February 3, 2001


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Reeta Sinha

What was taking Vajpayee so long?

In the spring of 1976 an earthquake hit northern Italy, near Trieste. Approximately 1,000 people were killed near the epicentre. To the north, in a suburb of Munich, Germany, residents of two multi-story apartment buildings ran out into the night to gather in an open space. They huddled and waited for the earth to stop moving, wondering would be safe to go inside. In and around Munich, the quake registered just over 5 on the Richter Scale. That was enough to crack some walls, slide furniture around and make my heart stop for a second.

I've been thinking about that night a lot recently. So far, living in fault-lined California, I haven't felt any of the tremors that they say are a part of life here. Soon after I arrived in 1999, the city of San Francisco remembered the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989; 10 years of rebuilding, retrofitting and recovery. Scientists predicted then another 'big one' could come in about 30 years. When I told friends I was moving to the Bay Area, they gave me tongue-in-cheek advice on surviving earthquakes and told me I was crazy. I replied facetiously that if the place was going to fall into the ocean anyway, I at least wanted to have a few years living in, as they call it, the best place on earth.

I don't think I'll ever joke about an earthquake again.

That night in Munich, we each had an earthquake story. Two little boys, already in bed for the night, were fighting, "Stop shaking the bed! No, you stop doing that!" Three or four floors below my parents were having a similar argument on the living room sofa. Myself, I was reading in bed. When I felt the bed rock from side to side, I stood up and stared at it, as if it were possessed by the devil. The bedroom floor began to pitch and sway then, about the same time my dad shouted "Earthquake! Run!" in Hindi. Since I hadn't learned or heard the word before, he had to repeat it in English before I realised what was happening.

I don't remember the Hindi word any more, but I'll never forget the German -- Erdbeben. Nor will I forget that feeling. Just like my father hadn't, it seems. As ridiculous as this sounds now, it was fortunate for us that he had experienced a quake as a child living in India -- he knew what was happening that night. Whether the others did or not, there was enough commotion in a matter of seconds to send most of us outside. For almost half an hour we calmed our frayed nerves by telling our stories over and over again, laughing nervously at first and then with relief as we realised the danger was over.

Today I wonder how we had the nerve to laugh. The stories and images coming out of Kutch have so many of us crying.

It sunk in around the third day for me. I'd been listening to hourly news reports since early on the 26th (here), but it was data. Numbers, scales, area. Even as the predictions of lives lost reached into the thousands, my mind could not grasp the enormity of this human disaster. Friends from across the US, friends who are not Indian, wrote to ask if my extended family was okay. Their concern was almost palpable. At work, colleagues I normally don't have contact with stopped by my desk to tell me of a church drive for earthquake victims or just to ask if there was anything they could do. I don't think I've experienced this sort of concern for a disastrous event in India in all my years living here.

The devastation was unimaginable still. News reports gave scientific analyses, I remembered things I had learned about plate movement in college. The earthquake started to make 'sense' as more facts began to register in my head. Structural engineers here were already studying building damage in Gujarat, what went wrong, what could they learn? I felt the first stirrings of anger then. Rationally, I knew that this was probably what someone in India should have done after Latur or other natural disasters. But Bhuj wasn't a laboratory, for god's sake.

My frustration grew as the US media reported that countries around the world were poised to help, all India's PM had to do was ask. Practically every report in those early hours asked the question silently.

What was taking him so long? Didn't he know that every hour counts when you're buried under a building? A Russian rescue team said they were ready to fly Friday evening, the day the quake occurred, but the PM didn't ask for help until late Saturday. Why? El Salvador didn't wait a few weeks when it was devastated by a quake a few weeks ago, nor did Turkey when it was hit, did it? What made India special?

By now I was poring over's coverage, I paged through the images over and over again. How does an entire village, a town, just disappear? Monuments that have weathered so much, destroyed. Possibly 16,000 dead? That's the entire population of some communities here. Gone? Just like that? One minute you're watching television and the next you're crushed? This doesn't happen in real life, I thought.

But it does. It has.

It took the image of a baby brought out alive from the rubble to make it real. Human. To make me cry. Then, later that night I woke up to a bhajan playing on the radio. I'd fallen asleep with it on and now, I was listening to a piece about Indians in Atlanta gathering at a temple to pray for earthquake victims. I wished I was there. With people who understood. The next day another local news report. A teary-eyed volunteer at one of the many donation centres set up almost overnight was telling the reporter that there are no words to describe how we are feeling. We. Indians here in the US.

There is one word I keep hearing in my mind. Helpless.

We've been sending our prayers continuously and our thoughts are with those who are suffering. We have pulled out our checkbooks and manned the phone banks. At work when people ask us what they can do, we have the list of agencies handy. We've called or written to see if our friends and family are all right in India, we've urged everyone, anyone here to do whatever they can. Why doesn't it feel like it's enough?

Because many of us wish we were there. To dig, to give, to help, to share.

Maybe we'd be in the way. Maybe there are enough people helping already. I read about the traffic jams and that local groups have been phenomenally responsive, more than government organisations. I've heard accounts of how people are pulling together now and moving on to the recovery phase. If it were me, I don't know, maybe I'd want to be left alone to grieve, to find a way to rebuild my life. Maybe I wouldn't want the help of strangers. Still, these are our people. We should be there. We want to be there.

Right now it doesn't and shouldn't matter. And the messages pouring in say it so much better than I can. Somehow, I hope those who have lost so much know that we care. I hope the people of Gujarat know that although many have gone to help them during this difficult time, so many more of us would be there if we could.

The Complete Coverage | List of earthquake sites

Reeta Sinha

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