Monday, September 19, 2011


Sunday evening, Biswakarma Puja Day. It was chilly and it had been raining for nearly twenty four hours. My daughter Swati, my husband Mohan and I were sitting with our cups of tea. We were arguing idly about whether we should catch a movie later in the evening. Suddenly Swati said, 'Earthquake!'

I had just felt a little movement, but hadn't identified it.
'Run, Ma!' she said, and already, everything was shaking violently. A loud grinding and rumbling sound started off.

We were shaken and rattled about. The lights went off at once. The noise was frightening. Once we made it outside we stood together holding one another at the door. We knew we should be running down the stairs but we couldn't move. The building was rocking violently. It felt as if everything would come crashing down any second.

We heard people wailing loudly from the direction of Siliguri.
The last time I'd heard that many people shouting was when India won the cricket World Cup.

We stood hugging one another, unable to do anything more than keep our balance. It was pitch dark. We couldn't see the stairs. As soon as the shuddering stopped, the lights came on and we took the stairs down - gingerly, because they were slippery after the rain. Two young girls who live upstairs rushed down, sobbing loudly.

Everyone in the three buildings that make up our apartment complex had come down.
No one was hurt but people were just too scared to go back inside.

We looked up and wondered if the structures would all come down any minute. We saw tall cracks - as high as twelve to fourteen feet - around many of the walls and pillars on the ground.

'We should live in a bungalow again!' I said to Mohan. We've felt a number of mild earthquakes over the years. In a bungalow, it would take a moment to run out on to the front lawn! And those old tea bungalows were built to withstand more than earthquakes.

Ten days ago, Delhi had an earthquake. My brother and I were chatting about it on GMail last week.
"Was it scary?" I asked.
"Nothing serious ... not scary ... but it's a unique feeling ... a wave which passes through your body ... your head stops feeling it by the time your legs start feeling it"
"You make me want an earthquake!!!!" I said ... and he reminded me of these words when I spoke to him later in the evening.
It felt a little eerie to re-read that chat. He'd written, "The feeling reminded me of all of us watching the landslide in oozes"
Today's quake had its epicentre in Sikkim, less than 60 kilometres from Siliguri.

Time calmed us all down. I stopped holding on to my daughter. We walked around a little freely. We tried to call our elder daughter in Delhi. All the phone lines were jammed with similar panic calls.

My husband walked around inspecting the cracks with some of our neighbours. 'Only the brick work and plaster have cracked,' he said. 'The pillars are unharmed.' Only then did we think of climbing the stairs back up to see what damage had taken place at our flat.

No, the building was not going to collapse for now. Still, all the neighbours pulled their cars out of the ground floor parking lot and parked them out in the open.

In the flat, we grabbed our cooling cups of tea and checked the damage. A broken photo frame, a chipped plate, some books knocked down. My 'puja' in disarray. Nothing too bad. Nothing that couldn't wait till later. We put on floaters so that we could run if required, and went downstairs to wait in case there were aftershocks.

Swati and I sat down in the car, though she and her dad had already decided not to drive out to the wide open spaces like I wanted to. They both said we ought to leave the roads free for people who might need to be rushed to hospital.

We managed to make our phone call to our daughter Parvati, alone in Delhi, frightening and reassuring her in the same breath.

Three young boys from the our building walked by. They were in high spirits.
'We could have died!' one announced happily in a loud voice.
'How many times have we studied earthquakes in class! Who thought we would feel one!'
Swati and I couldn't help laughing when we heard them.

It turned out the boys had been to the movie hall - the one we'd been debating about.
They'd all rushed out when the false ceiling started crumbling down and the hall filled with clouds of dust.

One boy popped his head in at my window. 'You are going to sit the whole night in the car, Aunty?' he asked.
He couldn't be more than eleven years old, and he'd braved the earthquake in the movie hall.
'That will be silly, no?' I asked him. 'Want to sit with us?"
He ran for his life. Again.

This post appeared in The Statesman, Kolkata, on 20 September 2011.