April 11, 2012
It was a day that I chose to work from home, opting for the comfort of home against the 50 km commute to office in the harsh summer heat. At about 2 PM, I was deep into the article I was writing when I felt my computer table shaking. I thought I was leaning too much on the table, and pushed my chair back a bit. That was when I noticed my chair shaking too. I got up in a flash without touching the table, and a full-blown panic attack ensued when I noticed the water shaking of its own accord in the bottle on my table top. Being alone in the house did not help one bit.
‘This feels like an earthquake!,’ I said to myself and rushed outside the house to see if anyone was around. Nothing. Everything was pretty much normal outside my house; all houses quiet in the lazy afternoon. I came back home and noticed, to my relief, that the shaking had stopped. ‘Either I am hallucinating or my head was spinning a moment ago,’ I told myself as I tried to get back to work.
By that time, news had started to come in about the 8.2-magnitude earthquake in Indonesia. What I had experienced was a tremor from the major earthquake. My husband – who had felt the quake along with his colleagues – and my parents from Ahmedabad – who had seen the news on TV – called to enquire if I was alright, and soon, cossetted in the comforting warmth of family, the panic of a few minutes before was gone. The panic had been replaced by something else, though – a pang in the heart at memories of the Gujarat earthquake on January 26, 2001.
January 26, 2001
At about 8 AM, I was studying for my upcoming Second Year B.Com. exams, tension writ large on my face. I was scared of Taxation and Business Laws, and no amount of preparation was enough to make me feel confident about these two subjects. I had just about finished reading the definition of a ‘contract’ when the bed I was sitting on began to rock like a boat. Now, my bed back home at Ahmedabad is a big one, and quite heavy, and I couldn’t see any reason for its rocking except for my dad shaking it just to irritate the hell out of me, as he often used to do when I was studying, to get me out of the panic attack that I used to work up. ‘Dad, stop it!,’ I yelled, and looked up from my book to give dad a piercing glare. Only to find no one near me. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
Mom had chosen that day of all days to make the elaborate preparations required for bisi bele bhaat, and was watching the utensils in the kitchen shake as she turned off the gas and yelled. Dad had just taken his morning shower and was hanging his clothes on the clothesline to dry, wondering whether his BP had shot up, as the earth below him was shaking. My grandpa, who was hard of hearing, was bathing, bathroom door locked, the geezer on and the hot water running.
Mom and dad and I rushed to the living room as fast as our legs could take us, considering that they were shaking – out of fear and then, of their own accord. We saw hordes of people run down the stairs – we were staying on the 2nd floor of an 8-floor flat, and electricity throughout the city had been pulled off by the Ahmedabad Electricity Company (AEC). There had been a major earthquake in Kutch, near Ahmedabad, and our city was also facing the brunt of it.
It was the very first earthquake experience for all three of us – mom, dad and me – and we didn’t exactly know what we were supposed to do in such a situation. We were standing there, near the main door of our house, wondering, when our neighbours started calling out to us as they rushed down the stairs. ‘Run down the stairs. What are you waiting for?’ – said one. ‘There has been a big, big earthquake. Rush to save your lives.’ – said another.
We stared at the people running down the stairs, and then all three of us looked at the walls around us in horror, where cracks had started developing from the impact. Was our beloved house going to cave down on us?
‘What are you waiting for? Why don’t you get out of your house?’ another neighbour called out.
‘We can’t. My father-in-law is in the bathroom. We have to get him out,’ my mother replied, her voice quivering.
‘He is old. He has lived his life. You should look at saving the life of your young daughter,’ the neighbour shouted at us and gave us a dirty look as if to suggest we were fools. ‘Come now,’ she said.
‘No,’ said my mother, ‘let my father-in-law get out of the bathroom. He will be shocked if he gets out and does not see anyone around.’
The neighbour muttered something under her breath and rushed down the stairs. Neither one of us was ready to go downstairs, leaving the others.
All three of us – as if on cue – turned and ran towards the bathroom as fast as our legs would carry us. We started banging on the door, with no reply. ‘Come out,’ we cried, ‘there’s been an earthquake. Come out fast!’ Grandpa came out of the bathroom precisely 5 minutes later, a towel wrapped around his midriff. The shaking had stopped by then.
‘What happened?,’ he cried out. ‘I think I am sick. My head was spinning too fast. I felt as if everything around me was shaking. That’s why I sat down on the commode till things became steady.’
‘No, nothing is wrong with you. There’s been an earthquake,’ we repeated to him, and gesticulated it till he understood.
‘Good lord! Why are we still in the house then? We should rush down!,’ grandpa cried.
We rolled our eyes. Suddenly, realisation dawned on grandpa. ‘You waited for me to get out?,’ he cried. We nodded. ‘Oh, god!,’ he cried, looking to the heavens. Then, to us – ‘Thank you so much! I don’t know what I would have done had I found you all gone!’
Tears glistened in all our eyes. All four of us bound towards the stairs simulataneously, and ran down together, hand in hand. ‘Here they come!’ our neighbours taunted as we got down and reached them, standi ng in a group. A lamp-post in the building compound was the only thing vibrating and shaking at that moment, bearing mute testimony of what had happened a few minutes ago.
Everyone looked shattered. News about the buildings that had fallen down in the city, the devastation in Kutch from the 8.1-magnitude quake, and the people who had died had started reaching us by that time.
Mom, dad, grandpa and me looked at each other wordlessly. We were thankful to be together, grateful to have each other in our lives. We had survived the earthquake – the worst of natural disasters in that year – together, as one unit, as a family. To this date, we think that what we did might not be the best thing to do in an earthquake, but it seemed like the right thing to do.
11 years later, my grandpa is no longer with us. All I have to do is close my eyes and think about this incident, and there he is – right beside me, wherever I am. This is one of my strongest memories of him. My heart suffuses with warmth whenever I remember that day, and I am grateful that I am part of the family that I am part of.