Sunday, May 28, 2023

Writing Disaster


Writing Disaster

How does one write disaster? How does one turn the shards of memory into text?

What’s intact are the memories of disasters. Disturbing, alienating and sad. How does one begin to write about something that escapes one’s own experience? How does one begin in the aftermath of another disaster that brings back the trauma and the despair of the disasters one witnessed or was part of, directly or indirectly. Like the earthquakes in Türkiye and Syria that have killed more than 40,000 people. The tremors spread. Into the memory zone. And the old question returns—Why?

Over the years, I have witnessed a few natural hazards that turned into disasters. Like the Uttarakhand floods in 2013, the Kashmir floods in 2014, the Nepal earthquake in 2015 and the forest fires of Uttarakhand in 2016. I have always wondered how one writes about disaster, and if one can at all. If one can give memory its due. We collected testimonies. We filed reports. We moved on to other stories until the next earthquake or flood struck. When the earthquake hit, we knew we had carried memories of other disasters to it. Those faces reappeared. Those images flashed again.

I remember Nimo, the child who slept in my lap the night we were returning from Bhaktapur in Nepal to Kathmandu. It was May 2015. An earthquake had turned into a disaster that was beyond the community’s capacity to cope with. A magnitude 7.8 earthquake had struck near Kathmandu in central Nepal on April 25, 2015, killing about 9,000 people and injuring thousands, damaging more than 600,000 buildings in the area.

Images of desolation and hope:  Vignettes from an old aged home in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Images of desolation and hope: Vignettes from an old aged home in Kathmandu, Nepal. Photo: Chinki Sinha in kathmandu in 2015

That night, I climbed into a Maruti Omni along with a friend who had earlier been evacuated from an avalanche on his way to the summit of the Everest. Suhail Sharma and I met in Kathmandu on April 29. He told me he had been climbing the Everest when the avalanche hit. Would he attempt it again? He said he would.

That’s when we met Nimo. The Omni stopped on the highway where we had been standing for a long time, waiting for someone to give us a ride to the city. The child lay in the backseat. The man in the driver’s seat said his name was Nimo. Nimo was deaf-mute. During the earthquake, Nimo had been forgotten. He lived in a residential school for the deaf and had earned a scholarship. His mother, abandoned by her husband, lived and worked in a faraway village. The old grandmother, who lived nearby, had urged some relatives to bring Nimo back from the school. In that week before Nimo was picked up, the nine-year-old lived in a tent outside the school. The school had been razed to the ground. Nimo was to wait until the school would be rebuilt.

I wanted to write a note to him saying he had fallen asleep in my lap and I wished they would rebuild his school. But I didn’t.

I wanted to ask him how it felt to be abandoned. Did he feel sad?

We got off at Kathmandu. The van lurched forward into the night.

Vignettes from an old aged home in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Vignettes from an old aged home in Kathmandu, Nepal. Photo: Chinki Sinha in Kathmandu in 2015

We carry memories of silent encounters. I didn’t take Nimo’s photo. You know you will remember the face. That’s disaster.

Maurice Blanchot, in The Writing of the Disaster, writes that disaster “is the limit of writing. This must be repeated: the disaster de-scribes.” For four years in a row, I went to cover disasters thinking I had experienced them. I never wrote about the earthquake in Nepal in 2015. I just watched.

I watched how the poor were being cremated on the other side. Two bridges divided the poor and the wealthy and the royals into two zones at the Pashupati Nath temple. That afternoon, I saw how disaster segregates. On one side, people stood with roses for the dead. For the poor, there weren’t any flowers. Only tears.

That afternoon, I saw how disaster segregates. On one side, people stood with roses for the dead. For the poor, there weren’t any flowers. Only tears.

Many journalists, rescue workers and NGOs had come to Kathmandu. On the streets, we’d find them reporting the statistics. In the lounges of hotels, you could order a steak. I had wanted to write a piece I wanted to call ‘High Living in Kathmandu during the Earthquake.’ But I didn’t. On another night, when we visited a dance bar called Bebo in Thamel, I found a little boy called Dhiraj. Dhiraj was 10 years old and he asked us if we’d buy him dinner. He lived on the streets and when the earthquake hit, he was in a movie theatre. He ran out but he had no home to which to return. He had no friends, no family, no home. When he grows up, he said, he wants to make people happy.

Dhiraj Photo: Chinki Sinha in Kathmandu in 2015

I asked him if he was happy. He said how could he be when he had no mother or father. He would go and talk to the cigarette vendor sometimes. His days were spent begging on the busy streets of Thamel. He said he would remember us. I remember him still.

Suhail and I still talk about Nimo and the others.

When they heard the earth shake, the Sherpas came out and held hands and started chanting to the goddess to spare them. They believe the goddess chooses who shall survive the mountains and before they begin, they perform rituals to keep her on their side. The brow of the skies, Goddess Chomolungma, is beautiful in a way all inaccessible beauty must be. Glorious, magnificent and mysterious. And yet, the avalanche came.

Suhail survived the avalanche but he carries those memories. He had held a dead woman in his arms. The winds hit the base camp at 80 km per hour. 16 died. When the avalanche comes. it roars. It is unlike any sound that one has ever heard.

That’s how disaster comes. With a sound that can’t be described.

I remember watching a glass full of water through the night. Those were the days and nights of earthquakes. Run out if the water starts to shake, they said.

I remember the elderly in the old age home next to the temple complex. They said when the earthquake hit, they didn’t run anywhere. They had been waiting to die.

“Better than living here with that whole burden of being abandoned,” one old man said to me.

It was in 2013 that I was sent to cover the Uttarakhand floods. We travelled for hundreds of kilometres covering the destruction trail. I remember the chopper ride to see how a river changes course, how buildings that should never have been there kill as they collapse and how we brought the destruction upon ourselves.

“The chopper dives in, slants and rises again. We are in between two cliffs. Below, the Alaknanda gushes, swollen and angry. The day before, a rescue chopper had crashed in Gaurikund and burst into flames.

“Why do you want to go there?” the pilot says into the microphone.

“To see what used to be,” I say.

“It is all gone,” he says,” I wrote in my piece for Open.

We write, Blanchot says, from the disarray within us. Disaster, he says, disorients the absolute.

For as long as I have been here, I have in my memory the images and the sounds of various disasters. Hurricane Katrina that happened in 2005 and killed around 1,800 people was as much a political disaster defined by racism, sexism and capitalism as it was a natural one. As a student then at Syracuse University, we were first exposed to the other side of disaster and the writing of it. Blanchot says, “It is not you who will speak; let the disaster speak in you, even if it be by your forgetfulness or silence.”

That’s where we stand. We forget the lessons. We forget to follow up, to look at disaster as a continuum. Disaster has a long history. And we have a short future, if we do not realise that that history is political. It is marked by greed and arrogance. It is where we witness segregation. Not just its arrival but its aftermath. In the forgetfulness and in the silence. In the possibility and the impossibility. I haven’t forgotten Nimo. This is my way of writing disaster.