20 Years Later: The Afterlife of the Kachchh Earthquake

“I thought the rumbling was from a large garbage truck. I did not understand what it was. My husband knew and asked me to run. The earth was shaking and there was a loud drilling sound,” says Jemima-ben, my domestic help in Bhuj town in Gujarat’s Kachchh district, while recalling the devastating earthquake of January 26, 2001. Twenty years ago to the day, the sounds and sensations of those moments are still fresh in her memory.

Measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale, the Kachchh earthquake led to large-scale loss of life and damage to property. An epoch in the recent history of the region, its effects have been far reaching. For some, Kachchh has emerged as a paradise for investors – a shining example of development in the state, rising like a phoenix from the ashes of the quake. “Zamano fari gayo (the age has changed),” lament others, attributing the post-earthquake shifts in the political economy for ruptures in the social fabric of the region.

While much has been written about the structural changes, this earthquake anniversary special focuses on personal and intimate stories. Stories that reveal how the event has etched itself on the bodies of those affected as the memories of those moments, where one lay suspended between life and death, mark personal and collective memory.

“Rehan, bhukamp mein kedo thyo? (Rehan, what happened during the earthquake?),” Jemima-ben’s family would coyly ask her son, who was only seven months old at the time. He would respond by lifting his hands and moving them side-to-side, gesturing the shaking of the ground. Even though he may not have cognitively comprehended the event when it happened, his young body experienced, understood, and remembered the earthquake.

“Every time I tried to get up, I kept falling back on my knees. I tried and tried, but couldn’t stand up for hours,” recalled Kalpesh-bhai, a tailor whose neighbourhood in Bhuj was razed to the ground.

Mahesh-bhai was bathing when the earthquake struck. He rushed out with only his wife’s dupatta. For two days, he wore nothing but that one piece of cloth, his body numb from the loss of his home and the cold January air.

Reva-bai was making millet bread in her village house in Bhachau block when the ceiling came crashing down on her. She was so afraid; she thought she would not make it. She spent eight hours trapped before she was rescued. Only her mother-in-law was in the village while other members of her family had migrated to Morbi district in search of fodder for their livestock, a common practice among many of the pastoralist households in the region. Eleven days after the earthquake, she gave birth to a healthy child, but she was inconsolable for months – her trauma oozing out through a continuous stream of tears.

Also read: Odisha’s Cyclone Fani: How to See a (Natural) Disaster

Nathu-bhai remembers running across the Surajbari bridge two days after the earthquake. A nomadic pastoralist, he was in a field in Surendranagar district with his flock of sheep at the time of the earthquake. It felt like the apocalypse was here, like the earth would split open and swallow them, he says. Thankfully nothing happened to them, but he was worried about his family back in Kachchh. Fearing that the bridge, which connects the island of Kachchh with mainland Gujarat, would collapse post the earthquake, he ran across it, screaming, and then walked all the way to Ramvav, his village. He remembers the wave of relief that swept over him when someone on the way told him his family was okay.

I was nine and in far-off Bombay when my father rushed us out of the house with the first tremors. News of relatives being hurt and property being damaged soon came in, and a fear erstwhile unknown instilled itself in me as I spent the next few months scanning each room for exit options in case of an earthquake. It was around this time that I stopped praying.

Eighty-five seconds. That’s how long the earthquake is said to have lasted. Am 85 seconds that caused 13,805 deaths and entire neighbourhoods razed to the ground. And a shiver that still runs down the spine at the thought of it. Through these stories told to me over the course of the past year, people like Jemima-ben and Reva-bai and Kalpesh-bhai and others have revealed the feelings, emotions, and bodily sensations that remain with them till this day.

The body remembers. The disaster’s somatic qualities are connected to the spatial, social and psyche. Trauma is felt, experienced and embodied. It is in the sights, sounds, smells and sensations that we undergo through an intimate and multi-sensual encounter with disaster. It is in the drilling sound and vibrations of the earth, the roar of falling structures, the wails and shrieks, the goosebumps from fear and cold, the weight of rubble, the sickening smell of bleach, the dust in your hair, and the warmth of relief.

It is not a momentary interruption, a singular event, but rather embedded in the everyday. Often, when thinking of disaster recovery, we think in terms of statistics and facts: how many lives lost, how many houses built and people rehabilitated, which public amenities restored, etc. And while these are important, the affective life of the disaster extends well beyond common measures of disaster recovery.

The earthquake is not the abstract story of a region, but a deeply intimate experience of trauma, loss, helplessness and hope. We grieve and remember those who have passed, and celebrate those who survive. But in this dichotomy, we forget to acknowledge and allow the experience of trauma, the fear of death, that seeped in when living through disaster, struggling between life and death, and that has been overcome not in a moment of triumph but through slow courage, strength and resilience over time. This milestone 20th anniversary, we give space to the corporeal and visceral feelings, the feelings of the body, and recognise the slow and invested process of recovering from disaster.

Natasha is a PhD researcher at the Institute of Development Studies, UK.

Featured image credit: Andrew Martin/Pixabay