February 16, 2001


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Dilip D'Souza

Quake Diary: What It Wrought

Everything is rubble. To understand what I'm saying, try this experiment. Take a child's Lego set and make an elaborate model building with it. The more elaborate, the better. Then shake the model so that it starts falling apart. But don't stop there. Keep shaking till no single piece is connected to any other. Till you are left with the pile of individual Lego pieces you started with.

Now that's what happened in Kutch on January 26. In village after village that we spent time in -- Jadsa, Adhoi, Vamka, Toraniya, Shikarpur, Bhachau and more -- what's left to see are mere piles of stones with people living among them. People trying to reconstruct their lives on top of, surrounded by, dwarfed by, devastated by, piles of stones that were once joined to each other to form their homes, their schools, their temples, their mosques, their panchayat offices. Sure, a few structures still stand. But for doing so, they stand out amid the rubble, and they are riddled with giant cracks anyway.

Visiting Orissa after the cyclone in October 1999, I thought I had seen devastation, destruction, like I would not see again. Yet tragic as cyclone-hit Orissa was, Kutch in 2001 is on a different scale altogether. In my wandering through the area, I don't see much evidence of the tens of thousands of deaths this quake caused -- though I hear of them all the time -- but I am awed and overwhelmed by the rubble that lies everywhere. Despite having seen photographs in the press, there's an immediacy to visiting this sad collection of debris that no photograph can capture. And I try, but I am utterly unable to understand the forces that can shake like this. Break like this.

We first get an idea of what the quake did in Khirai village, near the town of Malia, just before crossing the neck of the Little Rann. A lot of the village remains intact, but there are many houses that have largely crumpled. One is a huge, rambling establishment, evidently a wealthy farmer's home. The walls that still stand have large cracks snaking all over; one room has a sagging roof and I am afraid of standing under it. I am even more afraid after the villagers suddenly turn to me with wide smiles. "Did you feel that?" they ask. I did indeed. "That" just happens to be a minor, but in this room extremely scary, aftershock. And as one of the family escorts us around, a young woman emerges from her bath, sees us, gasps, and ducks back behind the flimsy door. Among all else this quake accomplished, it has shorn away possibilities of privacy.

Living very definitely outside Khirai are about 25 lower-caste families whose homes were destroyed. Sacks labelled "SALT" are draped all over their shacks. Most of these families worked in the salt pans of the Rann. These sacks their employer gave them constitute the only help they have got till now, 11 days after the quake.

As I walk to meet these families, I finally know why I have been hearing faint strains of music for the past half hour. Standing in the patch of ground between the village and the shacks is a shiny white Premier 118. Crimson flowers are stuck all over it. Several well-dressed men sit around the car; as I stop to take a photograph, they sit up straighter. It's a wedding, here in Khirai. Here where several houses no longer exist, where the lower castes whose houses no longer exist have been nudged out of town, it's a wedding.

But if Khirai is a mess, it still does not begin to prepare us for what lies across that neck of the Rann. We stop for a rest in Samkhiali, where the road from Malia meets the Jaisalmer-Kandla-Bhuj highway. Looking for pointers on where to go next, we confer with the folks from Bombay's Kutch Yuva Sanghatan (Kutch Youth Organization), camped here to coordinate relief efforts among several NGOs in the area.

And they are camped in the compound of what is now an astonishing spectacle. This is a brand new development, several sort of townhouses built in a circle just off the highway. They look completely incongruous in this little desert-edge town that is really an overgrown village: as if a section from one of Delhi's more prosperous colonies has been transplanted here. So new are these houses, that nobody has moved in yet. And looking at them this day, I know nobody will. The quake has reduced them to every stage of crumpled-ness. A few look sort of intact, but still sport huge cracks and gaping brick-toothed holes. In others, the pencil-thin columns that support the structure and allow for a carport have buckled to the extent that we are wary of even touching them. One gives the strong impression of having just melted to the ground, its roof lying like an inadequate figleaf on the rubble beneath. On the far side of the colony, an entire wall, some fifty metres long, has toppled over. It lies, more or less as it stood, on the ground.

Mansi stands with me, our mouths dropping open as we turn slowly to look around the circle. "I've never seen such poor construction," she says. It's true: even to our untrained eyes, there is something half-hearted and rotten in the walls, the bricks, the concrete that surround us. In the very look of these homes.

So who built this place? In normal times, you might have expected this just-completed colony to be festooned with the builder's name. Here, nothing. No banner on the flimsy entrance arch, no sign on the walls, nothing. No prizes for guessing when such signs disappeared. But there are, I should report, a number of other signs on the walls of the houses. In a brilliant blue, and only -- only, because you know these signs just must be read -- on the edge of the colony that skirts the highway, they say things like: "Zee Network has been adopted [sic] Samkhiali for complete rehabilitation", and "Zee: With you in this critical situation."

No prizes for guessing when such signs appeared.

20 kilometres down the road, past the flattened Hotel Way Wait, Hotel Darshan and some oddly leaning toll-booths, is Bhachau. A huge cutout of some baba or the other, I assume now here to contribute to relief work, is almost the first thing we see. The rest of the town is a swarming circus of tents, trucks, jeeps, relief material, cars, army men, policemen, other men in uniform, banners and clouds of dust. We have been temporarily separated from the two other vehicles in our small convoy, so we stop on the side of the road just beyond the town to wait. For almost two hours.

On either side of us, devastation. As I roam aimlessly through it all, an old man invites me into his "home" for a cup of chai. His wife and daughter-in-law make it for me, using dented pots and cups, sitting in the open near the pile of stones that used to be their two houses. Still standing are two beautifully painted doors and an equally beautifully painted window. I look through the window, into what the man tells me was his son's home. A jumble of boxes and other household stuff is all I can see. If I want to steal any of it, I can easily pick my way over the rubble into this "room." But the two doors are carefully chained and locked.

The chai is delicious.

I step past a dog. Immediately, three women and a young boy rush towards me, stumbling over the stones in their hurry. Much concern is evident on their faces and I am puzzled. Have I done something terribly wrong? Stepped inadvertently on someone's sacred space perhaps? No. They come up and tell me sternly that I should have been more careful. That dog is dangerous! When I am on my way back to my truck a few minutes later, I find them waiting for me. Holding sticks and brooms at the ready to keep the dog at bay, they escort me past him.

Even surrounded by destruction on a mind-numbing scale, these suddenly homeless people have retained the humanity to offer a complete stranger a cup of tea on a hot afternoon. To protect him from a possibly rabid dog.

We want to find a village that has not received much relief yet, where we can settle in for some days. After much deliberation and advice, we decide on Toraniya, beyond Adhoi. Back we go, past the tottering toll booths and Zee-adopted Samkhiali, turning off the highway a kilometre beyond.

Toraniya is a good 15 kilometres along this secondary road. And it is when we reach there that I know it without a shadow of doubt. The only way I can begin an article, or a series of them, about my time in quake-destroyed Kutch is with this sentence: "Everything is rubble."

For that's what Toraniya is.

In subsequent columns, more about Toraniya and other experiences.

The Complete Coverage | List of earthquake sites

Dilip D'Souza

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