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February 3, 2001


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The Rediff Special/Ramesh Menon

Memories of the earthquake
Memories of the earthquake

What do you feel when you realise it is just a matter of time before a demolition squad mows down a 10 storeyed building, which houses the home which you bought with your hard-earned money? Ask Sunil Vaswani and his wife, Arti, who allowed Roving Editor Ramesh Menon to join them as they watched the building they lived in being emptied in prepartion for its demolition. The building has been declared unsafe for habitation after the earthquake.

Media persons were not allowed near Mansi Apartments. The residents felt it disturbed the rescue operations and distracted the personnel who were otherwise doing a wonderful job. Television cameras and media people showed little sensitivity when the dead were being removed from the debris, they said.

Yesterday, Sunil stood watching the sturdy, helmeted Civil Defence personnel from Jodhpur clear the various flats in Mansi Apartments, which had partially collapsed during the earthquake. He is awaiting his turn. Soon, they will take out every belonging of his from his flat and hand it over to him. He does not know where he will go with all the things he has carefully collected over the years.

Meanwhile, various household goods -- securely bound by ropes -- are being let down gently by the defence personnel.

A television set.

A gunny bag full of utensils.

A double bed.

Sunil had never dreamt of such an eventuality when he pooled together his life's savings for the down payment on his house, which cost him Rs 850,000. The rest of money came as a housing loan from the Bank Of India. Now, though, he will repay loan installments on a flat that no longer exists.

Both his Maruti Esteem and Bajaj scooter lie crushed under the rubble, but he is yet to contact the insurance company. "I cannot believe it is my car. I hated the thought of having even a single scratch on it. My mechanic used to think I was too fussy. Now, my car lying on its roof. It is just a piece of mangled steel. My life has changed forever."

But he tries to remain cheerful; he tries even harder not to complain. He is glad he is alive and that his family is intact. "I have been given a second life," he says gratefully. Of the 40 flats that made up Mansi Apartments, 20 simply crumbled into debris during the Republic Day quake. Though his flat on the ninth floor did not fall then, it might fall any moment now. The building has developed major cracks; it is obvious that the pillars on which it stands will not survive another quake.

The day before yesterday, a fire brigade snorkel lifted Arti to the ninth floor so that she could enter the house through a window and retrieve all her important documents and belongings. She could not have climbed up to her flat; the staircase to her building no longer exists. Many other residents were waiting their turn so Arti was told not to take more than five minutes.

She collected their flat papers and other documents. And a new video game she and Sunil picked up before the earthquake. It was to be a birthday present for their son, Anand, who turned six on January 30. When she touched ground again, she gave it to her son and apologised for the two day delay.

Sunil, who was recovering from an accident, was grateful for the January 26 holiday; it would allow him to rest his injured leg. He had just got out of bed after three-and-a-half months. He had his morning cup of tea and returned to bed to cuddle against his sleeping son. Suddenly, there was a violent movement. Sunil thought his son had woken up and was playing a prank on him. Then Arti screamed at him to run -- it was an earthquake.

She grabbed her son and 67-year-old mother-in-law and raced out of the flat. A stunned Sunil followed more slowly. He was limping from a serious ligament injury; running down nine floors, when the building was swaying violently, was not easy. Suddenly, he heard a loud crash; half his building had vanished. All that remained were pieces of loose concrete, precariously hanging from rods of steel on each floor.

Arti had managed to reach the sixth floor and enter a house. When she did not see Sunil, she clambered back up again and got him down. Today, Sunil cannot remember how he got to the sixth floor.

Hope soon came in the form of some RSS volunteers. They were at a shakha nearby, preparing for a Bharat Mata puja at 9 am to celebrate Republic Day. The puja never happened. Instead, at 8.50 am, the earthquake did and Mansi Apartments crashed.

The RSS volunteers split up into many small groups as many buildings had crashed in the Vastrapur area. Hemang Purohit, a homeopath, headed one group of 15 volunteers. Within minutes, they had begun rescue operations at Mansi Apartments. Aiding their effort was CISF Inspector Ashwini Kumar.

They asked the women to tie together half-a-dozen sarees and let it down. Attaching a sturdy, knotted-at-intervals rope to the sarees, they asked them to pull it up. The survivors, about 35 of them, secured the rope to a pillar they thought would not give away and then threw it down. The RSS workers clambered up the rope, using the knots for added support. Once on the sixth floor, they tied the children to their backs and climbed down. Six children were rescued in this fashion.

Anand was one of them. His parents say he did not create any kind of a fuss. The other children were crying and were afraid, but Anand told his parents not to worry. He was, in fact, quite excited about his journey. Sunil, on the other hand, felt his mouth go dry. Within minutes, though, his son was safely on the ground and waving cheerfully at them.

Once the children were safe, the RSS workers breathed easier. But, suddenly, rumour mongers arrived, shouting that another, even more powerful earthquake was going to happen. This threw the remaining survivors, who were still trapped in the building, into a panic. They began shouting and screaming. "We had to calm them," recalls Purohit. They had to to be brought down on a slender rope and, if they were panicky, it would not help matters. "We promised them we would not leave till each and every one of them was on safe ground."

Next, Purohit tried to bring down those who were between the ages of 30 to 50. For him and the other RSS workers who displayed tremendous courage, it was an experience of a lifetime. In around 80 minutes, all of them were brought down to safety.

But there were still some people trapped under the debris. A huge beam had fallen on the legs of Sunil Sharma, a bank employee. It was proving very difficult to extricate him, so he told the RSS volunteers to cut off his legs. But the volunteers explored other ways; they slowly scooped the earth from under him and broke a part of the beam. Today, doctors at the hospital he is recovering in say there is no need for amputation; he will soon play basketball again. Emotionally, though, it will take him time to recover. He has lost four members of his family; they were among the 32 who died in the Mansi Apartments crash.

Thousands of household goods lie abandoned on a cement platform in front of the building. RSS volunteers and armymen have sifted these goods from the 20 flats that collapsed like a house of cards.

There is a television set which is intact. No one knows if its owner is alive.

There is a damaged VCR.

A bottle of jaggery.

A broken washing machine that will never whirr again.

Twisted utensils.

Hitendra Barot, who lived on the tenth floor, survived the fall. His wife did not. He stands at the site, picking out whatever belongs to him -- his wife's clothes, a computer keyboard, a dusty phone....

Those who watch the civil defence operation share a strange bonhomie -- it is something they have never experienced before, not even when they lived in the same apartment complex.

After all, they are the only ones who can understand the tragedy they face.

Design: Dominic Xavier

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