A grim young man sits facing a window of the departure lounge of Kolkata airport, gazing longingly at the Air India flight to Kathmandu that was scheduled to depart two hours earlier. Mashreeb Aiyal, who is 25 years old, tells me that his name is an innovative union of his parents’ names, Mahesh and Bandana, connected by a word for divinity, ‘Shri’. His parents are unaware of his arrival from Jharkhand since there has been no contact with them yet.
After circling in the sky for over six hours, Kathmandu welcomes us with a set of aftershocks. The clouds have cleared, and from above the city looks like a Gothic reflection of the starlit sky. The poorly manned Trubhuvan airport is packed with listless travellers, waiting for that one flight that will transport them back to the warm confines of their homes.
It’s almost impossible to find a taxi to anywhere and most hotels are full. In fact, they are mostly over-occupied, but the guests do not sleep in their rooms. The mere thought of perishing in a foreign land to an aftershock is enough to make them pay for a room and yet sleep elsewhere. Just like the scared locals who also sleep outdoors, on the lawns, by the pool or any other open space they find. Some have set up their own tents in parks and other green patches such as the local golf course.
At the crack of dawn, Pashupati ghat hosts its first of many cremations of the day, an old man who succumbed under the weight of the ceiling of his room, done in by a slab of concrete that he probably last saw at night before he fell asleep. A few minutes later, the deceptively calm city wakes up grudgingly, and I hitch a ride with a biker and make my way to Bhimsen Tower.
Unlike the earthquake in Bhuj, where the entire town was reduced to rubble, Kathmandu has been spared that fate. Most of its concrete structures are still erect and one often sees confused journalists wandering through its lanes, wondering what all the fuss is about—where is the rubble, the flattened city, the punishing stench of death, the starved survivors that they came looking for?
An architect friend, Sonny Singh, updates his Facebook status with an astute observation: ‘Quakes don’t kill people—badly built buildings do’. He’s probably right. The buildings that came crashing down and swallowed thousands in Nepal seem like the weaker ones of the lot. A conversation between the owner of Annapoorna Sweet House and a customer hints at the earthquake being nature’s filtration system. A government employee steps in and insists that it’s not a natural calamity but the after-effect of all the drilling and tunnelling by the Chinese beneath their ground.
At Bhimsen Tower, locals use their bare hands to clear debris. A human chain, which also includes women and children, passes bricks and tiny blocks of concrete to be dumped on the periphery of the structure. Some of the men have helmets to protect themselves in case the rest of the tower collapses too. They are all trying to get to the source of that peculiar stench of decaying human bodies. While they clear debris, others shamelessly take selfies, and some like Toran Bahadur Sanuwar even pick up bricks to take home as mementos. From a heritage structure to a new-age marvel of disaster tourism, the main landmark of this tragedy has been turned into a spectacle by Nepal’s own.
The weather, suddenly, has other plans. The sky packs in and it begins to rain, forcing the thousands of survivors camped on the ground at Tudekhil to look for shelter.
At Bhaktapur, the wind confuses the sniffer dogs employed by the Nepalese police. Damien Lisicki, technical rescuer of the USAR (the UN’s Urban Search and Rescue) from Poland, offers a quick way to fix it. He blows soap bubbles and determines the direction of the wind, which helps him guide the dogs every time they lose their way. A young, colour-coordinated couple walks hand in hand under a single umbrella, taking in the dilapidated homes while four young boys walk into the relief camp at the entrance of the square, armed with sacks of freshly baked bread.
The true impact and scale of the devastation can be witnessed and felt in Nepal’s villages. Like Chautara in Sindhupalchowk, 80 km away from the national capital. Our Indian Air Force rescue helicopter circles over the tiny hamlet twice before it finally lands. From the cloudy sky, one can see the injured laid out on stretchers close to the helipad, and minutes after we land, 27 of them, all critically injured, are on their way to Kathmandu. The total number of casualties reported in the district is 1,400 and is expected to rise as rescue teams are yet make their way into its inaccessible pockets.
A newly built hospital in Chautara has been destroyed too and the doctors have set up camp on the football ground, which is now home to more than 2,000 people. Sukhmaya Tamang of a nearby village called Baraua consoles her nine-month-old boy Ashram while they are seated inside a rainbow coloured medical tent. Her son, the only one injured in their home, has suffered severe injuries on his face and head while the rest of the family was outdoors working on their small field. Everyone in Chautara sings praises of the Nepalese Army, followed by a mellow, heartfelt word of thanks for Indian soldiers.
A commanding officer requests the soldier who is chaperoning us to let go of our pick-up truck for a few minutes—an old man, with grave fractures on his left leg and right shoulder, needs to be taken to the helipad rightaway so that he can be flown to a better hospital in Kathmandu. Inside the tent, the old man is lying on the floor, writhing in acute pain. Diagonally opposite him sits a young boy, getting his left eyelid stitched. Blood oozes out as a suture punctures the skin above his eye. No painkillers are around to curb his wincing. The scene is one of the few photographs I refuse to make.
On my way back to the helipad, a woman picks up handfuls of rice that spilled over onto the rain-soaked street when a packet she salvaged from her broken house tore open. On the third-floor wall of a three-storey house bearing cracks, photographs of a baby stare back at me while a pair of disoriented sparrows hover around its fallen roof. A TV reporter oohs and aahs at the scene and eggs his videographer colleague to leave what he’s doing and shoot this “pyaari tasveer” (lovely picture) instead.
Inside the IAF chopper, nine-year-old Suresh Tamang, clings to his father Mirghe. His left leg is twisted like a bow and his left eye is swollen. A technician in the helicopter asks if they have eaten anything. Too dazed to respond, the young man gives up and offers him a Dairy Milk bar. The boy from Singerchya wants a sip of water first and I offer him a bottle lying under the seat.
Back in Kathmandu, a long queue of buses is the cause of a mammoth pile up on the Airport Gaushala road. The Indian Government has sent over 100 buses to evacuate its own, but no one is able to control the number of people. There is no way to distinguish who is really affected by the quake from someone merely looking for a free ride home. Deepak Sethi of Hajipur is frustrated by the eight-hour long wait. Till a few days ago, he shared a room in Kathmandu with three other boys of his school and it gave way on 25 April, leaving him and his pet dog Moti homeless.
While we were circling in the sky on the evening of 27 April, Mashreeb, bored out of his wits, asked me about the book I was reading. I offered him the book, David Carr’s The Night of the Gun. He turned to the page I was on, quickly read the top paragraph and sighed before handing it back to me. Its last line was, ‘Hope is oxygen to someone suffocating on despair.’