Dr. Mallika Shakya
Most anniversaries are benign rites of passage but few evoke intense grief and nostalgia. Commemorating last year’s tragedy on April 25, when a devastating earthquake killed over 8,000 people in Kathmandu and the surrounding hills of Nepal, is one such occasion. The mounds of rubble from the ancient Durbar Square of Kathmandu have now been hauled away, and the lengthy rows of tarpaulin shelters on the central parade ground have been pushed out of the city’s sight. The victims of the earthquake, either tucked away in the inner city or hidden in the remote mountains up north, spent their four seasons in makeshift camps futilely waiting for help to come by. The tragedy lays bare the Nepali state’s apathy towards its citizens: Sonish Awale, four months old, became the poster child of national hope as he was rescued unscathed from the dark rubble; a year on, his family has failed to receive any relief from the government for not having the papers to prove that they owned the land where Sonish was found.
A political aftershock
The government’s focus lay elsewhere. It decided, for example, that finalising the Constitution was a bigger priority than instituting a reconstruction agency that would cater to the victims of the earthquake. Politicians argued for the need to bring closure to nine years of bickering over Constitution-writing, especially as grief seemed to have united Nepalis, even if momentarily, thus renewing the sense of urgency. Within days of promulgation, however, the Constitution triggered a second rupture in the form of widespread public unrest in the southern belt. The indigenous Tharus of the Far West region were the first to protest. They were later joined by a bigger Madhesi alliance that had the blessings of India. The border blockade remains a sore issue in the Nepal-India relationship as families recount how their Dashain and Diwali went uncelebrated last year, as there was shortage of cooking gas, and schoolchildren count the classes they missed due to shortage of petrol.
Cloaked within the spectacles of border protests and diplomatic stand-offs was the silent crisis of reactionary gender politics. The new Constitution disenfranchised Nepali women by revoking the provision of single parent descent earlier written in the interim Constitution, thus more stringently mandating now that the father be Nepali for a child to acquire citizenship. What was doubly unfortunate was that the South Asian stalwarts of democracy who took a tough stance on Nepal’s federalism and border protests spoke softly, if at all, on its gender discrimination.
Caught in the double jeopardy of politics and nature, the earthquake diary shifted in mood, intensity and introspection in the months that followed. Nepalis contested the meaning of the crisis through Twitter hashtags, urging the Indian media to correct the tragedy’s coverage. Several intellectuals took issue against the Euro-American stereotyping of Nepalis as either Brahministically fatalistic or Bahadur resilient. The dialectic later gave rise to a more nuanced perspective: the ‘resilience’ noted immediately after both the earthquake and the blockade was a spontaneous response to a calamity, and should not be confused for a national disposition that self-defeatingly endures the systemic evils of neoliberalism, hyper-nationalism, bureaucratic defeatism, and so on.
The ground beneath our feet
Half a dozen countries have been hit by earthquakes since last April. Science considers this normal but the way these faraway disasters are being talked about on social media and in tea stalls signals that a certain post-quake consciousness is taking root among the Nepalis. Such a consciousness may echo Salman Rushdie’s reminiscing that it is stability that is rare, not rupture. Even so, mankind needs the “everyday” and so houses are built for defence against the big bad wolf of change that may be seasonal or civilisational. The irony of the earthquake is that this allegory of home hits a reverse logic as the ground beneath our feet crumbles.
“I looked at my house as a street dog would have looked at it,” wrote poet Abhi Subedi, evoking a gypsy spirit hovering over a concrete jungle that Kathmandu has become. The sentiment echoed in Lalnunsanga Ralte’s sigh from an after-shocked Shillong: “I no longer envy my neighbour’s mansion. He stands next to me panting, barefoot, in the dirt of the street, glancing nervously at the tall lamp post.” Ruptures turned homes into killing machines. Fiction became fact as newspapers reported that some Nepalis had jumped off the roofs and walls, thus risking lives during aftershocks that were relatively minor. The irony could not be starker when compared with the public reaction to the first jolt: so many children died because they ran home from outside to be safe. This had happened partly because they looked for their mothers to cling to and partly because that was what they had mistakenly learned during drills at their schools.
Nepal after the earthquake and its aftershocks is replete with stories of love, loss, betrayal and redemption as families come together to mourn their loved ones. Heroism and sacrifice sit uncomfortably with despair as people still struggle to come to terms with their loss: a ten-year-old saved two of her three younger siblings from their crumbling house in a village in the epicentre, Gorkha; a father blamed himself for the loss of his three children saying they all should have run just a little faster; a teenager struggled to accept that her educational options had narrowed down drastically after one of her legs had to be amputated to save her life.
A year since the earthquake, message from ground zero is as material as metaphorical. The rubble might have been tucked away but very little has been accomplished in building liveable homes to replace makeshift huts. The $4 billion pledged by the international community remains in their own coffers and Nepal’s reconstruction authority has done no groundwork to date. In the eerie hills and valleys still haunted by the killer tremors, people murmur as if time has stood still since last spring. Many are recounting how difficult it is to deal with the pain of losing touch with oneself. I am haunted by the memories of an old, wrinkly man who spoke to me without taking his eyes off a tree he had been staring at for more than a minute: “When the grounds are stable, we envy the wandering birds. When it tremors, we huddle and admire the deep-rooted trees.”
(Mallika Shakya is assistant professor, Department of Sociology, Faculty of Social Sciences, South Asian University, Delhi.)
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of the South Asian University.
This article originally appeared in The Hindu on its 25th April 2016 edition. The same can be accessed in the publication’s website by clicking HERE.