Though lots of LED lamps hang from the bamboo pillars, this little dome that I am to call my home tonight is anything but bright. Full of scared faces and muted sobs, the air inside is in a dangerous state of quiet unrest, and the howling storm outside is not helping. The electricity has been out since the first shockwave hit, and now our cell phone batteries are dying. We listen to the radio, which, I can sense, will be our only link to the world outside Nepal in the days to come.
“The first tremor hit at 11:56 a.m., my dear listeners, and lasted fifty seconds. The seven-point-nine shock is believed to have claimed hundreds of lives across Nepal already, and the toll has been escalating rapidly. The real question ….”
Mamu suddenly lowers the volume, allowing only a fraction of the flamboyant voice of the announcer to reach my ears.
“Go to sleep, Babu,” she says. “We’ll need all the rest that we can get.”
I close my eyes, hoping in vain to catch some sleep, not yet aware that this painful gesture will only force me to relive this day’s nerve-wracking events all over again.
Suddenly, I am once again in my room, preparing for my oh-so-important exams next week. Never really aware of earthquakes, I must have ignored the first small tremors. However, buried in the realms of “Auxin Proportions in Tissue-Culture,” I came to understand the urgency of the situation after my bed started colliding with my feet. For a moment I thought my knees had gone weak, but when my heavy bookshelves started moving violently, I could no longer deny this appalling disaster that would, in just 50 seconds, change the face of my entire nation.
The next few moments I remember only in glimpses, though each is imprinted indelibly in my mind. The first is of the house swaying back and forth, challenging the rigidity of the concrete pillars that form its foundation. In the next, I see my books pouring from the shelf all over the carpet. Then the closet opens, releasing its contents all over the books, and its doors move with such terrifying violence that I wonder if I will live to see the end of this disaster.
The shaking stops for a fraction of a second, but before I can even take a step, the tremor returns with new strength, and I must grab onto the pillar to remain standing. The only thought in my mind is to run from the house as soon as the trembling stops. I realize I am uttering prayers.
After a petrifying eternity, the agitated earth finally calms. I rush down the stairs, run over the debris of the collapsed compound walls, and finally emerge in the open road, my heart almost popping out of my chest.
Relieved, I do not yet realize that the worst part of an earthquake is not the tremors, but the resulting terror of the survivors.
I open my eyes, now determined to accept sleeplessness. I look around this blessed bamboo structure, initially designed as a greenhouse for growing mushrooms. For the people of my neighborhood, it provides a perfect open-air emergency shelter. All of them, tonight, are sleepless. Some, although informed about the safety of our shelter, are resting with their shoes on in case a quick escape is called for. Fear still flows rapidly in their veins.
“We are living under a bomb,” I remember a geologist saying on a talk show once, “and it is only a matter of time before it explodes, destroying all that comes in its way, like it has done so many times in the past.” We had predicted it, we had pictured it a thousand times in our heads, and we all knew what to do, but yet, surprisingly, none of us were aware of the trauma an experience like this can cause.
“We have been informed, dear listeners, that the iconic tower of Dharahara in central Kathmandu has collapsed, and it is believed that at least a hundred and fifty people were inside the white landmark when the quake struck. The debris ….”
A chill runs down my body as I hear this. The tower has always been the identity of my city, and its loss feels like the death of someone close to my heart. Its fall has destroyed myriad memories made around its winding stairs, along with the lives of scores of my fellow Nepalese. These are losses too large to repair or heal. I feel like shedding tears in tribute, but I quickly compose myself, reserving these precious drops for the plight that I know the radio is about to reveal.
“Damage has been reported in various heritages across Kathmandu. None of the three palace squares stand, and hundreds of ancient temples and monuments have been converted to rubble. The loss – wait, was that a shock?”
Another big aftershock jolts the land beneath us, yet I am now indifferent to it. The let-it-do-what-it-can attitude has already seeped into my psyche. I focus on the radio announcer.
“Dasa-Avatar temple has fallen! The pagoda of Kasthamandap has been damaged. The state of the Manakamana temple, located close to the epicenter, is not known yet. And let’s see what we have here ….”
His voice seems to grow merrier as he speaks, almost as though he’s been waiting for a moment like this. The thought disgusts me, but I continue listening.
“Temple of Shiva-Parvati, fallen! Vatsala Durga Temple, fallen! The Taleju Temple is partially collapsed. Janaki Temple, partially collapsed. The Spring-city Palace will need repairs. Even the Stone Temple of Krishna, my listeners, is damaged.”
Gone. Kathmandu is gone. In 50 seconds, 500 years of glory have been reduced to dust and stone, and the identity of this city is gone – lost in nature’s vile, vile game.
“Ninety-five percent of villages in Sindhupalchowk District have been flattened, my listeners, and it is estimated that thousands more have died. Avalanches have been reported on several mountains, including Everest, and have blocked access to most villages ….”
As tough as I’ve tried to be, I do not think I can hold it in anymore. The quake has rattled my insides, and my faith in the goodness of the universe is crumbling from within. The chaos caused by the what is now replaced by a far more damaging question: Why? Nobody deserves a wound this big.
“Temples around Swayambhunath are also reported to have collapsed. But, my dearest listeners, the millennia-old Stupa at the center of the landmark, with golden eyes on its walls overlooking our city, has not sustained any damage at all. Yes, my listeners, the eyes of the Buddha stand!”
I breathe in, slowly, and open my eyes. The words of the great being who first graced this land with his footsteps now sound with resounding echoes in my mind. I realize that focusing on frustration only deteriorates my already burdened mind, and this knowledge blows away the debris of my anger to nothingness. Even destruction can be defied with an eye willing to see brightness.
I look around, and instead of seeing the fear on their faces, I now see the people nearby – who previously appeared indifferent to anything but themselves and their mundane lives – supporting, holding each other.
Sita Aunty and Mr. Thapa, who have not spoken since their lawsuit last year, huddle around the same fire. The new lady next door who everybody thought to be too serious is cracking jokes, inducing giggles from half-reluctant women. The crowd around the old man, who’s describing a magnitude 8.3 quake that struck Nepal in 1934, does not seem quite as depressed any more. Paths that would never have touched have now crossed, and people are planting flowers in the traffic rotaries.
“Our friend India, dear listeners, has rushed to help and is already assisting the Army in relief works. International aid is arriving from around the world, and the public themselves are expected to participate. The toll, experts say, is not going to be as large as initially predicted, if all goes right. We’re shaken, my dearest listeners, not stirred!”
“Hey, bhai!” Pratiksha didi, one of my “sisters” from the locality, waves at me, holding two pens and some paper she somehow managed to bring outside. “Wanna play tic-tac-toe?”
I breathe out.
“Yes, actually. Best of three?”
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.
This piece won the September 2015 Teen Ink Nonfiction Contest.