Road dividers in Kalimati are subtly deranged: a rough linearity is visible, until you approach them with attentiveness. You see that they have been jostled, thrown off-kilter, made unruly because they have been shaken out of alignment. From afar, the rush and jolt of Kalanki’s bottleneck traffic appears routine, until you cockroach your way closer and see the fear on the faces of the passengers. Today, they are sitting atop nearly a hundred buses, spilling from the sides, securing square inches of footholds and a rail from which to hang. Today, they are fleeing the city.
Yesterday, just before rain and hail hit Gongabu Bus Park, thousands of people stranded in the squalor of the bus station made that peculiar murmur found everywhere when people are living on the brink of uncertainty. A young man had shouted to us – “My government is bullshit to me. Bullshit!” Perhaps he didn’t know of a harsher profanity in English. But he kept insisting that he was proud to be Nepali. He just hated his government right now, in the last few days. After a few minutes, he broke into a smile and said that earlier in the day he had been in the mob that pulled a ticket-seller out from behind the counter and beat him so bad that he had to be taken to the ICU. He beamed with pride. Very rarely can anyone be jolted into being the deliverer of justice.
That peculiar murmur registers at a decibel that erases meaning. That murmur is the absence of clarity. It comes before a crowd riles up enough bile to become a lynch mob. It comes after a mob has pulped a face it found disagreeable and, after trying to shake off the blood on its collective knuckles, waits for self-disgust to wash away. It is the opposite of the uneasy silence of the voyeur, watching without participation, hiding behind camera phones and waiting with a frightening keenness for the next house to collapse, for the next grey corpse to be dug out. It is the circumspection of a masked man toeing the edge of a rusty stain, spread on cracked asphalt. Somebody bled to death there. Now, only a dark smear remains – but it was, powerfully to the voyeur, once somebody.
The bravado with which a man tells you that he will die in two days is bewildering. There is a baby a month and half old in his lap. His house in the village is ‘cracked’; his rented apartment in the city is ‘cracked’. He is leaning on a pile of cotton quilts and Korean blankets. Behind him, a half-dozen women smile and go about the most mundane: neatly arranging steel plates and cups, mending a shirt, jogging babies on their knees. Children josh and push each other, giggle when looked at. Against three cylinders of cooking gas are propped bags of rice and dal. Outside the tent there is dark soil in which vegetables grow. But, without the army or police coming to ask how they are getting along, the tent of four families – all neighbors from the same alley – will die in two days.
Along the highway were forests of Saal trees in bloom. I had never before seen the saal tree bloom – the flowers are a dull, pale green. Insignificant except for the fact that they exist when the circumstances are just right. But, there they were. A wondrous sight, a novelty, a startling encounter. But these were everywhere, too – what had always been but buried out of sight, and now emerged to the harsh new light of – these extraordinary circumstances.
A journalist has come to Gorkha with a translator who can’t abide to see injured people, or people dying, so he asks for help. The old man he wants to interview is ninety years old – aged enough to have experienced That Other One. He was lying on his cot by the entrance to his house when the quake threw him. He landed on his knees, crawled under the bed as the younger ones in the family ran from the house. When he finally crawled out and lay moaning in pain, a beam fell on the same knees. A policeman points to his hands and says, “We will never live to be his age. Look at how strong his hands are even at his old age.” The old man is a bahun who lied about his caste and served in the British and the Indian forces. He never saw action in WWII, but he did train recruits in Kabul, he says with a grin absent of teeth.
There was another old man in Gongabu. He waited for the Chinese search and rescue team to dig his son out from the rubble of what had once been a five story tall guest house. The third story was now at the ground level. The son was trapped in what had once been the ground floor. Was the old man angry? After all, his house in Sindhuli had been decimated, and he had only just cremated his granddaughter. Was the old man angry at the state for being conspicuously absent? “This is life,” the old man said, “things like this happen. What can I do about it? No, I am not angry at anyone. Until this morning, I didn’t have any hope. Now my son will come.” The Chinese officer who was in charge of the rescue operation said, “There is no sign of life in the rubble.” Hope is just as bewildering as the instinct to convey the strict and unadorned fact, under the circumstances.
On Saturday, looking east from Patan Dhoka, my mouth was filled with fine dust blown west from Mangalbazaar. An hour later, I was running through narrow alleys, fascinated by how walls fall and expose the insides of our lives. Bhushan’s shirt had bloodstains from pulling a yet conscious but much hurt woman from the debris of what had once been a sattal above Mangahiti. And there strewn like driftwood, arms, necks and shapely legs of what had once been gods on struts of what had once been temples. A drunk old man grinned with the shardul which had fallen off its pedestal outside the Bhimsen temple. Others took photos and videos with their cell phones. What use would those photos or videos ever have? Why do men record videos of bodies being pulled from rubble? There were we, who had once been people, degraded into sheep, wolves, vultures.
Didi from Sherpa Bhojanalaya in Sanepa feeding a full house on Saturday evening, for instance, giving sustenance to people too scared to enter their own homes to light up their home-stove, their hearth-fire. Bishwomitra Subedi of Loktantra Hotel at the Gongabu Bus Park feeding people until his stock of rice and dal ran out, and on Tuesday hungrily watch the milling throng of those who had once been happily fed by him. The Indian Army officer, on leave, dutifully showing up at a rural hospital to wait if he could help anybody at this hour of need. At a time when transportation syndicates are charging up to eight times the normal fare for bus tickets, the empty school bus trudging up the Naubise hairpins to serve as free transport to anybody seeking to leave Kathmandu. The busload of medical students already solemn fifteen kilometers before reaching the town to which they have volunteered their service. These were the inconspicuous but startling flowers of the ordinary gaining the extra breath of life.
What once had been: that we will mourn. But I will not despair although I mourn. Life moves inevitably ahead.