My city of ruins
Three days since a massive earthquake ravaged Nepal, an eerie geological calm pervades Kathmandu, the capital city. The hundreds of aftershocks that had continued regularly since the 7.9 magnitude quake struck central Nepal on Saturday seem to have subsided. Only a phantom pain now lingers, where the ground seems to rock every few minutes, prompting a fervent look around to see if anyone else has noticed. Just yesterday, pairs of eyes would meet your anxious gaze; today, they are averted and seemingly not quite as paranoid.
Above ground, activity is frantic. On Tuesday, survivors are still camped out in the open, mostly under makeshift tarpaulin tents. Rumours swill, warning of a bigger quake that will level the country. The masses are huddled, seeking warmth as a light rain falls from a sky that looks increasingly apocalyptic.
Rescue teams from the police, the army and an assortment of foreign governments and aid agencies continue to work around the clock, sometimes pulling out people who are alive and miraculously unhurt, like the woman who was rescued after 33 hours under a collapsed house in Basundhara to the north of Kathmandu. There are aid workers distributing relief materials and there is a slew of journalists who have parachuted in to cover the tragedy.
For some of us, life must limp back to normal. And so, I ride my motor scooter 45 minutes to the press office of The Kathmandu Post, where we have relocated since the earthquake caused irreparable damage to our primary office. Just as I have done every day since the quake. On the way, I survey the cityscape, which looks alien, like a still from a post-apocalyptic dystopia. To see this city, where I have spent 24 years of my life, in ruins is like a khukuri through the heart.
I ride to the Kathmandu Durbar Square, where so many centuries-old temples and monuments have been reduced to rubble, and I find that my legs are shaking. It is not another aftershock, but it is a sadness that pervades my being in much the same way as jolts from the quake. I do not mourn as much the collapse of the Dharahara, that phallic tower once jutting from the ground like a defiant middle finger to its surroundings; it was always ugly. But these Durbar Square monuments–so intricate, so integral, and so storied–are irreplaceable, much like the more than 4,000 lives that have been lost. I think back on the last time I was here, sitting atop a restaurant that looked over the square and marveling quietly at the tiered temples that towered like sentinels. Their absence is incomprehensible and I imagine it will be like this every time I am here.
In areas along the edge of town, excavations continue. There are people still trapped underneath, some of them alive and even able to send texts as the mobile networks get less congested and the power comes back up. Indian and Chinese teams work alongside fatigued Nepal Army teams and local volunteers. Clouds of dust rise as stubborn beams and slabs of concrete are lifted off and tunnels created to pull through the trapped. The dirt-streaked faces of rescuers break open into grudging smiles when a body emerges, alive.
At Pashupatinath, where the dead are brought to be cremated, there is more chaos as priests and mourners vie for space on already-narrow ghats. The air is thick with plumes of smoke from burning bodies. Surprisingly, when I am there, there is little wailing. The dead keep coming and there is no space to burn them, there is no wood to burn them on. So far, there are more than 5,000 dead across the country; 2,000 in Kathmandu alone.
The scene is similar in the major hospitals—the Teaching Hospital to the north and Bir Hospital in the central city. In the morgue, the bodies are piling up, with no one to claim them. Some in the government have warned of burning the bodies en masse if relatives don’t turn up. The dead do not care. The doctors and nurses there concentrate on the living. I watch as a man with a bandage wrapped roughly around the left side of his head is brought in on a van. He emerges dazed and is escorted away by a nurse. His companion explains that he is the sole survivor among all those who were buried in their small 15-house settlement of Goldhunga. Even the survivor had lost an eye.
After a strenuous day, I return in darkness to my neighbourhood where everyone is still under tents. As I wheel my scooter into my home, my neighbour warns that there is another quake coming at 9pm, reportedly upwards of 9 on the Richter scale. I caution him against rumours, but he is hesitant–he has two little daughters to think of.
I resist the urge to sleep outside under a tent that a wealthier neighbour has erected for the community on her manicured lawn. I want to reclaim my home. I want to feel comfortable again. But while in my room on the third floor, I feel a phantom jolt and I am afraid. I decide on a compromise. I abandon my bed and sleep in my living room, on the ground floor. It seems that it will be a long time before I feel comfortable again.