February 19, 2001


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The Rediff Special

After two weeks in the earthquake-affected areas, Roving Editor Ramesh Menon found the trauma seeping into him. But it was minuscule in comparison to what the victims are going through. After the quake, comes the mental tremor. At the moment, the victims's attention is on their daily struggle for survival. They have not had the time to mourn their dead. But in the weeks to follow, the psychological scars will surface.

Jumnalal, a cook in Ahmedabad, thinks he will never be normal again. He saw a woman fall to her death from the 9th floor of a building soon after the quake. She was clinging onto a piece of concrete that had not collapsed. As he and others watched helplessly, she fell down and died before him.

It is one memory that refuses to go away. Day after day. Her mangled body and her blood splattered all over.

Amit Darji, 12, from Vandya village in Bhachau taluka in Kutch had the flesh of his leg torn away as his house collapsed on him. All the 400 houses in his village were destroyed. Nearly 200 people died. Every time there is a minor quake, Darji has a screaming fit. It takes a lot of cajoling to calm him. He has a vacant look in his eyes and suffers from serious trauma. Or post traumatic stress disorder as it is called.

Harbai from Nilpar village in Rapar taluka in Kutch keeps talking in her sleep. What she mutters does not make sense. When she is awake, she does not speak at all.

After sunset, Rajaram, who is from Dungarpur district in Rajasthan, puts on his fancy red silk turban and gets into traditional attire at a Gujarati restaurant in Ahmedabad. But his focus is not on serving dinner. He is clearly uncomfortable with the tension.

In a corner of the restaurant, he places an empty Pepsi bottle on its head. This is his alarm. If the bottle falls, he will run. After all, he says, people who ran out had just seconds before the buildings came crashing down.

The recurring tremors have added to the trauma. When people try to forget last month's earthquake and return to their homes, a quake that lasts a few seconds shatters their confidence. They are back on the streets again. Or sleeping in their cars.

Baldev sleeps on a pavement on busy Ashram Road, shivering in the cold. It is better than sleeping in a building which might crash, he says.

A leading Ahmedabad surgeon admits that something strange has happened to him after the quake. He says he does not feel confident anymore, not in control.

Dr Daksha Bhatt, an anesthesiologist, says she suffered from palpitations and is not normal anymore. Asked she: "What happens if I am administering anaesthesia and the quake comes? I cannot leave the patient and run. What will happen then?"

M H Jowher, managing director of an infotech company in Ahmedabad, figured out that panic did not help. What does one do in an emergency like this, he asked himself. The answer was easy to find. He got three easy to carry bags for himself, his wife Zakia and son Arastu. The bags had a torch, matchbox, a piece of rope, bottle of water, identity cards, a Swiss knife and some biscuits. Today, the family carries the bags with them all the time. At night, they keep it in front of the door as it is easy to pick up while running out. It has given them a new confidence.

At a recent workshop in Ahmedabad on dealing with trauma, volunteers spoke of the need to return to buildings that have been certified safe.

But it is not all that easy, as many discover.

Residents of a building with cracks asked a structural engineer who also owned a flat there to examine the structure. The engineer certified that the building was safe. The cracks, he said, were superficial and all the building needed was cement and a coat of paint. Saying so, he decided to go in and stop living in the open. His wife curtly told him she would rather stay in the open.

Says Suresh Manilal, a Saraspur resident: "Life is very uncertain. My wife and daughters are paranoid. I pretend to be brave just to keep them going. We saw buildings move like a pendulum. Back and forth. It could happen again. Astrologers have predicted more quakes."

"We are living from minute to minute," says Ruma Dasgupta who stays on the fifth floor of a high rise. She finds herself traumatised. Cooking in her kitchen disturbs her. If she looks out of her window she can see another ten floor structure that once had 40 flats. Today, only 20 of them are standing. The others collapsed like a house of cards.

