Meeting a quake

This earthquake gave us a strange awareness of being fellow travellers in that rather shaky boat called life.

Updated - February 01, 2016 12:56 pm IST

Published - October 26, 2015 10:28 pm IST

As I type this on my iPad, the water in the bottles on the table we are sitting at is quivering and trembling. It is the aftershock of the 7.1 earthquake that hit the Hindu Kush area minutes ago. We are all feeling a bit queasy still. Just minutes ago we had laughed when Suhasini insisted that the earth was shaking under us. None of us took her quite seriously and thought she was imagining it. We smiled indulgently and continued talking, when suddenly there it was. Now, it was unmistakable. The ground shook violently. We first stared, at each other, then at the ground under our feet, as if we would be able to see something tangible. Then, somebody, I can’t remember who now, suggested that we all get under cover. So we dived under the conference table. We were seven of us from The Hindu and were gathered that afternoon in a conference room at the Taj Mansingh in New Delhi. We had been discussing editorial strategy and policy. But now, under that table, the mood had swiftly changed. A sense of vulnerability enveloped us. And a strange awareness of being fellow travellers in that rather shaky boat called life.

As we crouched there in embryonic poses, there was a sense of disbelief and drama. The entire building was shaking from side to side powerfully. I could close my eyes and picture the tall hotel swaying. I felt nausea creeping up. It still wasn’t fear, but wonderment and bewilderment that I was witness to a brute strength that could physically move the ground beneath our feet with such force. I have been in earthquakes before but none that was this long or this strong.

Our editor, Dr Parthasarathy, was one of the last to believe that there was indeed a quake. ‘Are you sure, Suhasini?’ she kept asking, and then asked each of us in turn, ‘Do you feel anything?’ She was also the last to be persuaded to get under the table. But once there, she was most indignant that nobody had come in yet to rescue us. That set us all laughing. We assured her that we would be able to rescue ourselves quite well and that right now, our little refuge under the table was the safest place. It’s funny how at moments of great stress, we discover a sense of humour. Unbelievably, we were laughing and joking. Sriram, squatting next to me, said ‘Shall we start tweeting?’ Someone asked, ‘Will the candidate make it to the interview on time?’ Then, someone else, ‘If the roof falls down, will that tabletop hold up?’ Then Dr. Parthasarathy again, ‘Shall we continue the editorial meeting right here?’

About three to four minutes later, when a staffer from The Taj did indeed come in to ‘rescue’ us, he found a dizzily hilarious bunch of senior journalists, apparently unfazed by the quake.

But of course that was not true. It was just a reaction to stress, a fragile joviality that was hiding the frisson of fear that was passing like a swift current through that small room. We trooped after our rescuer down the stairs. The lobby was awash with guests, all driven there by the tremor. We decided to get right out into the street and the open. Once there, we bowed willingly to the grand obsession of our times — life is not lived unless it is shared. We opened iPads and iPhones and started to tweet. We already knew the epicentre and the Richter scale. We were already worrying about whether our Net edition had managed to get it out in time or if we were lagging.

And yet, the street still shook with slight tremors. And we were feeling the after-effects. That slight hollow feeling in the stomach, that tightening in the chest, that dryness of throat. The adrenaline rush, its aftermath, then the anticlimactic slowing down of pace… we had come full cycle in a matter of minutes, run the gamut of the classic ‘your life rushes by’ moments.

The one-liners continued. Srini declared that the Richter was passé; earthquakes could henceforth only be measured by the Suhasini Scale. Quite soon, another Taj staffer came by and said we could now go inside. It was unbelievable how calm, collected, and helpful the Taj staff was in those moments of crisis. They were everywhere, reassuring everybody, smiling, sweet, available.

Within minutes, we had trooped back in. The candidate had come in and the interview was on. Ten minutes ago, we had been in the middle of a massive earthquake. And now it was business as usual. But the experience had created a curious bond that none of us is likely to forget soon.

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