Patan, Saturday morning, four hours before the quake:
My mother calls me in my hotel room and tells me my favourite aunt is going in for emergency surgery. I am so very far away and anxious, she promises they will keep me posted.
I make my way through the ancient city’s narrow, winding streets, dotted with ageless temples at every corner, almost envious of the people I see making their daily offerings, thinking to myself: I understand now why people pray.
People outside a temple in Patan, Kathmandu. (Photo credit- Padmini Ray Murray)
I am in Nepal with a colleague conducting a workshop on oral history and digital archiving, hosted by a tiny but extremely dynamic initiative called photo.circle.
We are teaching a class of thirty individuals, all hailing from this enchanting country with its centuries of history and tradition, all united in their aim to keep its stories alive by learning ways in which to gather people’s personal narratives, and to preserve and publish these chronicles digitally.
Each and every person there is doing fascinating and important work, and I’m so glad to have had the opportunity to meet and share what I know with them.
It’s 12:07 pm, nearly lunchtime, but no one seems to be hungry – we’re energetically discussing and weighing up the merits of various digital photo formats. I’m multitasking as I teach, one eye on Facebook where I’m asking my father when my aunt’s due out of surgery.
There’s a low rumble, and the room begins to vibrate. For me, it doesn’t even register at first, but for everyone else, there is an almost collective intuitive understanding that this is the big one, the major quake that they’d been warned about for years.
Weirdly, in what seems to be all in the same minute, people scream and start running – I hear someone shout, "Stay calm, stay calm, this is the safest place you can be, just get under the desks, GET UNDER THE DESKS!" I blindly obey. I’m crouching on the floor which is lurching sickeningly beneath me, swaying from side to side – and so it begins, this mistrust of gravity which will haunt me for days.
The crumbling plaster rains around me almost in slow motion and I feel incredibly calm, detached almost, as I watch the man doubled over under the next desk pray and cry. For one bizarre moment, it all just feels like an oddly novel experience. I have absolutely no idea how bad it’s going to get.
Somehow, we all make it out into the courtyard, teary and terrified, and look up to see a huge crack has erupted in the wall of the room we just fled. Heads are counted, hands are gripped in anguish and fear, as we make sure that everyone in the building has managed to make it out safely, including the group of Norwegian teens who were on the ground floor.
The cracked wall of the room where workshop was being conducted . (Photo credit- Indira Chowdhury)
We are evacuated to a nearby tennis court as the frantic calling of relatives, friends and lovers begins. The lines are unsurprisingly jammed, but texts and in some cases, internet access, allows for some communication, and I borrow someone’s phone because I ran from the room empty-handed, knowing I could replace everything apart from my life.
I let anyone who cares know that I’m safe via Facebook, along with phone numbers I can be reached on, with some degree of luck and persistence.
A young woman rushes onto the court and into the arms of one of my students, and they hold each other for a long time and then kiss, and despite all the madness around me, I smile.
It becomes a quest to keep oneself sane – for every death, for every demolished building, I trade in reasons to hope – a baby found in the rubble, the goodwill of strangers both near and far, but after a point, these fail to compute in the face of such incommensurable loss. Wave after wave still ripples and rumbles under the ground, and every time my blood runs cold.
Our indomitable host, Nayantara, offers us refuge for the night in the compound of her parents’ guesthouse, The Yellow House. Once we get there, we meet a motley crew of tourists, some of whom were already installed there, others who’d wandered in from the streets – hospitality has been offered kindly to all.
Women and children from a nearby collapsed building had already been given refuge under the tin awning of the breakfast area, and we set up makeshift beds of chairs and blankets under hastily erected marquees.
There is no electricity, but there is hot food cooked by the wonderful guesthouse staff, and we try to turn in for the night. But any attempt to rest is punctuated by aftershocks almost on the hour, and nothing is quite comparable to that tautness strung by fear, that knowledge that each shock had the capacity of becoming so much more.
Cold rain beats down on the tarpaulin and my heart sinks – rain is going to make rescue efforts that much more difficult, and the land more vulnerable to landslides and avalanches.
At 5:30am on Sunday, we are shaken by a tremor that resonates through our bones and a renewed fear that the worst might not be over yet. The Indian Embassy hotline works, thank goodness, and we learn that that evacuation is already under way and planes are flying out to India on the hour.
We decide that it’s worth going back for our bags and ride pillion with our hosts through those streets that I’d walked through on my way to work just twenty-four hours ago. But in place of those mighty shrines that housed gods I wished I could believe in, there were merely heaps of rubble, timber and dust.
At every corner, and in Patan’s historic square, centuries of testaments to faith lay in ruins, some smothering people below the debris, possibly lost to the world forever.
I thought twice before leaving, before abandoning this devastated country which needed all the help it could get. But on second thoughts, I realised my lack of resources and local knowledge would be more of a liability than of any real assistance, and I took the opportunity to return so I could mobilise resources and fundraising initiatives as best I could.
My hosts at photo.circle have set up a campaign and I can personally vouch that every penny of the fund will go towards distributing supplies on the periphery of the Kathmandu Valley.
They are tirelessly documenting rescue efforts at #nepalphotoproject and @nepalphotoproject on Facebook and Instagram, creating visibility and facilitating coordination.
If you would like to help (in an individual or organisational capacity), please consider the following:
i. Contribute to the fund above, and share it with as many people you can.
ii. Fill in this form if you would like to help on the ground.
iii. Join the open-mapping community to assess damage by comparing satellite pictures and marking affected areas, no expertise required.
iv. Courtesy our friends at The Yellow House - this is an invaluable resource for sharing/receiving information - in addition to the below, you can submit reports and get alerts on specific areas where help is needed/has reached.
Most importantly, keep Nepal in the public eye as much as possible as people try to recover from the horrors of this natural disaster. Things might have to get much worse before they can get even a tiny bit better – with every day, every tremor, every rainfall, the chances of finding victims alive slip away, and for those who have survived, finding enough food, water, shelter and sanitation is going to be a logistical and financial nightmare.
For a country whose main source of income was tourism, the destruction of so many heritage sites will have far-reaching consequences and it will take years to recover. And for those of you who pray, please pray for Nepal.
(The author is a member of the faculty at the Centre for Public History at the Srishti Institute of Art Design and Technology in Bengaluru and was in Patan when the earthquake struck on April 25. She tweets as @praymurray)