A few feet away from her main door is a red bag. It contains all the documents she needs -- ownership details of her flat, insurance policies, investment information, credit cards, biscuits and a torch. The idea is to run out with it. Residents of the numerous buildings that crashed have no documents to show today. "We live in constant fear, like refugees," she says.

Ashoke Chatterjee, former director of the National Institute of Design, has moved out of his new 10th floor flat in Ahmedabad with his 82-year-old mother whom he carried down 10 storeys after the quake. He has gotten busy with committees and meetings on rehabilitation and preservation of heritage as new cities are built, but memories of the quake refuse to go away.

School teacher Poonam Sharma says she is not normal after the quake as the fear of it recurring and buildings collapsing in seconds is real. Says she: "I stopped reading newspapers and watching television two days after the quake. I cannot take it anymore."

Says Mamta Pandya of the Nehru Foundation in Ahmedabad: "There is an urgent need for rebuilding confidence and removing the fears and insecurities that dominate the affected areas."

One way out, says Magsaysay Award winner Ela Bhatt, is to quickly ensure that the victims are helped to start working again. This, feels the founder of the famed Self Employed Women's Association, would distract them and give them cash which they badly need.

As Kutch was a hub of handicrafts in Gujarat, SEWA has 48,000 members affected in 146 villages in the state. It plans to help them get started on work as soon as possible. SEWA wants to help its members start schools as it would be a great distracting force for traumatised kids.

There are many who escaped death or injury. Instead of trauma, they see philosophy. Dr Mahesh Thakkar, a consulting physician who travelled to Bhuj soon after the earthquake, slept in a temple one night. At 3 am, there was a quake so he and other doctors shifted into the open. Three hours later, there was another quake and the temple collapsed. "These experiences give us a new insight into life and the need to look beyond small things," says Dr Thakkar.

Indu Capoor, director of the Centre for Health Education Training and Nutrition Awareness, says she constantly feels the ground moving; the recurrent quakes only reinforce this belief.

She was recently involved in a Nehru Foundation initiative where groups of children were spoken to about the earthquake. The children were involved in various activities to lessen their trauma. Among those counselled at the meeting were parents who were transferring their anxieties to the children.

Psychiatrist Dr Dayal Mirchandani warns that if stress disorders are not treated, it could have lifelong effects.

Nursing the emotional wounds is not easy.

There is a feeling of helplessness everywhere.

A 62-year-old woman, who had enjoyed the peace of Ahmedabad, suddenly told her daughter-in-law -- almost daily -- that time is running out for her and she is not going to live long. She had a tough time leaving the third floor of her high rise apartment because of arthritis.

Bharatiya Janata Party vice-president Jana Krishnamurthy has suggested to NGOs that they should first repair broken down places of worship. People move to God in times of distress, said the official who is in charge of the BJP's Gujarat unit, and it is the only way they could get solace.

There has been frenetic religious activity in Gujarat after the quake. Temples are packed. The roads are full of cars with people coming to pray. Residents in Ahmedabad offer coconuts to Dharti Mata, breaking them on roads, praying that another quake should not occur.

Prayer meetings are held every day in various localities. Attendance is high. At one prayer meeting organised by the Art of Living group, residents came from all over Ahmedabad to pray for the dead. People wept even though they had not lost anyone in the quake.

Kapil Parajiya, a computer operator in Ahmedabad, has changed the wallpaper on his computer. It now has damaged buildings from the quake. It is his way of coping with the catastrophe. He is angry with the sudden move towards religion. He wonders why God killed so many thousand people at the same time. "I cannot bring myself to go to a temple," he said.

Satkar Barot, a businessman who deals with agarbattis in Ahmedabad, says he will soon move out of his tenth floor home in Sagar Towers opposite the Mansi complex which crashed. He is looking for a rented ground floor tenement.

Barot is not the only one.

Thousands of people are moving out of high rise apartments. Rents of ground floor tenements are soaring. Says Barot: "At a time when tragedy has struck us, landlords should have been considerate. But they have become greedy. I want to take all the precautions. Our life is more precious than the high rent."

Design: Uttam Ghosh

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