It’s been a week since the devastating earthquake that left vast swathes of Kathmandu valley in shambles. Nearly all of Nepal’s magnificent antiquities bearing testimony to its unique culture and harking back to its history now lie in ruins a clutter of stones, bricks and wooden beams.
Thousands of houses, many in the old quarters of Kathmandu and Bhaktapur, have either collapsed or tumbled over. In far-flung rural areas, survivors are yet to come to grips with the brutal reality that stares them in the face: their hovels and shacks are reduced to rubble, their tattered and torn possessions buried under what till last Saturday were their homes.
Nepalese soldiers line up to clear rubble from temples at the Patan Durbar square in Kathmandu yesterday. Nearly all of Nepal’s magnificent antiquities bearing testimony to its unique culture and harking back to its history now lie in ruins a clutter of stones, bricks and wooden beams. Pic/AFP
Nature’s fury is at once blind and remorseless. It does not distinguish between man and woman, young and old, rich and poor, pious and impious, believer and non-believer. We tend to bestow our gods with limitless love and compassion, we see in them virtues that are increasingly rare to find in humankind.
But when we look at the death and destruction in the wake of disasters like last Saturday’s earthquake, when we see the tear-streaked faces of orphans, when we hear the wail of widows, when we see numb and tired hands of parents searching for their children in a mound of rubble, we cannot but wonder whether the giver of life is indeed kind and compassionate. Which god destroys so wantonly that which has been lovingly
Fatalism unites those who live in the Indian sub-continent. We never allow rational thinking to intrude into our private and public spaces. If we live, we believe it is the hand of fate that props us up. If we die, we say it was fated to be so. He who giveth also taketh. Why militate against God and fate, intertwined and interchangeable, and interwoven into our daily lives?
It is this fatalism, this unquestioning (and, if I may add, misplaced) trust in God, that explains why we never learn any lessons from the misery inflicted upon us. We see the misery as punishment for our sins, the price to be paid for our ungodly ways and transgressions. In any event, fate is the great leveller; we are but captives in fate’s hands.
And so it is that tragedies come and go, catching us unawares and unprepared. Why else would Nepal present a picture no different from what it did when a similar earthquake flattened Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Pokhara eight decades ago? Neither the now defunct monarchy nor the incumbent political system bothered to prepare for an eventuality all knew was impossible to escape, given Nepal’s geographical location.
It could be argued that in a desperately poor country, preparing to meet the challenges posed by an earthquake (or any natural disaster with horrific consequences) is a luxury that the masses and those who govern them can ill afford. Much of the meagre resources go towards feathering the nests of the rich and the powerful; the little that remains is squandered on meaningless schemes and projects that have nothing to do with empowerment of the people and capacity creation of the state.
Tragedies have a life cycle that is linked to the news cycle of popular media. Soon we will see Nepal fade out from our television screens and fall off the front pages of newspapers. But the computation of a final death toll will not signal the end of tragic consequences. These will continue to unfold over the coming weeks, months and years.
The social and economic impact of last Saturday’s earthquake will be felt not now but later, after aid workers have left and the world’s attention has been diverted by another war, famine or disaster. Will the world stand with Nepal then? Will we in India step forward to help Nepal deal with those consequences and cope with the new normal?
There are no definite answers to these questions. Certitude is something best avoided. For history tells us there are nations that rise phoenix-like from the ashes. And there are nations that, once reduced to ashes, are dead as the dodo, literally and metaphorically.
All that can be said at the moment is that the spirit of Nepal may be scarred but it is not broken. Hopefully that spirit will survive the severe stress and strain to which Nepal will be subjected in the coming days — as a nation, as a people and as a civilisation.
PS: Believers have pointed out that Pashupati Nath Temple in Kathmandu stands unscathed. That shows God has not abandoned Nepal. Nor have people abandoned their faith. So Christian missionaries should not look forward to a bumper harvest of souls.
The writer is a senior journalist based in the National Capital Region. His Twitter handle is @KanchanGupta