Nepal – A Shock Greater than the Earthquake
‘Shalaam Shaab’ is one phrase that rings in my mind when the name of Gorkha is pronounced. The childhood memories of the dedicated, wrinkle-faced, smiling and soft-spoken, self-appointed security man – Bahadur from Gorkha – are still fresh. I never imagined that destiny would beckon me one day to the land where Bahadur hailed from: the Gorkha Hills in Nepal.
The April 2015 Nepal earthquake (also known as the Gorkha earthquake) killed more than 9,000 people and injured more than 23,000. It occurred at 11:56 NST on 25 April, with a magnitude of 7.8 or as published in some sources an 8.1. Its epicenter was east of the district of Lamjung about 83 kilometers from Gorkha Hills. The entire world turned relief focus to Nepal and efforts are on, even as I pen this article in July 2015. We, a team of three friends from Bangalore and Mangalore, visited Nepal in June 2015, specifically to offer whatever little relief possible. The fund-raising was done by my very close buddy, who was on his second visit to Nepal after the earthquake, the first being a solo to assess the situation. We flew Bangalore–Delhi–Kathmandu and was a rather out-of-the-norm experience to visit a foreign land without a visa.
As we drove through Kathmandu, we saw the footprints left by the earthquake. Many large buildings and malls had severe ruptures and cracks making them redundant and many medium-sized buildings had crumbled. However, the strange fact was that many old and small homes still stood strong. This was a matter of contemplation for me. As I kept observing the landscape, I realized that all large complexes and medium-sized buildings were stand-alone structures, whereas all smaller houses were clusters and built with abutting walls: talk about unity in brick and mortar. A good first lesson for us on arriving in Khatmandu and, mind you, the first among many lessons to come our way. We had hired a 4×4 Scorpio with Khem our driver, who looked like a college grad as he spoke good English and wore in-fashion wear. We had a local friend who volunteered to join the relief work while we also had an Ustadh as our guide for this journey.
Our destination was Gorkha hills about 170 kilometers from Khatmandu. It was a distance which, I assumed, would take us about three hours to drive through, but we ended up making it in nothing less than seven and a half strenuous hours: a tough, hilly, terrain with the constant fear of landslides and heavy rains, masked by unbelievably picturesque scenes. We were driving between a hillside and a gushing river filled with rapids. The river was punctuated by lush green hills with pockets of small dwellings as if these had been inserted into the slopes. We wondered how people could make homes in such a dangerous landscape. The question rather was: why did these people choose the hills to build homes like pigeon holes? As we drove along, we saw dangerously hanging wire ropes with single-seated, manually propelled, cable cars and, at places, rope-bridges that allowed one man to pass by. These were the means of access for people living in the hills to cross the river and reach larger towns.
After Gorkha town the tar road transformed into a mud path and the seemingly never-ending journey of about 40 kms commenced. The soil was almost like clay and very difficult to manoeuvre at times. Khem, our driver was a very patient man. We were now driving on the peripheral edge of the hills. Khem took us forward cautiously, while the 4×4 skidded and glided dangerously as though it were moving on ice. We finally reached Bagh Dogra, a small village, the home of our guide. We camped here to run the relief operations. The place we stayed was a recently constructed small shelter with a room to relax and 4 cots in the open air to sleep. We got to action by noon. There were a total of 7 villages in the vicinity with almost 400+ families we had planned to support.
Post earthquake, Nepal had passed stringent restrictions on distribution of relief material, hence we opted to carry money that could help the villagers. The majority of the residents in these 7 villages were Muslims and it was the holy month of Ramadhan. Any support would help them get through this month and celebrate the eid comfortably. We completed the first two villages in about 2 hours. Next we set eyes on Asrang, the largest village about 13 kms from Bagh Dogra. The drive was worse than what we had experienced. Every few kilometres we saw people climbing the steep hills with reasonably heavy luggage in the form of pots of water or home needs. For us, climbing this terrain empty handed was seeming tough. At one steep turn I saw a lady in her late 50’s climbing up a steep mud road with 2 heavy pots of water. I don’t know what crossed the minds of my colleagues, but I was already impressed with the girt and tough nature of the people here.
Asrang had 162 families with the earthquake having left many homes as mere debris. The local Mosque was damaged and the traditional Arabic school completely destroyed. We could see many homes in repair and makeshift mode. The villagers had already gathered in an opening near the fallen school. Contrary to our expectation of sad and worried faces, we found cheer and smiles. The place looked like an usual ground for the local panchayat meetings. We greeted the people and requested the students of the school to share their learning. One of them in his early teens recited the verses of the holy Quran in a very melodious and mesmerising voice.
We then shared our purpose of visit to Asrang and the neighbouring villages, while highlighting that such calamities do happen to us as a reminder to acknowledge how precious our lives are and how grateful we must feel about being alive. We had an attentive audience. Once this was completed, we oriented them about the process of distributing the cash covers to each family. Almost 8 names were called out and no soul stepped forward. I had an uneasy feeling on this silence and nudged my colleague to see if everything was fine. We announced the process again, when one of the better dressed individuals stepped forward and spoke. He expressed that despite the earthquake, every family in Asrang was financially pretty stable and could fend for themselves. He also went on to say that every home had a member working in the gulf and earning a decent income. Hence they unanimously expressed that there were other highly deserving individuals who were the rightful owners of the money we carried. They needed help and this money would make a bigger difference to those families in other villages close by.
This came as a shock to our team and of course to Khem our driver. In these times when people take all the wild and unethical routes to grab money, here we had an extraordinary group of villagers who were sincere enough to say that despite the disaster “we are fine”.
When asked again, the eldest among them said, “son, we can pretend to be in need and take the money from you, but how can we answer The Almighty who is watching us and who knows everything about us?” He also added, “there are 17 widows in this village who can be counted as highly deserving hence we can accept only 17 packets of this money on their behalf. I held back the tears in my eyes and was short of words. We spent a few more minutes with the villagers and joined a congregational prayer with them. Before we left back for our camp, we saw happy faces and content souls in these simple inhabitants of Asrang. They truly lived, while we from bigger and secure cities merely survived. It was like a dream to me.
We drove amidst the periodic silence, which I guess was contemplation and we had moments of discussion about the people of Asrang and what they had taught us today. We are now back to the comfort of our homes, but the lesson learnt from the people of Asrang still makes rounds in my mind.
It is said that there are always 3 paths in life the wrong, the right and the good. It is always easy to take the wrong path as it seems effortless and compels one to take the easy way out. A path majority of mankind indulges in and experiments with, despite knowing that the consequence would be dire. It is also very lucrative to take the good path, as this offers us mortals, the approval of people, quick wealth and fame. Mankind succumbs to this shortcut as it compels us to please others and in the process make quick material gains. But it is the right path which is the true one. A path which more than often goes against oneself and has no assurance of gains of any kind. It is a tough path to tread and is a preferred path of a very few in this world – the prophets, the legends and the gentlemen extraordinaire.
To me, people of Asrang are no less than legends who unanimously believed in building their lives around principles. With 74 aftershocks of the earthquake that threaten their sheer existence, they stood strong for the truth and an example to cherish for life.