January 26, 2002


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Dilip D'Souza

The Republic, in Kutch

As if you needed me to tell you: but anyway. A year later, signs of the usual government neglect and apathy are everywhere in Kutch.

Untold millions of rupees flowed in here after the quake last January 26. When you look around today and see rubble everywhere and people still living in tents or under a ragged blanket, you have to ask: where did that money go? If putting people back into homes is too difficult, why is it not possible at least to remove the rubble?

And because of such questions, because of the devastation, because of the apathy, because of the runaround everyone has got with compensation money and rebuilding plans and more -- for all these reasons, the sense of anger with the government is thick enough to slice. In my week in Kutch, speaking to dozens of people at random about their experiences, I met not a single person who did not feel that anger. Not even one.

In fact, with the evil of Pakistan being fed to us from every corner even as I roamed in Kutch, it was startling to listen to Ashok Gada, trader in Bhuj. Standing on the heap of dirt and dust where his home once was, recounting how -- after months in tents and months waiting for the announced government aid -- he is now fed up and has started rebuilding his home himself, bit by bit, he said to me: "Musharraf should say to Vajpayee, 'what are you talking about, the threat from Pakistan? It's you people who are destroying the security of your country. Look at how you've treated them in Kutch.' "

The little knot of people around us nodded to agree. Anger, as I said. Thick enough to slice.

I spent a week in the village of Toraniya right after the quake, working with a relief team. It left me with decidedly mixed feelings. The devastation numbed me. But the spirit everywhere lifted me.

The week I spent in Kutch this year also left me with mixed feelings. The devastation still numbed me, as did the anger. But the spirit everywhere lifted me again. Last year, it was primarily the spirit among the innumerable people from all over who had come to Kutch to help: most victims were still in shock. This year, it was primarily the spirit among those very victims, people I would have thought would have the most reason to mourn.

Yes, I returned from Kutch with memories of hope, recovery and life. And so, despite the anger, for this Republic Day that marks one year since that vast Gujarat tragedy, three of those memories.

It's not that there is no rebuilding going on in Kutch. You can visit stirringly named Indraprastha to see one example of it. The village of Dudhai itself was destroyed, so somebody decided to "adopt" the place. They produced Indraprastha, a few kilometres from the old village. Eight hundred identical concrete block houses laid out in a massive grid, built "for" the villagers from the ground up. Complete with "community centre", arrow-straight streets named after Dr Shyama Prasad Mookherjee and Netaji Subhas, and inspiring slogans painted on little signboards every few metres on those streets. On the biggest board of all: PURITY IS POWER.

You visit Indraprastha and, even if PURITY IS POWER, you wonder: where's the soul here? Where's the feeling of community?

Those questions come up because you've already visited Bhojay. There, the Shree Bhojay Sarvodaya Trust is helping rebuild houses. The trust invests Rs 10,000 per family, as does the family. They use materials salvaged from the rubble, enlist neighbours instead of hiring outside labour, and build right where their homes used to be. The result? Houses that aren't ugly concrete cubes, but look like the houses villagers had before the quake. Built in one or two months, in many cases quickly enough so that the families were rehoused before the last monsoon. A village that looks not like a formidable and eminently unattractive grid, but much like it must have before the quake.

Mansi Dhanji Hira's house was one of the first to be finished, built in cooperation with his neighbours. In turn, he is now helping build their homes. As we wander about, everyone is busy in some task or the other. Their joint sweat and hard work has produced, in this little village, a sense of satisfaction and community that is palpable. Khetbai, Mansi's wife, brews steaming chai for us all. As we sip it gratefully, I reflect: there isn't a single inspiring slogan in this entire village.

At 11, Shantilal was Lakshmi Narsi Bhatti's fourth child. Like many other children, he had gone to school that morning. His uncle went along to watch the function. When the earth moved with the mighty roar that everybody in Kutch remembers so vividly, Shantilal and uncle ran. Ran for their lives as their world came crashing down around them. Either a falling stone hit Shantilal on his ankle or he simply stumbled over something. Whichever it was, he fell. Uncle turned to help nephew. Just in time to see a large slab crash down on Shantilal.

Sitting in her tent in Toraniya nearly a year afterwards, surrounded by her extended family and the piles of rubble that used to be their three or four little homes, unable to rebuild because they don't have the money, and thus reminded of the tragedy whichever way she turns, Lakshmi is nevertheless remarkably composed. The one picture she has of Shantilal is badly blurred; only his eyes are clear. She cradles it lovingly, looking at it with a smile on her lips. "He was a good boy," she tells me. "We think of him daily. He gave us happiness." She's right about that, I think. The smile that Shantilal's twinkling eyes hint at is infectious. He must have spread happiness, the little fellow. Just looking at him, Lakshmi's smile broadens and she chuckles at a sudden memory. I can't help smiling myself.

A bright-eyed child lost to the quake? How much would I have brooded? But this mother is cheerfully normal, brimming with happy memories of her son, quietly but firmly getting on with life.

In a hospital in Bidada, I meet 25-year-old Amina Ibrahim Syed. Last January 26, she and her three children were just waking up when life changed forever. Their home in Bhuj collapsed on them. Her oldest, pretty eight-year-old Suraiya, died without even waking up. The younger two, one a two-month-old infant, escaped without injury. But Amina? A beam fell on her back. Her brother and other relatives dragged her from the mess, but she was left paralysed below the waist.

Things got worse. Salim, her husband, took the Rs 100,000 the government gave them for Suraiya and deserted her. For months, Amina lived with the thought that she would never walk again.

Until a team at this hospital found her.

The doctors at the Bidada hospital come from far-flung spots -- some from Ohio and Los Angeles -- to offer their services. Volunteers take leave from their city jobs to help run the place. One, who owns a bookstore in central Bombay, has made 16 trips in this year, just to help with all that has to be done. And this is a bright, cheery, spotless hospital -- therefore novel for being just that much.

And after several months of essentially free professional therapy and rehabilitation here, Amina is now taking her first few steps, finding new strength in withered muscles. Delight creasing her face, Amina tells me about the time a doctor fitted calipers on her legs. "The pain was terrible!" she says, "and I was screaming." The doctor looked up. "That's wonderful!" he said. "If you feel pain, it means there's life in your legs. You'll walk again. I'm so happy to hear you scream!"

This skinny young mother, daughter dead, husband gone, back broken -- and she tells you how wonderful it is to feel pain. Laughs as she says it.

When I write what I do, I am often favoured by angry responses asking me, why do you criticise so much? Aren't you proud to be Indian? I rarely reply to this stuff. My feeling is, my pride is my business. Besides which, I'm not in the least proud about nuclear bombs, or breaking down mosques, or building up hatred for Pakistan, or adulation for rioters; and it is usually these matters that bring me those angry questions.

But when I meet people like Lakshmi and Amina, when I see what's happening in Bhojaya and Bidada, when I feel first-hand that spirit and courage and humanity, and all this in the face of natural disaster that's compounded by human chicanery -- that's when I am proud. These are the things, the people above all, that make the India I find so energizing. The India I salute. This January 26 and every day.

Dilip D'Souza

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