Having grown up on India's stormy southeastern coast, I have experienced some of Nature's terrifying moods. But not even a full-blown tropical cyclone can reduce a city of brick, stone and mortar into a mountain of rubble. An earthquake is especially terrifying because it shakes our most fundamental belief, that the ground beneath us is solid. Although I have volunteered to help in the relief effort, I'm truly, deeply, frightened—and will remain so for the duration as aftershocks, at least six a day, rumble underfoot. These are mostly mild, 3.5 to 4.5 on the Richter scale, and last only five or six seconds, but they are a constant reminder of the Big One.
Not that anybody in Kutch is likely to forget. Everyone I meet has a horrible tale. The vice-principal of a school in Gandhidham town saw a brick wall fall on her students. She wonders if she can ever return to teaching. A construction worker in Bhuj spent half a day shouting out encouragement to a woman trapped in the debris as others tried, in vain, to reach her; her last words to him were: "Be good to your family." Another man dragged two of his children out of their home and had just returned for the third when the roof came down; he and the child inside miraculously survived, but the two outdoors were crushed by a collapsing wall.
After a week working for a nongovernmental organization (NGO) in rural Saurashtra, I enlist as odd-job man in a kitchen tent on the outskirts of Bhuj. Not an instinctive volunteer-type, I have no idea why I'm here, just that those images on TV and in the papers demanded more than the routine cash-and-clothes donation. But there's not much time for introspection at the kitchen, run by Girishbhai, a small businessman. We serve two meals daily to quake survivors from nearby camps, anywhere between 150 and 450 people a day. After a couple of days, I realize I'm avoiding conversation or eye contact with the people we're feeding: I don't want to hear any more stories. But some horrors are impossible to escape. The stench of decaying bodies still hangs over parts of Bhuj two weeks after the quake. Elsewhere, there is the smell of burning flesh from funeral pyres. I'm grateful to have been spared the sight of smashed heads and twisted limbs.
And then there are the walking wounded: the thousands of survivors whose minds cannot yet comprehend the full extent of their tragedy. Dozens of people who come to our kitchen bear the telltale signs of a nervous breakdown in progress, the stuttering, the facial tics. Many others are in deep denial, like Varsha, a Bhuj housewife in her late thirties. The apartment block that housed her third-floor flat has collapsed. Although she and her family were unhurt, the sight of all their worldly possessions going to dust has left her unbalanced. Every day, from dawn till dusk, she stands guard over the pile of bricks and mortar, "to make sure thieves don't take our things." There is no way any of her "things" could have survived; the building is so thoroughly destroyed I doubt a spoon is intact. But Varsha won't—or can't—give up hope. "We had a TV, a fridge... How will I know what's under there until they've removed the rubble?" she asks. She wishes the clearing crews would come quickly, with their cranes and bulldozers. But they are concentrating on wreckage where there's a chance of finding bodies. It will be several days, perhaps weeks, before they get to Varsha's home. "If only somebody in this building had died here," she laments. "Then the bulldozers would come and we'd get our things back."
NGO veterans who have worked at other disaster sites say most survivors will never fully recover from the trauma. Psychiatric help is hard to come by, and anyway, most people don't recognize the need for counseling. To some, seeing a "crazy doctor" is tantamount to admitting they are insane. The quake hasn't shaken people out of their ignorance, or false pride.
On the bright side, practically every other kind of aid has been pouring into Gujarat—food, water, blankets, tents, volunteers. More than any previous natural calamity, the earthquake has sent Indians everywhere into a frenzy of giving. The trucks streaming past Girishbhai's kitchen bear the license plates of 20 different states. (I counted.) Every religious group you can name has a camp and kitchen in and around Bhuj. Even Tibetan refugees have pitched in. Some folks have gone overboard in their generosity. There is a surplus of used garments, sent by the truckload from all over India. Just outside Bhuj, I see an enormous pile of clothes, evidently offloaded from a passing truck. Back in Saurashtra, one NGO is still wondering what to do with a truckload of shaving kits sent by some well-meaning souls from Bombay.
Some surpluses are welcome: Kutch has received more water in the past three weeks than in the previous two years. (There has been a drought since 1998.) In Anjar, I spot a group of urchins drinking bottled mineral water. Even the barren earth has turned bountiful: geologists report that the quake has created a new "river," a 100-km channel of fresh water from a subterranean lake is snaking its way across the rann. Hindu priests immediately pronounce this to be the Saraswati, the mythical holy river that disappeared into the ground thousands of years ago. Here and there, there are reports of new ponds bursting to the surface, but just as quickly disappearing.
In the tent cities that have sprouted around Bhuj, Bachchau and Anjar, news of fabulous rivers and ponds is greeted with healthy skepticism. For the moment, though, most survivors are too busy grieving for their dead to be distracted by faux miracles. Many families remain in a state of suspended mourning, uncertain about the fate of missing relatives.
