A gigantic cat fish is swirling about angrily deep beneath Kathmandu, and every time the leviathan flicks his long whiskers, we get these tremors… or so I heard Kanchi didi, our part-time household help, saying one afternoon a few days after the May 12 aftershock. She was animatedly repeating a story doing the rounds in the open area where she had been camping; she was trying to explain to my mom the reasons for the endless succession of jolts and tremors we were experiencing.
I was feeling a bit groggy myself after having slept all night under a tarpaulin tent pitched in the lawn of our house like the thousands of sleep-deprived Kathmanduites who had, yet again, taken to sleeping in their gardens, in the parks, sidewalks, under tents, tarps or under the skies, inside cars parked in empty lots, in any open space they could find. I listened to the morbid conversation between my mom and Kanchi didi. Didi’s narrative included macabre tales of tragedy, death and devastation in the wake of the powerful earthquake, and it dragged on and on albeit in that hushed murmur that people employ when talking about serious affairs.
This was not the only myth about Kathmandu that I heard bandied about after the earthquakes struck. I listened to people repeating the details of a popular creation myth, wherein the Valley was once a lake that was made habitable by Manjusri after he cut a gorge in the place we now call Chobhar to let the water out so that people could start farming and building their homes. According to another story that had been resurrected too, Lord Krishna had once cut an outlet in the southern rim of the Valley, with his Sudarshana Chakra, to drain away the waters, before handing over the Valley to nomadic cow herders.
I soon realised that fantasies and myths do not always remain confined in their own realms when it comes to this bowl-shaped Valley. It is a rare place, where myths seep into the day-to-day lives of the Valley’s denizens. And sometimes, the lines between myths and reality seem to blur.
There is now enough geological evidence to prove that the Valley was once a Paleo-era lake: that is the main reason that this densely populated has topped the quake-risk lists over the years. Geologists say the Valley is highly vulnerable to damaging earthquakes on account of what they call the soil’s propensity for liquefaction and intensifying waves generated by jolts. The culprit? The unsettled clay soil, known locally as kalimati, of what used to be an ancient lakebed. And indeed when the April 25 quake struck, I felt like the ground beneath my feet was shaking as if it was some sort of soft, unsettled clay.
I feel most of us have been living in as state of uneasy calm since the quakes started. As often happens to many people in times of disaster, at first my mind was not able to grasp the sheer enormity of what had struck us. I could not comprehend it. I was overwhelmed by it. The catastrophe that has befallen us has taken over 9,000 lives and caused so much pain and suffering to those who have survived. In one way or another we are all scarred, even if we have been lucky enough to not get injured or haven’t had our loved ones die. The daily stream of pictures and images has not helped matters either: we are bludgeoned by a world of crumbled, overturned houses, buildings and temples; by pictures and aerial footages of whole towns and villages in the hills pulverised, in ruins or under threat of landslides sweeping away the entire settlements.
As human beings we need to feel we are at least in control of some part of our destiny. But when something as big as the recent earthquakes we’ve lived through hits us, we find ourselves lost and rudderless. The problem is not that we have been hit by the big ones. The problem is we don’t know when the next big one will shake us and rattle our houses to the core. Every day we don’t know whether we should get back to living our normal lives or prepare for another big aftershock. And we donít know what to believe anymore. And in that milieu of uncertainty, it’s not all that surprising that we are merely lurching from one day to the next with nothing but fear hovering over us. We are mired in uncertainty and there is almost no source we can turn to for succour: Both religious myths and geology seem to have dovetailed so seamlessly that there is no hope of finding strength in either science or spirituality.
But amid all this fear and uncertainty, I have seen new stories emerge that have given me new sources of hope. These are the stories of many of my friends and of the thousands of youths in the country who have been involved in relief efforts all across the quake-hit districts. I have read stories of doctors who refused to leave their patient’s bedsides even as the hospital rippled under the onslaught of aftershocks. I have seen footages of our security personnel combing through debris to rescue people who had survived for days underneath a pile of rubble. And I have seen the denizens of this bowl-shaped Valley offer living space to neighbours who in the pre-quake days might as well have been unfamiliar aliens in this teeming city of millions. I cannot find succour in science for most scientific studies say that we cannot predict when we will get hit again, and the only thing that the studies are sure of is that the Valley, large parts of which have soft soils. lies atop a dangerous faultline. I cannot find succour in the Valley’s creation myths, which actually seem to back the findings of geologists. But I do find faith in the way my countrymen, especially the youths, have conducted themselves and taken charge in this time of uncertainty. And that faith will see me through the challenging days ahead.
This piece was first published in The Kathmandu Post, an English daily I used to work in, on June 13, 2015 .
(Main photo: A drawing of Swayambhu. which means self-created, and its vicinity in magical Kathmandu of yore. Image courtesy: Daniel Wright)