I am in Leh looking at a tree that’s crashed into and through a house and the first thing I remember is the tree that crashed into and through another house five years ago, 3,000 km away, in the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, on the island of Car Nicobar.
The two disasters have more in common than large bodies of water behaving in an unpredictable fashion. Most tragic, the aftermath is depressingly the same: shock, confusion and emptiness. It doesn’t matter if you lose your child to an exposed electric wire in the rains or to a 7.7 earthquake.
Looking beyond the house ripped apart by the tree (and mud and rocks) I see an impossibly beautiful land, chocolate-charcoal ranges, a cloudless blue sky and green-grey fields. The contrast is all too familiar. I remember standing on Trinket island (so named because it was just that — a tiny, beautiful jewel) in Nicobar, standing speechless on an almost totally submerged isle, every house 100 feet under water, then turning around to see powder beaches and the ocean as clear as glass in every shade of blue.
The serenity and the beauty of Ladakh seem to have graced its calamity. On the face of it, it’s an almost genteel disaster. Forty four days after that night, the numbers sound ‘manageable’ (178 dead, 1,235 families homeless), the after-effects ‘under control’ (thanks in large measure to clean water, timely relief — the state government, the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, a few NGOs and hundreds of volunteers should take credit for that), the monetary scale of the damage (Rs 204 crore) ‘small’ compared to other disasters. Yet, we know what happened in Leh was as unexpected, horrific and devastating as your standard issue mega-disaster. How does one begin to empathise with someone who was buried alive as he slept on the ground floor of his home? With the farmer who watched from his perch on high land as his field turned into a rectangle of mud? With the taxi driver who struggled to manoeuvre his vehicle out of the garage, which was swept away and smashed under tonnes of rubble?
And then you have the heartbreak. Not the heartbreak of loss and bereavement. It’s the heartbreak of goodness. The heartbreak when a family returns a shelter kit containing insulation mats, blankets, sheets and tarpaulin knowing winter is 30 days away, saying they don’t need it as much as others, that they’d go back to their submerged home and find some stuff. The heartbreak of a culture that tells them not to litter. To wash their utensils in the middle of the end of their lives as they know it. To still have the ability to giggle. To accept the death of one’s parent without blaming anybody. To lean across and hold the hand of a little boy who’s lost his parents but gained a community.
Listen to grizzled aid workers narrate tales of simplicity, discipline and the wisdom of the afflicted. The lack of formal education is almost invariably coupled with deep knowledge. But that night has taken its toll, taken away the self-confidence of the survivors, their strength. Mothers who reared strong, happy children look uncertain when you talk of the kids going back to school. Fathers who’ve drawn crop after crop from the land gaze helplessly when you talk of plans for next season. They’ve abdicated power to the state, to NGOs, to anybody with a strong voice and clear eyes.
This then is what relief must do. It must give back to the Ladakhis what the flash floods tore from them. It must give back to them their strong voices and clear eyes. So that the next time they look around and see their land frozen in mud they must believe it’s a potter’s conceit. And that what’s required of them is to make a fist and strike and break the mould, liberate the Ladakh that was. They must have no doubt about it. It’s only a matter of time. And forgetting.
Rahul Bose is an actor and brand ambassador of Oxfam India