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February1, 2001


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The Rediff Special/ Sheela Bhatt

'Where is our future?'

Kon kone de kandh?
Kon kone kane jai?

These lines were penned by the famed Saurashtra poet, Dula Kag, when Anjaar was devastated in the 1956 earthquake. A rough translation into English would read: Who will lend a shoulder (to the dead)? Who will mourn for whom?

The devastation caused by the January 26 earthquake is so absolute in Kutch that there is no longer any dignity in death. What looms, instead, is the fear of an epidemic as bodies continue to rot under mounds of debris. More than anything else, it is the lack of knowledge that eats into the hearts of the mothers and wives of Kutch.

It is not knowing how to give up the flickering hope that their missing family members may, somehow, be alive. It is not knowing whether the series of tremors they are feeling is finally over. It is not knowing whether the precariously balanced building will come crashing down in an aftershock. It is not knowing whether those who have survived will get the medical attention they need in order to survive. It is not knowing if they will ever be able to rebuild their lives. Whether their children even have a future.

It is also more seemingly mundane things like: Where is the next meal going to come from? Will they get water to drink? When will they be able to have a bath? When can they wear a fresh pair of clothes? Will they be able to sleep that night? Where will they sleep? Will they be able to get a quilt to protect themselves against the freezing night air?

Mukta Khatri, a housewife, begs, "Please tell me how to forget this moment!! Why don't you sit with us a little longer? Why do you have to go away right now? Do you know Mangalam apartment is just an empty box? That Indirabai School is gone? Where will its 2,500 students study? Both Lalan College and Matrichaya Hostel have disappeared. Tell me, where our children will go? What can we offer them now? Where is our future?"

The women of Kutch are unable to cope with the monstrous tragedy that has ripped apart their lives. They constantly wonder why this tragedy had to befall their families. As these thoughts chase each other in their minds, they are unable to stop their tears. Take the incident that Bharti Pandhi recounts, "Do you know what happened? On January 28, a gentleman who had arrived from Jaipur asked me where Balaji Apartments was. Tell me, how could I stop my tears? Whatever was left of the building was right here, just behind my cottage. And the man he was looking for, J K Jain, was buried under the debris."

Somewhere else, Bhanu Khatri was asking her husband, Kirti, "Is Vanu Pandhi alive?" A doctor's wife wondered if her husband's colleague, Dr Kashyap, had survived. When Dr Kashyap eventually got in touch with his friends, their sense of relief was palpable.

Harshidaben now lives in an open area of Sanskar Nagar. "I will not be able to enter my house," she shudders. "Whenever I close my eyes, the memories of that moment, those tremors and jolts and sounds come back. Have panchun thashe to (What if it happens again?) We have lost our house, our assets, everything. I have not taken a bath since then; I don't know when I will have the courage to do so. What if the ceiling falls on my head when I am bathing? After this happened, I have entered my house only once -- that too to pick up the cooker. My relatives came with me, still I came running out of the house within two minutes."

Harshidaben cannot stifle her fear. "You know that thing in my body, the feeling of the earthquake's movements, its vibrations simply don't go away. Shun kariya kai khabar pade che (Do you have any idea how I can stop this)?" This is the only thing she says, over and over again.

Most of the women I spoke to still do not feel the ground is firm beneath their feet. Harshidaben's neighbour, Mukta, wanted to know, "Is this a horrible nightmare or has it really happened?"

Geeta Thakker, though, looks at the positive side, "In all this grief, at least all our neighbours, friends and relatives are together."

Smita Keswani, a builder's wife, says, "When the earthquake started, I was preparing tea. I'll never be able to make tea now." She started crying and, as I try to pacify her, she says, "The fear will remain forever."

Her neighbour tells me, "Early in the morning on January 26, I saw the cow was restless; she was behaving as if she had gone mad and was running recklessly. Then, when the earthquake started, I thought my daughter was up to something and shouted at her, 'What are you doing with the washing machine?' That was when we realised something was seriously wrong and hugged each other tightly, without moving."

Muktaben adds, "It's so strange. This is our home, but we do not feel like entering it." She too is grateful that they at least have the basic necessities of life. "We need food and sleep. If we can manage that, life is okay. Food is available thanks to the helpful NGOs; all we need now are quilts so that we can sleep. But images of this tragedy raises itself before us again and again because our children ask us so many questions. How can we answer them?"

Fiftyfive-year old Nanalal Jogi is devastated. "Sister, in India today, middle class people my age will have a home, a television and a refrigerator. I had all this -- it came out of my life's savings. Now, it is all gone."

Chandrika Maheshwari says, "In the garden at Kailash Nagar, over 700 people -- millionaires and sweepers alike -- sleep next to each other under the open sky. And the remote control is in God's hands. At night, everyone sees the same scenes -- we see the earthquake. Again and again and again."

Kastur Goswami was doing her morning puja when the earthquake struck. "Now, I am afraid of the Devi's eyes. So, instead of going in for her darshan, I light the diya from outside itself."

Jayaben, a teacher at the local school, recalls a conversation she overheard, "Last night, I heard an unknown couple talking. They were sleeping near me in the garden. The wife was pleading with her husband, 'Please try and enter our ruined home and get me the stove. I don't need clothes or anything; but I must be able to cook. Our children do not like the food that is being given by the temple.' Her husband consoled her, 'Je badhanu thashe te aapnu thashe (Our fate is the same as that of everyone else here).' "

Mrudula Pande, president of the Anjaar Nagar Palika, seems to be the worst hit. "I am the unluckiest woman in this catastrophe; I started off the children's Republic Day rally. Standing outside the Swaminarayan temple, I waved the flag and 450 children began their procession, to slogans of 'Vande Mataram' and 'Jai Hind.' Then, I raced to the ground where the procession was supposed to end. To do so, I had to proceed though the bazaar which was shaped like the letter L. That's when the earthquake struck. Don't ask me anything more. All the mothers have lost their children. And it is God who is guilty."

Design: Dominic Xavier

The Complete Coverage | List of earthquake sites

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