The house Sashi grew up in is in Koshidekha-8, Kalinjor, Kavre District, just eighty kilometers from Kathmandu. After leaving the Arniko Highway in Lamidanda, on the way to the temple of Palanchok Bhagawati, the scenic single-lane route passes through a large army camp. Adjacent is the UN recruitment base for international peace missions. To reach Kalinjor, the meandering uphill road climbs for over ten kilometers before it hits a torturous dirt road stretch of nearly seven kilometers. The road then descends to the south towards the Sunkoshi River. On either side are breathtakingly beautiful valleys. On a clear day, one is greeted by spectacular views of both the Langtang and Gaurishankar ranges.
I spent the week following the earthquake on Saturday, April 25, volunteering to coordinate information among numerous, spontaneous relief initiatives in Kathmandu. Millions of Nepalis had been forced out of their homes and were living through unprecedented shock, terror, and constant tremors. Some no longer had a roof over their heads. Well-meaning individuals – both nationals and expats, in Kathmandu and in the lesser affected regions of the Madhesh – came together to help. Everyone had felt the wrath of the quake, and understood the enormity of the devastation. The fortunate among us had a moral calling to answer to.
In the past, I’ve had mixed feelings about mainstream, touristic volunteerism: I’ve never liked the jingoistic righteousness of misinformed do-gooders. But what I saw this week has restored my faith in collective goodness. As Nepal’s weak state structure was completely overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster, these groups of volunteers provided the most essential and urgent relief, as limited as their capacities were. I hope that one day, after the madness subsides, the state will acknowledge that many lives were saved through these scattered – and mostly ad hoc – interventions.
I’ve known Sashi for about a year now. He works as a bartender and barista at Base Camp Outdoor Lifestyle, and One Ugly Mug, in Jhamsikhel, Lalitpur. It is a space that has grown into a cool and welcoming social hub south of the Bagmati. Sashi, who is an aspiring musician, is in his final year of high school. If you came to Base Camp on a quiet weekday afternoon, you would probably find him in front of the computer, holding an acoustic guitar, humming the latest Jason Marz song, and trying to play the chords displayed on the screen. Though quiet and shy, Sashi is witty and full of good humor. The Base Camp regulars have become good friends with him.
The first Thursday after the quake, a group of Sashi’s Base Camp friends went to his village with some basic supplies. I saw the pictures they brought back. My heart broke. We felt the need to return to the village, where no other group had reached. A Base Camp friend’s parents generously donated one hundred thousand rupees – about a thousand US dollars. We pooled together more supplies with the help of Haushala Thapa from Children and Youth First (CYF), and managed to collect a truckful of food rations, medical supplies, and a few tarps.
A lot of smaller villages before Kalinjor have been flattened too. “We are the poor ones, we don’t matter to anybody,” said a lady at Kharelthok, where we briefly stopped. Her two-storey stone and clay house had been reduced to dust, but she had survived. “Maybe we should loot your truck,” she joked. “But you are going to Kalinjor. It’s worse there,” she added. Her frustration expresses the mood in many villages of the badly-hit hill districts: the frustration is genuine and it is growing, but there is also a remarkable sense of calm and reasonableness in the attitude of the people that are worst hit. It’s a humbling realization. We were worried because there have been frequent headlines recently about conflicts and riots. They are, in all likelihood, slightly overblown. Maybe a disaster as cruel as the one we have just experienced brings out both the best and the worst in us.
A group of people were congregated in the front yard of a badly damaged house, by the sharp turn before the steep downhill stretch to Sashi’s village. The mood was somber. Twenty oil lamps flickered in a gentle afternoon breeze. A maroon-robed Lama read mantras. My initial thought was that it was to mark Buddha Purnima the next day – Kalinjor is a Tamang village of Buddhists. This full moon would have been the most important in the year for Sashi’s village. It marks the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha. This year, it is only an afterthought. But we soon learned that it was the funeral of a middle-aged woman, the fifth and the last of the human casualties in Kalinjor.
There was no despair evident among those present during the distribution of the supplies. With 171 houses completely demolished, cut off from electricity since the quake, and completely neglected by the government, the inhabitants had few complaints. “We are not expecting much from the government. If they only give us electricity, we could run the rice mill to grind the little amount of food grain we have recovered. We would survive for another month,” an elderly man said.
Sashi’s village feels like a war zone. “It’s like someone came and bombed this place, dai,” Sashi told me, breaking into that familiar and mischievous smile. I was shattered by the sight of the ruthless destruction: only the prayer flags remained, fluttering in the sky. I patted Sashi on the back and said I was sorry to see his house gone. He said almost dismissively, “People are really tough here. Don’t worry!”
Throughout the village, men, women and children were picking up pieces of bricks and wood from the rubble. One woman was weeding a small plot of corn. A group of children laughed hysterically at us – strange city people wearing shorts and sunglasses. It was revealing, deeply painful yet uplifting. Rebuilding their village will probably take months and years, but these children deserve a normal life. As the hot summer and monsoon approach, these children deserve a safe and decent shelter. They deserve to laugh and play. They deserve an education. What’s been lost won’t return, but the rhythms of life can be reclaimed.
We drove back as the sun was setting. There aren’t better sunsets to be had than those from these spectacular mountain valleys in the Mahabharat Range. A quarter of an hour later, the moon rose in the east over the Sunkoshi, a prelude to the magnificence of the full moon to follow the next day. Tomorrow, and in all tomorrows to come, things will look better, everything will be brighter.
To help Nayan and his friends rebuild Sashi’s village, visit the site they have set up for earthquake relief here.