I like birthdays. It’s a day when I feel glad to be alive and kicking. It’s a day when you receive the blessings and good wishes from friends and family. It’s a day when you feel special for no reason at all. The day acquires a festive mood and is spent in celebrations. Birthdays have a flip side too...You get a year older, but on that day age doesn’t really matter.
2001, January 26th…my birthday: Nothing was planned for the day. With hubby out of station it was just me and the kids. My mom and dad were always the first to wish me and as usual that day too they called me around 8 am to wish me. That done, I thought I would sleep for some more time, being the lazy person I am. But, again, I thought I would take bath when the kids were still sleeping as I would not have the luxury of a leisurely bath when they were up.
I came out of the bath, and sat down on the cot to apply some body lotion, when the bed creaked! My first thought was – “Have I put on weight that even the cot is complaining?” Seriously! Then the sound grew more louder. Oh! Shit, it is an earthquake. First, I ran to the kitchen to switch off the gas where the milk was kept for boiling. Next, I ran to my neighbors’ house, but, they had cleared off by then. I went in and scooped up my son, who was 2 yrs at that time and picked up my daughter, then 5, by her shoulders and ran. Even now if I close my eyes and think back, I can still feel the earth shaking beneath my legs, each and every step of the two stories. The sound was deafening, with the grille gates and windows vibrating, vessels falling off, furniture being moved...And of course the people screaming. All this happened for just 2 minutes, the 2 minutes which changed the lives of thousands of people.
The earthquake lasted for a little less than 2 minutes. What was I thinking at that time? Nothing. The only thing was to get to safety. Everyone was relieved and happy. Though our apartment building was old, it did not succumb to the onslaught of the earthquake. No major cracks in the wall too. Everyone started talking together excitedly…what, when and why…it is then that I realized that when I had come out of the bathroom, I was wearing my salwar top and nothing beneath it ! Of course, there was a towel tied to my head which I removed and tied it around my waist. Thankfully, no one observed, even if they did, it wasn’t important. Leaving the kids down, I made up to my apartment stealthily and covered up. Then the damage assessment of my apartment…the milk had spilled, some vessels had fallen off the rack and the fridge had moved from its stand and was tilted. It was nothing much, nothing at all as compared to what was yet to be heard.
The official report:
On 26 January 2001 an earthquake registering 7.9 on the Richter scale devastated the Indian state of Gujarat. It was the second largest recorded earthquake in India, the largest being in 1737, and was the worst natural disaster in India in more than 50 years.
The earthquake struck at approximately 8.46am local time, its epicenter located 80 kilometers north-east of the city of Bhuj. The place in the earth's crust where an earthquake occurs is known as the focus. The epicenter of an earthquake is the place directly above the focus. The shock waves or tremors from the Gujarat earthquake lasted about two minutes, followed by aftershocks for more than a month.
With nearly 20,000 dead and over 155,000 injured, this was one of the worst natural disaster India had seen. 600,000 people were left homeless, with 348,000 houses destroyed and an additional 844,000 damaged.
The picture shows the actual crater that was formed in a salt bed which was considered to be the epicenter of the earthquake.
The fissure near the epicenter.
Ahmadabad after the earthquake: With nothing to do and nowhere to go (as people were afraid of the aftershocks), people poured into the streets. It was a sea of people. Then slowly the news started to trickle down and there was a sense of disbelief among the people. It was like the whole state was blanketed in black... Deaths, loss, misery, pain…life had come to a standstill. People were afraid to speak loudly. Kids sensed the tension in the air and surroundings and they too were strangely subdued. Life moved in slow motion. Everyone opened their doors and kitchen and hearts for each other. People were seen sleeping and camping on the lawns and drive ways of the bungalows and popular clubs. People shared food with one another; there was a sense of camaraderie.
An hour later after the earthquake, I went back to my house against the better judgment of others. I had to feed my kids. Once alone, the reality started to sink in. I was alone with the kids. “What if” scenarios started to play in my mind. I started shaking and hugged myself, not wanting to be a sorry sight in front of my kids. I could not stay alone, so I packed a few things and went to my friends place. We stayed out in the open for two days. The atmosphere was grim.
My husband was assigned the duty of covering Bhuj, (he was a cameraman working for Doordarshan Kendra) and so he decided to send me home to Bangalore. I wanted to stay back and help in whatever way I could...like donating groceries and clothes…whatever little I could do. It gave me a sense of kinship. But, I went to Bangalore instead.
Life has become mechanical now. Time and again, I keep looking back at that day. Why? To stay grounded and to appreciate life. So many dead, and so many alive too. Generations wiped out, Heroes were born too…heroes who survived, who rebuilt their lives literally from the scratch. Miracles happened; people buried under debris were rescued after days of being trapped. Destiny, fate or pure luck…life gave me a second chance. Life offers us chances; it is for us to choose it. When we take a step forward, we find direction. Not a birthday of mine goes by without offering a silent prayer in remembrance to all those who died that day. I came out of this unscathed and it is a reason enough for me to celebrate.
My husband (in black) with his colleague amidst the rubbles in Bhuj…the man with his make shift ‘chai ketlee’, trying to earn a living.
“God made the world in six days, but what is the world? It’s what you or I see. Whenever someone dies, a part of the universe dies too. Everything a person felt, experienced and saw dies with them, and with them dies the infinite possibilities that the person would have created in this world.” – PAULO COELHO.