Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Quake in Setopati

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A rain of bricks.
I thought somebody was hitting me from behind with bricks.
Surprise, anger. What the…! 
My instinct was to turn behind, to look, to react. But the earthquake gave me no time. Everything happened in the fraction of a second. The next thing I can remember, I had slid down the stairs midway to Mangal Hiti, and was lying pinned on the ground. A latticework of heavy pillars of wood and bricks, the debris of a temple that had collapsed behind me, pinned me down. It took me a while to register this thought: “This is real. This just happened.” This wasn’t fiction. This was the real deal, the apocalyptic accident of unimaginable horror that we think will lie safely within the pages of books and on the screens of the cinema, but never experience in real life. The incident I’d imagined would never happen to me—until it did.
I could raise my head a bit, and I could see the light through the small chinks and openings. I had just eaten my samosa and in my left hand I held a jelabi wrapped in paper wrapping—one of those absurdist details that bring home the irrelevance of human concerns when one is face-to-face with death. My left hand opened and I let go of the sweet—I knew I wouldn’t be eating it that day.
I put my head down again, and noticed the drip-drip-drip of blood from my mouth. The blood was dark red. I put my tongue against my tooth, and felt it shake. I had no idea, in that moment, what had hit me, and what had hit my country. As the cries of the people rose around me in eerie terror, it felt like an attack of some sort—a military attack, perhaps, or a bomb. It didn’t occur to me that this was an earthquake.
I’m not a good practitioner of dharma, and my practice tends to be patchy, at best. But at this instance of gravest danger, I fell back upon the Tara Mantra, almost by instinct.
This is how I’d gotten to it: on a visit to Choeki Nima Rimpoche, I had requested his support to do a Tara puja. Rimpoche had said to me: “Why do you want to do the Tara puja? That is very complicated.” When I insisted, he’d said:  “Here, I will teach you the Tara mantra instead, and you can do it at home. After you’ve practiced for a while, come back and we can discuss about the puja.” Then he’d given me the mantra. Which was the same mantra I started to repeat in my head, over and over, as I lay buried under the debris in Patan Durbar Square. There’s something about a mantra that automatically calms the mind, gives solace and dispels fear.
I knew somebody would come get me—the Patan Durbar Square is usually full of people, and I imagined that people would start to come down the steps to get water from the stone spout at Mangal Hiti around 5 pm for their evening meals, if not before. So there was little chance I would be left behind, buried under a pile of rubble. I waited. The apocalyptic cries of despair around me did not cease. After about half hour, I started to panic. “Didi, didi!” I shouted, thinking of the handicrafts vendors who laid their wares on the left side of the water tap complex. “DIDI!” The more high pitched my screams, the more agitated I became. As if in punish my cries, the second earthquake hit. The shaking was extraordinary—everything on top of me and below me and around me shook and gyrated violently, like the wheel of the Kalachakra. It seemed certain I would die—it did not seem possible that anybody would escape this moment alive.
The shaking stopped. I lay quiet and supine under the debris. Making a noise and disrupting the atmosphere, it seemed, could bring certain death. And besides, there must be so many other people who needed more help than I did, I reproached myself. I knew I had to exercise patience, and I had to do was wait. Sooner or later, people would come get me. And this is when I went back to Tara’s mantra, and this when I made a promise to the female form of the Buddha: If I ever get out of here alive, I’ll spend my life spreading word of your teachings.
After another ten minutes, I heard someone climbing down. I imagined the person who scrambled down to be a child—a curious boy, perhaps. “Babu, I’m in here, please take me out,” I said, in what must have been a perfectly calm and casual voice. Then all of a sudden, a crowd was upon me, pulling the wood apart, trying to force apart the pile of brick and centuries old earth to get to the human body lying at the bottom. From their terrified voices, I felt everybody must be shaking with adrenaline and fear—nobody knew when the next quake would hit.
The instinct of the crowd was to pull me out as fast as they could. Which is what they did. First they tried to forcibly pull my body out, but the ankle was pinned. Instead of raising the big blocks of wood, they tore the leg out--mangling the ankle in the process. “Didi, let go of your bag!” somebody said, and I let go of the straps on my arm.
