Print Edition - 2015-06-20  |  On Saturday

Writing about the earthquake

  • I write because whatever tiny effort I made during the earthquake never felt enough. I write because just like the piles of rubble, these words scatter along
- Dipti Sherchan
Writing about the earthquake

Jun 19, 2015-

As I sit down to write this, my 90-something grandmother, who has come to Kathmandu, for her usual six- month break from the heat of Butwal asks me if the newspaper lying on the table is a Gorkhapatra. Every five minutes, she lives a new moment. She takes a few sips of water from the steel glass like it is her favourite local home-made raksi—there is a certain charm in this make-believe world she has woven around herself. Her rather bold pink t-shirt contrasts starkly with her old lungi. Her gold bangle has been replaced by a fake one ever since she lost the real one somewhere. No one has any idea what happened to it. A neon-green thread is loosely strung around her neck. I am not sure where she got it. It does not really matter.

After I fail to explain to her that the newspaper is not actually a Gorkhapatra, she decides to lie down and surrender to sleep. The faded-blue petticoat folds over her lungi—it gives me a strange sense of comfort to see her back again in my living room, as her usual amnesiac self.

I wonder to myself whether she remembers the recent earthquake. For someone whose memory is like an aankhijhyal—moments of solidity woven with moments of gaping holes—the recent earthquake perhaps never happened. That blissful state of oblivion. For the rest of us, the memory of the earthquake is etched in every rubble that lies around us, every abandoned photograph hanging from the fallen walls, and in our meeting every stranger who is now a survivor. The wooden supports leaning against the about-to-crumble walls of the city can hardly assuage our fears.

Waking from her light slumber, my grandmother decides to follow my aunt’s instruction to go downstairs to fall back into a deeper sleep. Again, she asks me whether the newspaper on the table is a Gorkhapatra.

After the earthquake, I could not write. I did not want to write. It is about to be almost two months since the Great Quake, which took so many lives and destroyed so many homes and heritage sites; and we now fear the possible landslides and other calamities that could make things worse for so many Nepalis. And as I keep hitting backspace because every word I write sounds pointless, in these past weeks, I have come to realise why I write.

I write because I cannot reach the remotest districts of Gorkha and Rasuwa, where people have probably stopped waiting for the government to come to their aid and have started to rebuild their villages themselves. I write because I could not go along with the relief teams to provide food and build temporary shelters for the quake-hit. I write because whatever tiny effort I made during the earthquake never felt enough. I write because just like the piles of rubble, these words scatter along—remnants of resilience and strength that only a hopefully heart can read into. I write because when asked, “Will things ever go back to being normal?” I can write back, “No.”

When stories of the earthquake’s devastation started to appear on the local, national and international media, I refused to read them because those words never felt like they were mine—or ours. Those words (and images) only reeked of voyeurism. I did not want my words to become so crude. I wanted my words to speak about the real experiences of the people—but I was unable to do so during the first few weeks.

The only way I could capture these real experiences was by talking to people. I began to meet friends and strangers who were a part of citizen-driven initiatives responding to pleas and demands in different affected areas; I started interviewing them and writing their stories. Their stories included stories of the locals. There were times when I felt like I was distracting them from the real work—rescue and relief work, providing psychological and emotional support, reconstruction, and rebuilding—but I knew why it was important to document these narratives. These narratives are not only testimonies of the resilience of people but about a nation left to its own devices to struggle through the disaster.  These narratives prove that humanity is not lost; rather, that when disaster strikes, people forget the worst in themselves, bury their prejudices and come together. But while disasters bring together a community, they also pull apart the veils that we have gotten so comfortable living with. Someone I met called this a social disaster and I am not sure to what extent I share his beliefs but I do agree that the disaster is not just a physical event but one with social, political, and historical importance.

That is probably one of the reasons that the earthquake of 1934 is brought up so often when people talk about the earthquake of 2015. There is a significant historical connection that drives this—the re-imagination involved in rebuilding our nation. We were able to rebuild our nation then and we will be able to rebuild it again, for the better.

And this is why I write, or struggle to do so at least. I write because if nobody had documented the earthquake of 1934, the past would have been like the memories harboured by my grandmother, who keeps forgetting her family members who have been a big part of her life. But an essential part of all this is a questing of how we go about documenting this catastrophe and our struggles? I am grateful to those who write with compassion, critical reflection and genuine hope because they are not just writing words but are writing history and rewriting the nature of rebuilding. Writing in times such as this is as important as reconstructing: each word counts as a brick used in rebuilding our narrative.

Published: 20-06-2015 08:17

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