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February 21, 2001
Quake Diary: What It Brought
Last week: Quake Diary, What It Wrought
Even given all we have seen in getting to Toraniya, this village is a sight. In every direction, there are piles of stones where presumably there once were homes. At times, I have to get on my toes and peer over the stones to see the residents. Given the continuing aftershocks, they are in no mood yet to reconstruct their homes and move back indoors. Here and there, a set of magnificent horns rises above the piles: one or the other of the sturdy bovines of the area is strolling among the rubble.
As it happens, few here lost family to the quake. There were only a dozen or so deaths in Toraniya and apparently most of those were in outlying little hamlets. But there were injuries, and nearly every house is destroyed, and those must be traumatic enough to come to terms with. The people talk to us about trying to rebuild, wonder aloud how and when they will accomplish that.
At one end of Toraniya is a large empty plot that belongs to Lirabhai, an energetic young man who came home from his job in Bombay after the quake. We clear the area of stones and twigs and set up camp here, unloading our trucks of the grain, plastic sheets and sundry other stuff we have brought. We are camping because we don't want to simply hand out these things and leave. We want to spend a while here, even if just a few days, getting to know Toraniya's people and learning about their needs and concerns, seeing if there are ways in which we can contribute that go beyond our two truckloads of material.
We had discussed this before getting started on our journey, and all of us know this. But for me at least, this resolve is strengthened, takes on new meaning, after a few observations of what the quake has brought in its wake: the efforts at that strange term, "relief."
The first is in Samkhiali. As I wrote in my previous column, the most visible signs there of a response to the quake are the brightly painted signs on a set of crumpled townhouses. They tell me that Zee Network has adopted Samkhiali and is 'with' the town in 'this critical situation'.
This is a theme that recurs. Every single truck we see that has relief material in it also has a banner to announce who has sent the material to Gujarat. Every single camp -- no matter how remote its location -- has a banner strung up to announce whom it houses. So it is by reading banners and signs left, right and everywhere that I know who all have turned up in Gujarat to help after the quake: Gomati Public School from Andhra Pradesh; the Congress Seva Dal; the Marble Association from Delhi; IFFCO; the RSS; St Xavier's School from somewhere; Maharaj Sant Gurmit Ram Rahim Singh's followers from Sarsa in Haryana, one of whom gives me a photograph of the Maharaj and the psychedelic 'Dhan Dhan Satguru Tera Hi Aasra' sticker that many kids in the area are wearing; something called the Discipleship Foundation; Microsoft (yes); Zee and many many more.
"Banner painters," a friend mutters to me, "must have made a killing after the quake."
The second is during our enforced two hour wait outside Bhachau. Heading past us, in and out of town, are streams of people on foot, some carrying material collected from one or the other distribution centre. Many rush after any passing truck that so much as slows, hands outstretched in degrading, piteous fashion. Many also stop to beg us for some of what we have in our truck. One old lady pleads for 20 minutes, on and on, asking for a blanket.
And then one truck comes past and stuff comes sailing off it. More precisely, packets of biscuits come sailing off it: simply thrown overboard by the men sitting on top. One just misses me; another glances off my friend Ramesh's forehead. A crowd of outstretched arms races after the biscuit-mobile, the old woman hobbling after them. I watch in anger and sadness.
This is also a theme that recurs, this 'method' of 'distributing' relief material. In Shikarpur one afternoon, I find it so disturbing to watch old clothes being tossed from a truck to a feverish sea of arms that I wade into the crowd and yell at the tossers, a group from Delhi. "What are you doing?" I manage over the cacophony. They shrug and keep tossing. But one of the villagers turns to me and says: "Why are you bothering? These people," and here he points to the other villagers, "are now like animals."
Third, we meet several teams roaming the area who tell us they are getting tired of roaming and are desperate to 'find' a place to unload their material. Why? Because they have to get back to Ahmedabad the next day, or to Indore the day after, and are running out of time.
Without really asking us, one such team deposits several boxes of whatever they have brought in our truck, gives some clothes to the few onlookers who gather during the transfer, and whizzes off. "Give the schoolkids what's in the boxes," one of the young men calls to me before he climbs into his truck. "Then they'll want to come back to school." Curious, I examine what he's left us. One box has a neatly printed label that says 'To Gujarat (Bhuj). Snakes (Shankarpade). From Abhishek Mitra Mandal, BJP Ward 24, Nashik'. After the quake, 200 Nashik women gathered and produced a truck full of the delicious Maharashtrian snack (not snake) shankarpale, which the Abhishek Mitra Mandal (name changed) has brought to Gujarat. Having driven around for a while, trying to hand it out, they are coming up to the time they must return to Nashik. So they are glad to be able to offload some of their boxes on us.
Fourth, at least some people who have come to Gujarat, if genuinely good-hearted in their desire to help, seem to have underestimated the magnitude of the task they have taken up. In the field at one end of Toraniya, a team from Delhi has arrived only minutes after us. They are a traders' association, and they have come to Gujarat to give free meals to the quake-hit, and they have chosen Toraniya to set up their kitchen. When we go over to say hello, they are warm, enthusiastic and welcoming. "After all," they say, "you have come to serve these people just like we have. So you MUST have every meal with us on every day you are here! No questions, OK?"
Two hours later, their large tent is up and they have begun cooking. An hour after that, urged into the tent with hearty 'aao kaka! calls, the villagers are sitting in long lines. We wait our turn. When we sit down, the Delhi men serve us delicious piping hot puri-bhaji, plying us with more as fast as we can finish what's on our leaf-plates. "Khao, khao," they tell the shy village women, and to us they repeat: "Aap in log ka seva karne aaye hain, aur hum bhi!" ("You have come to serve these people just like we have!").
Much bonhomie and generosity is in evidence, and we are struck by it. That these hard-boiled businessmen have driven for two days to get here, motivated only by the desire to do their bit for a ravaged people, and are now cooking for several hundred, is a deeply moving thought.
Dinner sees a heftier menu: dal, rice as well as puri bhaji. They invite us in again and the villagers are all about us again and it's piping hot good again. Only this time, there seems distinctly less enthusiasm. They still serve us generously and repeatedly, but now they are just a bit subdued, looking a little tired, a little jaded. The change is so subtle that I wonder if it's my hyperactive imagination at work.
But I don't think so.
The next morning, we arrive at the tent to find chaos. The traders are closing shop. They have gathered the whole village, lined them up, and are distributing their tomatos, potatos, cabbage, cooking oil, implements, vessels -- all the supplies they have brought with them for their planned week of cooking. I ask one of the traders what's happening. "Kya karen, boss," he says. "We also have families, our businesses to attend to, we are tired and we still have a two day journey to get back home. So we have decided to leave. We are giving them everything, even these tents and tarpaulins."
By mid-day, they are gone, as if they had never come. Two days later, those same tarpaulins come in useful when we erect a school 'building' in the compound of the shattered village school so the kids can resume classes.
Such are the experiences and pitfalls of the idea of 'relief' that we want to avoid during our stay in Toraniya. I mean, good luck to Zee, but I travel through Kutch in the hope that when we get to Toraniya, our first efforts will not be to paint signs that tell the world that we are 'with' the village in 'this critical situation'. I salute the spirit of the Nashik group, the Delhi traders, but I hope we will last longer in our camp than two meals. I hope we will approach relief with more thought than to throw things blindly off trucks.
I hope we will contribute what we can by, and through, learning about where we are.
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