Then as they held me aloft in what must have been a spectacular rag-doll human effigy moment, I felt the crowd pull me to the left, then the right, as if I was the ropes of the Machindranath chariot—and then in that push-pull moment of Newar co-operation and competition, I felt my left arm snap, fractured by the energy of a crowd trying to pull me in different directions. I’m a Vipassana meditator, and can be unnaturally calm in the face of pain. But this thought occurred to me: “I better cry out, or I might be pulled apart by the crowd.” Which is what I did: “My arm! My arm! Please don’t pull!” I felt like something out of a jatra—held aloft, a mangled body covered with centuries old dust, a totem of some ragged victory. My eyes opened to blinding light. I saw what appeared to be the white ramparts of a fort, where people stood in a line, watching the rescue. And then I lost consciousness.
My first responders were kind and brave, and they worked hard to get me out. I will be forever grateful to them. I look back at the photographs my friend showed me later of the site where I’d been buried, I wondered how they’d managed to get to that pile of rubble, because the pile of broken wood and construction material seems impenetrable. I am alive today because my accident happened in the middle of an urban space, with a co-operative community of individuals who were ready to spring to the rescue, putting their own lives at risk to rescue me. My only motive in sharing the above anecdote is to hope that the UN and other agencies will provide first responder training to communities, especially ways to remove bodies from rubble, and to work in teams, so that next time the earthquake occurs, injuries of this nature can be eliminated.
An ambulance siren blew. I heard two men discussing where to take me. “She’s a bideshi,” one said. “Lets take her to B and B.” The ride from the site of my accident to the hospital took half a minute—it was incredibly fast, or perhaps I was injected with so many painkillers I lost my sense of time. A minute later I heard the man say: “Didi, here’s your bag.” That bag, with my cellphones, keys, and papers (and sadly, some rather lovely silver jewelry), was never found again.
Later, my father would laugh and say with amusement about a cousin traumatized by aftershocks, and her method of sustaining her sense of security: “Your cousin is walking around clutching a small bag. She has her citizenship and passport in it, and some other things, like a torch. Everywhere she goes, she takes this small bag.” And I replied: “Tell her the bag is useless.”
The much-hyped go-bag is in fact rather useless. The only thing that will save you from a situation like this, of course, are the networks of family and friends who love you, and who will eventually pull you out of this mire. I had months of painful rehabilitation and surgical operations awaiting me, but I did not know this as I was laid down on the ground by the hospital building, and from where I stared up at the giant concrete buildings, wondering if they would collapse on top of me, crushing me into the void after all, despite my rescue. Another after-shock rippled through the grounds that afternoon, sending the hospital staff into a state of anxious anticipation, as they had no idea if the building would hold up or collapse in the aftershocks.
I lay on the ground with hundreds of other injured people and their families. A triage situation was going on--teams of young medics swooped down upon me and injected me and bandaged me. “Amputation?” I heard one of the doctors say, unaware I could hear them. My drugged eyes flew open, and I rose as if from the dead and said loudly:
“No! I’m fine!” They left me alone after that. As the afternoon lengthened, a tent was set up, and people set up camp, as if we were a field of war injured.
My family arrived at the hospital at 6 pm--they wandered around calling my name, because they couldn’t recognize me lying on the pallet, my face swollen, my hair matted with blood and dust.
Dr. Bibek Baskota of B and B Hospital, and serendipitously also my cousin, drove back from the children’s camp he had been attending and came straight to the dressing room at 8pm, where he washed my wounds and pushed the bones back in place. Bibek had driven by himself, and he described how he’d seen houses rolling down the hillsides as he drove on the highway to get back to Kathmandu. “It looked,” I overhead him say, “as if a bomb had gone off.” As he talked calmly and worked expertly to bandage my feet, he made me feel perhaps my pain wasn’t so excruciating as I felt it to be—only later he told me that he’d pushed the bones back into place without anesthesia and that if left unattended, I could have died from my injuries.

This essay has been republished in the anthology "The Himalayan Arc," edited by Namita Gokhale, founder of the Jaipur Literary Festival.

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