‘As the earth shook beneath our feet, we ran for our lives’

An aerial view of the tents set up by residents in Kathmandu, Nepal, onMonday.  

I have covered every major event in Nepal: the palace massacre in June 2001, the Maoist conflict since November 2001, including the height of violence between 2002 and 2005, and the People’s Movement of 2006 which ushered in the republican era.

But the earthquake that hit Kathmandu and other parts of Nepal on April 25 was different, because this story, quite literally, came home to me. When the quake struck at 11.56 a.m. on Saturday, we didn’t realise how bad it was going to be. A few seconds later, the shocks came back, our homes developed big cracks and we had to run out, stumbling as we fled for our lives.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the quake registered 7.9 on the Richter scale with the epicentre being the Lamjung district in western Nepal. But it felt as if the epicentre was closer to Kathmandu.

Was this the massive earthquake that >experts had been predicting for Nepal for some years now? I had read stories about the doomsday scenario: that the only international airport in the capital would be damaged, main hospitals reduced to ruins and thousands killed. The verdict is still out on how close this comes, but with the death toll almost 4,000 and counting, this looks like it.

I was so numb with shock that I forgot to send a breaking news alert to my newspaper, The Hindu, or tweet, something I do several times a day when any news breaks. Even as we tried to make sense of what happened, the wall of an old house adjoining our gated community collapsed. Fortunately, no one was injured, and I began to collect my wits.

When news broke out that the famous Krishna Mandir in Patan and the Dharahara Tower in central Kathmandu were in ruins, I called the police spokesperson. The iconic tower built in 1832 was indeed razed to the ground, with many people feared trapped inside. The Krishna temple was intact though a few other structures in the Patan Durbar complex collapsed.

We sat in the open field. A series of aftershocks could be felt, some lasting more than 20 seconds, with the ground beneath us pounding like a sea wave. The experience was scary. The phone beeped. As I had posted tweets and pictures, made phone calls, and used email and Facebook messenger to tell friends and family outside that we were safe, the phone was running out of battery. The laptop battery was already low. There was no way to recharge the battery since there was no power. Even on a normal day, Nepal reels under prolonged power cuts.

Worse, the tremors just wouldn’t stop. Messages from friends and students in India (I taught in a school in Howrah, West Bengal, before moving to Kathmandu in 1999), the United States and elsewhere started flooding my inbox in Gmail, Twitter and Facebook. All I could say was: “We are safe. Thanks.”

I wanted to go to the city but no taxis were to be seen. In the afternoon, my former colleague gave me a ride around the city. We left around 5.45 p.m. We saw cracks on high-rises and collapsed walls of houses. Back in the colony, it was time to see where we could sleep. There was no way we could sleep in the house, despite the pouring rain. Many makeshift tents had sprung up. Until 3 a.m. on Sunday, I was on a chair, occasionally tweeting, mindful that the phone battery was my lifeline.

On Sunday, there was a massive jolt at 12.54 p.m. It was like a full-fledged quake, of 6.7 magnitude, that lasted about 45 seconds. How long will this last, I thought. But the consolation was that electricity had been restored in my area. The night brought more rain. At 10 a.m. on Monday, I went to the city, only to see some more ruins.

The day remained calm, jolt-wise. But one wonders: is it finally over?

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Printable version | Jan 20, 2021 10:00:08 PM |

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