Nepali Times
Here And There
A cuture in ruins


Bhuj, Gujarat- It is as if the gods took hammers and destroyed a way of life. The destruction is vast, irreparable and incomprehensible. From nomad camps to cities of one hundred thousand, the entire district of Kutch is no more. Ancient communities and modern suburban colonies are heaps of rubble, now stinking in the desert heat as bodies and livestock carcasses rot in concrete and sandstone tombs. Only the vultures are happy. In a low-lying salt marsh sits the epicentre of the destroyer of Kutch, quiet now, riven with cracks. One expects sulphurous fumes but there is only the omnipresent dust of the desert. Bizarrely, few died in the nearby village where this slathering monster came to the surface of the earth to drink blood and break stone. Even more strangely, local people take visitors to a stagnant, salt water pool and dip their fingers in red mud.
They taste the mud and tell tales of how it oozed from the cracks as the earth pitched and shook on Friday, the 26th of January, 2001. They can't explain why they do this, but it's clear that the earthquake was an almost religious experience to them. So perhaps to appease an angry or capricious deity, they taste that mud every time they go near the epicentre.

I thought as I walked the streets of Bhuj about Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur. Here too are old, twisty streets where old and new structures lean against each other. A mercantile class tries to cram as much commerce as possible into crazy, small spaces. But where the calls of jewellers and handicraft salesmen once tempted the wanderer, now there are long, ghostly silences, punctuated by the crunch of shattered clay roof tiles underfoot; a shout from a neighbouring street as someone fills a handcart with possessions; a policeman throwing a stone at a dog sniffing at the wreckage. Everyone who lived here is either dead or gone. They'll probably never be back and when the wreckers level this place, countless icons of ordinary life will be buried with the unwanted rubble of old Bhuj. In the centre of the old town, the palace of the Maharao has not escaped the scythe of destruction. The sons of the old ruler live there now, three of them, the only night-time inhabitants of old Bhuj. They sleep under trees in a huge courtyard, gazing at the Italianate clock tower that an ancestor built in the 1800s, leaning now and cracked along its spiral staircase. Raja Ram Singh, the middle son, escorts the visitor around, pointing out various exhibits in the palace museum, the Aina Mahal. "That's the costume room," he says, a hand rubbing unshaven cheeks, "and that's where my great-great grandfather rebuilt his quarters after the last bad quake in 1819." He is pointing through gaping holes in the wall where four-hundred year old brick work came tumbling outward as the earth did a crazy dance

I don't find the tragedy of the royal family any more compelling than the ten thousand tragedies that surround the palace and radiate out across Kutch like cracks of misery, pain and loss. But somehow, the patient fellow who walked me around his shattered life-and told me about his Rana relatives in Nepal-helped me realise how hope has fled this place; how there'slittle point in talking about reconstruction, rehabilitation, a new Bhuj arising on the foundations of the old. It will, perhaps, but it won't be the same. It'll be like the outskirts of the town, where the temples to misplaced modernity are built all across the south Asia, the Soviet-style or ersatz-California office blocks and apartment towers. Prosperous Bhuj had its share of these already. Eventually, the bureaucrats, the builders will have their way, and another concrete cluster will come up.

Yes, the gods have truly smashed a way of life with their levelling hammers. But many have been left alive-bereaved, bereft of a past, traumatised forever by catastrophe, but alive. And that's how the planet forever reinvents itself, in ways brutal or banal. I'm off now to see yet another devastated community and to search the eyes of survivors for that spark that says they'll carry on, somehow. It's the only thing they can do.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)