What Were We Doing During the Nepal Earthquake? / by Tara Kaushal

May 2015: Well, I was getting a tattoo.

Sahil and I were in Nepal for a 15 day holiday: three days in Kathmandu, three days at Universal Religion Music Festival, back to Kathmandu for a friend Cilla's wedding, and then further to Pokhara to trek and bike. Though we were travelling by ourselves, we synced plans with Prabhat and Arti, Poorti and Payal, friends from India who were also there for the festival. 

The only thing good about the festival being postponed from Friday the 24th to Saturday the 25th was being able to visit the Nepal Tattoo Convention, and we went only to see it. Except I fell in love with a particular artist's work and decided to get inked the next morning, the 25th, and leave for the festival a couple of hours later than planned. 

This is how we found ourselves—Fabrice one-third through my tattoo, Sahil sitting opposite me—when the earthquake struck at noon. We were at the far end of the hall far from an exit, but were near a column and far from the giant swaying chandeliers. We stayed under a table for a few minutes, and as soon as the shaking abated a little we fled—through the hall littered with broken stalls, under cracked doorways, down an unsteady staircase, with hoards of screaming people. A few jumped from the first floor, one was pushed out by the tide, but we all gathered relatively okay in the garden of Yak and Yeti Hotel to... Well, no one really knew what to do or where to go next. It didn't help that foreigners far outnumbered locals here. 

Sahil's mum was able to get through on our phone before network disappeared, so were our friends still at the hotel. Spotty information came through relatives abroad, things they were hearing on their news channels; rumours spread fast and furious; Chinese Whispers were doing the rounds. Thamel, the tourist hub where everyone at the convention was staying (as were we), a congested maze of narrow streets and tightly packed buildings, had been razed to the ground in the second earthquake, we heard. Nonetheless, a couple of hours later, we decided to venture there, to look for our friends and get our packed bags. 

In a sense, we couldn't have been better 'prepared'. Waiting packed at our hotel in relatively unscathed Thamel, were our bags ready for the outdoor festival, food and tents, and the staff kindly let us in to retrieve them. The six of us now left Thamel for clearer ground, and watched the chaos on the roads... Paramedics, police and army personnel were everywhere. People were crying and bleeding, sirens were wailing, dogs were barking. And it was getting cold (it has been a freakishly cold summer in Nepal this year). We found ourselves an open lawn and set up camp, with enough food and woollies to share with those less prepared. We talked to people, made friends, shared stories—nothing like tragedy to bring people closer together. The tremors came on and off, and then there were those in our heads—on stable ground now, all of us are still having dreams of earthquakes and tremors, obvious signs of the trauma just surfacing from under the adrenalin.

Sahil's parents had been in touch with the Indian Embassy via email (the phones were constantly engaged), and at 4 AM, shortly after we had been able to fall asleep, we got a call from someone at the Embassy—our names had been registered for evacuation, these were the numbers to call. 

The airport was packed, the Indian line snaking down the driveway. And in the domestic terminal that was dedicated to Indian evacuations, chaos would be an understatement. We can't praise the Indian Army and Air Force enough, but there are no words to describe our citizens' impatience, disrespect for authority and me-first attitude. The customs' officer distributing the departure forms was nearly lynched, and all of us (officials, wannabe passengers, et al) were at serious risk of dying in a stampede. 

We boarded our rescue plane on the evening of the 26th, bidding a sad farewell to and aching for beautiful Nepal, its lovely people and the greatness that was Kathmandu. On the way, Prabhat and Arti, Sahil and I decided not to return to Pune and Mumbai respectively, but to recuperate in our home in Goa. 

In Delhi, we were greeted by a representative of the Ministry of Home Affairs, who directed us to someone from the Maharashtra government. We were hosted at Maharashtra Sadan, and taken to the airport for our flight this morning. (Wow, I must say!)

Those who caught the first busses to the festival are still stranded at the venue outside Kathmandu, we hear on Facebook; Cilla's wedding has been postponed; my tattoo is done-enough to pass as complete (until we meet again, Fabrice). Oh Nepal!

It feels surreal, the froth-capped waves replacing the snow-capped mountains so soon after the fright and the adventure that we have had. As we talk over lunch at this beach shack, there are pensive pauses as each of us considers that there are those not as lucky as we have been.

An edited version of this article appeared in Mumbai Mirror in May 2015. Read detailed accounts of our experience here and here.

As far as the incomplete tattoo went… Although my tattoo looked complete, it was only a third done. And although many recommended I left it as it was—in memory and because it was beautiful anyway!—I was eager to finish it.

I saw what had happened as symbolic of the things one sets out to do, in life, in general—shit gets in the way, but you still finish anyway, even if in a different, updated manner than first intended. So, I would wake up with vivid dreams of finishing the tattoo, and write impassioned messages to Fabrice.

Problem is, he lives in Germany. After much back and forth, we'd planned to meet at a convention in Delhi on December 3rd 2016... everything was done, his tickets and mine were booked. Then my grandfather passed away on the 1st, and our best-laid plans were waylaid. And we hadn't resumed our convo—2017 was chaos, for him and me.

In early December, scrolling on Facebook past midnight, I saw Fabrice was back in Delhi (where I was too, undercover). Excited, I wrote to him. In a great stroke of luck, my subject had somewhere to be in the morn and Fabrice’s appointment was cancelled.

So this chapter from Nepal closed two and a half years after it started. (Plus another impulse piece, for good measure!)