Grandma always spoke of the 1934 Nepal earthquake with dread. She was convinced it was then the Gods left the valley. Abandoned the country never to return. Growing up on her stories, I was more absorbed by the imagery of the Gods departing and the question of where they had gone. It wasn’t until recently that I experienced her horrors. The collapse of some of the temples this time around was perhaps a fitting coincidence to her belief.

When the earthquake struck Nepal on April 25, I was roughly 2,000 kilometres away. A neighbour informed me about the disaster, told me that ruination was playing on television news. Having no access to a television and unable to connect to my parents on the phone, I waited. Years of speculation and here it finally was. After an hour or so, I finally got through to the landline. Mother was safe, but shaken. In all my years I had never heard her voice so terror-stricken. Later, friends and family would recount the same sentiment: we thought it was the end.

The following days I spent glued to the internet as the country reeled from aftershock after aftershock. News of destruction and death was pouring in. The Langtang valley to the north of the Kathmandu Valley was wiped out. Historical landmarks were reduced to rubble. Everyone, gripped by fear, was living outdoors. Rumours of another impending big earthquake were rife. The earth trembled and the sky screamed. Snakes were spotted slithering through the fields and gardens. Birds were in constant unrest. To add to their misery, it rained. Like many other Nepali people who weren’t in their country, I felt the guilt of not being there. And it weighed heavy.

Shelter over food

A week later, the Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu was still in absolute mayhem. Flights poured in but it was hours before the luggage got cleared. Stacks of relief material were scattered haphazardly. Rescue teams from different parts of the world were pacing back and forth. There was confusion and there was anger. It was unpleasant to navigate. The airport staff and custom officers were living a nightmare. And they shared it with the passengers coming through.

The way mainstream media portrayed it, I expected to touch down on an apocalyptic scene. Cracks spiralled up many of the modern structures, but there was little visible damage in the capital other than in the old Newar settlements. I didn’t stay to explore and headed to the district of Sindupalchok with a relief group. Sometime in the day, I stirred from a nap. Outside the window, I saw cement houses that had fallen off the cliff, into the Sun Koshi river. It was unsettling. Over the next 10 days of relief operations, every village we passed had suffered over 90% destruction. The situation was grave and it would take years to recover.

The earthquake wasn’t just a natural disaster. It was a humanitarian crisis as well. A reflection of what Nepal was pre-earthquake. When we were warned about looting in villages we would cross, it didn’t come as a surprise. Times were desperate, resources were scarce and the government had done little to support the survivors. It’s always the poor and weak who suffer the most. This was affirmed when a few of us trekked to the remote villages inaccessible by road. There were collapsed houses, people had little food to eat and the water from the streams was muddy. Many continued clearing the rubble despite being injured. They knew better than to wait. They even refused to descend to the highway to collect relief material. Temporary shelter was a bigger priority.

Myths and legends

Back in the city, Mother narrated her experience of the earthquake several times. Every time a new element was introduced, the latest being that a ghastly wind blew the day the earth shook. It wasn’t just her. Friends, relatives and acquaintances followed a similar pattern. All conversations were about the earthquake and all reasonings differed.

Earthquakes in Nepal are more than just the shifting and shaking of the earth’s surface. It is the wrath of God making its presence felt. It is when the earth grows heavy with sin that it gives way. It is the curse of killing a holy snake. It is the landmass resting on the backs of giant elephants that shifts as they adjust themselves. It is a huge fish trapped in the soil, desperately wriggling to break free. And many more myths and legends the people take for truth. The people of the valley, the hills, the mountains interpreted the earthquake differently.

May 12 started out as a calm day and it seemed life was crawling back to normal. I decided to visit my Grandaunt who lives in an old four-storeyed wooden house in Basantapur. It stood miraculously unharmed, while structures around had fallen to rubble. Mother accompanied me. She too hadn’t dared to venture to the old durbar square of Kathmandu yet. It wasn’t just the fear of collapsing houses but also the fear of loss of a cultural heritage that we were deeply attached to. Around midday, while we were walking down the old square, the earth began to shake violently. The houses rattled aloud, the electric posts swung back and forth, and bundles of cables threatened to snap. In the distance, a massive cloud of dust rose in the air. Thousands of people scrambled outside, screaming and wailing. I held my Mother, as she turned pale with fear. Never before have I witnessed such a display of human frailty.

The second jolt

It was the second quake that broke the people’s spirit. A shadow was cast and everybody was suffering in its gloom. If you walked down the busiest streets, it would be hard to catch a smile on the faces. Everyone was living outdoors again and many were constantly on the edge. A friend’s sister was so petrified she couldn’t enter her own house for almost a week. Another’s mother kept staring at a glass of water. A friend’s father stayed awake night after night, he was later diagnosed with depression. A neighbour went around telling everyone to remain outside because another big quake was going to hit. If you questioned the source of information, she’d say it was her intuition. But people still huddled together out of fear.

The affected districts faced further damage. A series of landslides were triggered. Roads were disrupted and villages were evacuated. The relief operations continued for the next few weeks. Youth volunteers, the army and national organisations worked tirelessly along with some international communities to reach out to the victims. What persisted through all the devastation was an innate sense of responsibility that people felt towards one another. It is evident that there is a deep stirring for change, not just in politics and government, but also in society.

One evening, I boarded a tempo driven by a young mother. Her little daughter accompanied her because school hadn’t resumed yet. She was cheerful and excited when she had to collect the fare. In conversation, the young mother mentioned her husband’s return to his village in Dolakha. He and his brothers lost their home, their fields and livestock. Other family members and friends were injured. She kept silent for a while, and then broke into a wry smile as she made a turn. “The revolution taught us to accept, maybe the earthquake will teach us to love,” she said. The passengers shared a laugh.