May 2015: Thoughts inspired by our experience during the Nepal Earthquake.
My husband Sahil Mane and I were in Nepal for a much-needed 15-day vacation from Mumbai—three days in Kathmandu; three days at Universal Religion Music Festival; back to Kathmandu for our friends, Republica couple Cilla Khatry and Biswas Baral's wedding; then onward to Pokhara to trek and bike. On the 25th, I was getting tattooed on impulse at the Nepal Tattoo Convention at Hotel Yak and Yeti when the earthquake struck. We were, fortunately, prepared for the outdoor festival that was the second leg of our trip: our friends and us had tents, food and woollens packed and ready to go. After retrieving our bags from our hotels in Thamel, we pitched tents in the lawn of the Social Welfare Council, received a call from the Indian Embassy at 4 AM saying our names had been registered for evacuation (Sahil's parents had sent them an email as instructed on TV), battled the chaos at the airport, and got evacuated by 6 PM on the 26th. After being hosted by the government in New Delhi that night, our group flew to Goa instead of home, not quite ready to deal with our daily lives. (Read detailed accounts of our experience here and here.)
Government & Governance
I don't know about you, but we in India are quick to criticise the government, social media giving outlet to all our niggles, big and small. So I must take this opportunity to praise and thank. Officials from the Embassy responded to my mother-in-law's email and called (they've even called since to confirm we've reached). At the airport, Army, Air Force and Embassy officials worked tirelessly with their Nepalese counterparts to get us out. Representatives from the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Maharashtra Government waited to receive us at the Delhi airport: they fed us, hosted us for the night and dropped us back to the airport in the morning.
Contrary to a comment I received, this wasn't "differential treatment [owing to our] financial statuses and contacts in the government." This is how the government treated everyone, and we had used no contacts or money. The Embassy's email ID was made public, and families of/those stranded were asked to email their details to be registered for evacuation. At Maharashtra Sadan too: there were people from all sorts of financial backgrounds being hosted in the same way (including those who had never seen lifts).
I spoke to Shamsher Sherrif, a high-ranking government official who is a close friend of my parents, shortly after we arrived. India has become very good at disaster management now and has just evacuated people from Yemen, he told me. "Sometimes our boys don't sleep for days on end."
Though it's a thankless job, he admits. While they were out there helping us, we, the very citizens they were trying to help, shoved, nearly caused a stampede, didn't follow instructions, fought and argued, and nearly lynched a customs' official. Friends later told us that there had been a lathi-charge on the registration line after we left.
Why is this attitude so prevalent in our culture? Is it a colonial hangover? Is it a distrust of the government? A lack of education? The poor and voiceless seem to feel so disempowered that displaying a primal survival instinct seems like their only chance; the elite are so entitled and status-aware that they expect special treatment. I don't envy our government servants, and I've come away with deeper gratitude and respect. (I say 'deeper' because, as a late Naval Officer's daughter, I have grown up around people driven by a desire to serve.)
When I returned, under the avalanche of grieved tweets and updates in support of those affected were a few I could not believe. Those, including politicians, who were saying that the country had it coming because of the animal sacrifice that is a part of its culture. What?! Really?!
Not that I condone animal sacrifice, it makes me sick: we chanced upon it at Bhaktapur, and I cannot bear to see images of the Gadhimai festival. But rather than a 'serves you right' (c'mon, not now!), I say: clearly it does not work, does not serve its protective function. So perhaps now's the time to stop.
As people in the media, easily accessible to lots of journalist friends, our little adventure has been covered all over—print, radio, TV. But here's the thing—that's all it was, an adventure, a story of a lost bag and incomplete tattoo to tell at parties for years to come.
The awareness of how fortunate we've been started dawning once the adrenaline wore off, that first day in Goa. So fortunate in so many ways—that we survived with nary a scratch, of course, but we were also unexpectedly prepared and were evacuated so soon after. We could just get up and go home.
The mind takes its time to process new plans born unexpectedly, and it's surreal, being here in this hot, familiar beach town instead of the beautiful Himalayas. Our plans have been disrupted for 10 days; for some of you, life will never be the same. If we're still starting at loud sounds and dreaming of earthquakes, what must your nightmares be?
We're sorry, and hold a great sadness for the devastated country, people and architectural heritage that we have come to love deeply. May the force be with you.
An edited version of this article appeared in Republica Nepal in May 2015.