They say everyone can remember what they were doing when they heard President Kennedy had been assassinated. Even though I was barely seven I’ll never forget the look on Daddy’s face as he picked up the morning paper and discovered the news. It disturbed me although I was too young to understand why.
I’m convinced something very similar is true of earthquakes. Practically everyone I know can recall almost precisely what they were doing when an earthquake struck. Perhaps the sheer shock imprints it on your memory and it stays there indelibly.
The 2001 earthquake happened while I was in the loo. And as you perhaps guessed I wasn’t in a position to make a quick getaway! Of course, that’s one good reason why I’ll never forget.
Last Saturday’s earthquake happened while I was in office. The gentle but persistent rocking of my chair made me realise something wasn’t quite right. I waited to be sure or, rather, to find out what would happen next. It’s that 20-second period, as the earthquake continued, that I cannot forget. It wasn’t that I was helpless or scared. Just confused and not sure what to do.
The aftershock on Sunday caught me in my car at a red-light, waiting for the beacon to turn green. At first I thought the vibrations were the result of the running engine or the air conditioner kicking in. Not sure, I made a point of looking around to see how others were reacting. But I saw nothing unusual. Certainly no panic. Not even any concern.
This time I didn’t feel confused or unsure of what to do. Instead, I was, rather pleased I had recognised an earthquake others were unaware of. It was a feeling of one-upmanship!
But back to my main point: people remember what they’re doing when the earth starts to shake. I’m pretty confident if you do a test you’ll discover I’m right. Everyone who’s been through an earthquake will remember when it happened. And the worse the earthquake, the sharper and stronger the memory. So far no one has proved me wrong.
The other striking thing about earthquakes is some people don’t feel them. The best example is my sister Kiran. On Saturday she was blissfully and blithely unaware of the two that hit Delhi. When I rang to tell her she kept asking if I was sure it wasn’t my imagination! She hadn’t felt a thing.
Sunday was no different. When the earthquake struck at 12.43 Kiran was on the phone to my sister Premila. “It’s happening again,” Premila said, as the fans started swaying and the flower vases shaking. “What’s happening again?” Kiran was genuinely perplexed. For the next 30 seconds, as the earth shook, she had no idea she was living through a third earthquake in 24 hours.
In the 60s I lived in Kabul, a city prone to frequent and often violent earthquakes. The fact they could happen any time was a fear you learnt to live with. But every time the ground shook we rushed for the door. To stay inside wasn’t bravery. It was sheer folly.
However, surviving an earthquake can be cause for celebration. One night when my parents had a formal dinner (Daddy was Ambassador at the time) one of the worst shook Kabul. The guests immediately dashed home to check all was well. But when they returned they were clearly in a mood to party! Relief can make for a very joyful celebration.
The views expressed by the author are personal