to add further insults to the mental and physical injuries caused by more than ten epicenters and five hundred aftershocks.
My jetlag was gone in less than two days, but the hangovers of the Kathmandu earthquakes were to cause my walk to falter and startle me at times for well over two months.
My displaced life in America was looked after well by my son, his wife Meera, and I had the company of my granddaughter Arianna. My mundane life also had one graceful diversion in the form of a working vacation. It was the Himal Books project that I had in my hands. So I paid my final attention to the twenty-five pieces which Mr. Basanta Thapa, CEO of Himal Books and Himal Association, had selected for inclusion in my book, ‘Nepali Music makers’. This task helped me spend forty-five days in pleasurable rewriting and copyediting environs.
I don’t deserve to go into the details of my exiled life in the US. So I press the fast-forward button on my story from here:
- As soon as I finished my pending works with Himal Books on my book, my cataract turned worse. In two mornings, I could see a rapid deterioration of my eyesight. I thought my vision was working at 40% capacity. Reading and writing became impossible, even using a magnifying glass was futile. I had to protect my eyes against the glare of the sun and wearing dark glasses further impaired my vision.
- The news from Kupondole was grim all along. Our house had received the Red sticker, signifying it as a most dangerous place to live in, with all the cracks on many walls. Finally, it was decreed that the house must to be demolished as its foundation had moved in the quakes.
I had missed the entire rainy season of Kathmandu this year. I like the rains, heat and humidity of Kathmandu in these months. Instead, this very period had brought many ills to further aggravate my life: I was unemployed; my poor eyesight was leading me to blindness; and I would soon be losing the home I had been living in since 1978.
These factors made me hasten back to home. I was returning to Nepal in direr straits. The only consolation, and a great one at that, was that I was able to visit my younger son and his family in a new house in an upper-echelon suburb. But I was an unfit candidate to enjoy the prosperity, stability and tranquility – achieved at great hectic pace, true – of the US. My lot would be in Kathmandu, racked and much of it ruined by the 1,000 temblors in the past six months.In the US, there were rumors that the Obama Administration would grant Nepali arrivals the status of TSP (Temporary Support Protection), an arrangement in place for disaster-driven people of the world in the US. This scheme would especially allow newly arrived Nepalis to seek employment, and their visa would officially be renewed for three terms, that is, eighteen months, during which they could legitimately seek employment to earn money to alleviate the economic strains back home. Many Nepalis, visiting their families in the US under various pretenses – new births, children’s graduation and so on – were allegedly waiting for the federal green light to profitably prolong their visits under the canopy of TSP. With my personal and family shortcomings, however, I had to leave the US, and so I did.
Back to Mangalman
Back home at Kupondole on September 2, I began picking up my pieces. With Ranjana’s indispensable help, my cataract treatment began at the Til Ganga Institute of Ophthalmology under the celebrated Dr. Sanduk Ruit as ophthalmologist. It took five months to regain my natural eyesight. This in itself is a separate katha.
To claim and collect the indemnity amount on our insured house from the insurance company, poor Ranjana, again, had to run around to obtain documents from the Wada Office of Kupondole, Latitpur Sub Metropolitan City office, recommendations and certificates from various government agencies. It took as many months as my eye treatment, and finally, like my successful treatment, the insurance company’s first cheque was handed over to Ranjana. Now the demolition of the house would be possible with official recognition. This part also is a separate story in itself.
After my left eye received its laser treatment, I could finally read and write in nearly four months. I finished finalizing the outstanding pieces for my Himal Books book. As I write this on the first anniversary of the 2015 earthquakes, Himal Books is well on the way to have my work published.
Quite another good fortune arrived in the persons of Viplov Pratik and Bhupendra Khadga, the latter a new acquaintance. Mr. Khadga and his BookHill Publications will publish my new novel in English. With my regenerated left eye, I was able to give my manuscript the final check before sending it to BookHill.
As I finish this personal story on Sunday, April 25, 2016 – one year after the beginning of the Great Earthquakes of 2015 – I am preparing to move to Shanti Nagar where a relative has given me a room to live in. The rest of the family will live in Kupondole in a prefab shelter and the large kitchen that we already have.
This is because the demolition of our house will take place as soon as possible. Then a new foundation of our new house must be dug and laid, labor and artisans must be found (at exorbitant wage rates) and building materials must be obtained (at inflated costs).
It will be a long time before I hope to move back to Kupondole. Perhaps another katha will ensue then, too!
(This is the last article in the series of five.)
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