Sumati and Karsanbhai, encamped near Girishbhai's kitchen, are still waiting to hear from their 20-year-old son Vinod. He had left their home in Bhuj a few minutes before the quake struck, but there has been no sign of him since. Is he in another camp? Did he flee to his sister's home in Surat, to the south? Is his body lying lifeless under some mound of bricks and stone—or was it dumped, unrecognized, on a funeral pyre, like thousands of others? The couple, small and frail in their mid-fifties, are trapped somewhere between hope and despair. Every morning, Karsanbhai heads out in search of Vinod, circulating among the NGO camps, government emergency centers and military information booths. He calls Surat to check if Vinod has arrived there. Sumati, meanwhile, busies herself in the tent she now calls home, emerging sometimes to help other women cook and clean. She doesn't speak to anybody, but is constantly muttering to herself. Only when I draw within a meter of her do I realize that she is chanting the name of a family deity: "Ma Sherawali... Ma Sherawali... Ma Sherawali..." She clings to a small idol of the Tiger-Borne Goddess she found in the rubble near the camp.
Karsanbhai returns in the evening, grimy from sweat and worn from walking all day without food or water. He can't bear to look Sumati in the eye. "Any news?" she asks, keeping her voice as matter-of-fact as a mother's anxiety will allow. She knows the answer before Karsanbhai can deliver it: "No. Maybe tomorrow." At night, Sumati breaks down and wails for her missing son. Karsanbhai admonishes her: "Why are you grieving for somebody who isn't dead? You know we will find him, it's only a matter of days." An hour later, it's his turn to cry, and hers to scold: "I'm a mother, and my heart tells me he's alive. How foolish you will look when he comes here tomorrow, and finds you mourning." At dawn, Karsanbhai heads out again, and Sumati calls to Sherawali.
The camps provide more than food and shelter. Huddled together in the winter cold, survivors are forming informal support groups to cope with their collective sorrow. One morning, as Karsanbhai prepares to leave for his daily search, two men step up and offer to join him. If they go in different directions, three can search more effectively than one. A fourth man brings them some bottles of water. Overwhelmed by this gesture, Karsanbhai hugs one of the men, sobbing uncontrollably.
Not all survivors are in the camps. Many have left Kutch, even Gujarat, to live with relatives elsewhere. Some will never return. Others are reluctant to leave the ruins of their homes. A young woman, barely out of her teens, squats by the side of the highway not far from the sea bridge that connects Kutch to Saurashtra. She has a naked baby in one arm; the other is outstretched, seeking alms. But she obviously has no experience in begging, because she's a good 10 m from the road, too far to be noticed by drivers whizzing past at 100 km/h. Passing that way a week later, I see her again, still sitting a long way from the tarmac. This time I stop. She only speaks Kutchi, the local dialect, and understands very little of my Hindi, so our conversation is hit-and-miss. We get off to a bad start. I ask her name. "Balia," she replies. Her son's name? "Balia." And her husband's? "Balia." He is apparently somewhere in the rann foraging for food while she seeks charity by the highway. The pickings are slim. In 15 days, she has scored two olive-green blankets and a small bag of rice and lentils from a passing aid convoy. Her husband has come up with some onions. I offer to drive the family to a relief camp near town, where they would get food and shelter. Balia refuses, pointing to a small pile of stones that used to be her home. What if the government surveyor came around while they were in the camp? They would miss the chance to claim financial aid. I give her what I have on me, but a handful of biscuits and a few rupees won't last a day. So I urge her to move closer to the road, to improve her chances of receiving alms. She agrees, and accepts a gauze mask for protection from the exhaust fumes. I've done a few unpleasant things over the years, but nothing made me feel as low as having to teach Balia to beg.
By the time I leave Gujarat, the chaotic relief effort has been replaced by some semblance of order. After some prodding by New Delhi, the state administration has snapped out of its stupor, launching a welter of rehabilitation and reconstruction schemes and working with the NGOs. Many volunteer groups are pulling back, leaving the work to be done by organizations that have the best resources on the ground. This allows for easier coordination, ensuring that aid is spread evenly. Corporate India has responded magnificently to calls from the government, with many companies adopting entire villages. Thousands of wealthy Gujaratis abroad—think of all those "Motel Patels" in the U.S.—are sending money to impoverished relations or social service groups.
By tapping into its traditions of private enterprise and self-reliance, Gujarat will bounce back on its feet faster than many people expect. There will be a New Bhuj, a New Bachchau, a New Anjar. Today's rubble will be turned into tomorrow's construction material. Many of those who have been bereaved by the quake will also be enriched by the massive reconstruction effort. My own guess is that in 10 years the quake will have faded from public memory.
Private memories are a different story. I get a final glimpse into Gujarat's wounded psyche on my last night at Girishbhai's camp. Most of the people—mainly slum dwellers—seem in good spirits. Women gossip and giggle as they help the volunteers cook up a fresh batch of khichdi, a nutritious mixture of rice and lentils. The men are kept in splits by a barber's risqué jokes. "Our homes were not worth much, so it will be easy to rebuild them," says 60-year-old Haji Aftab. "We feel sorry for the rich and the middle-class folks, who lost expensive houses." The resident chatterbox Malati, a maid in her early twenties, says she is looking forward to the months ahead. "There will be so much construction work here, my husband and brothers will all have jobs," she says, grinning broadly. "When God takes with one hand, he gives with the other." But as night falls, Malati grows quiet, edgy. After dinner, she is the last person to turn in. Then, just short of midnight, we are awakened by a piercing scream from the women's tent. It is Malati, shouting in her sleep: "Get me out! Get me out!" I learn that she has been doing this every night since the quake. In 10 years there will be no physical evidence of the great earthquake of 2001. But in the nightmares of Malati and a million others, the earth will never stop shaking.