Follow by Email

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

City on the fault

It was 1:44am and I was up late reading Middlesex for the second time, when all of a sudden my walls started to hum, the floor to vibrate, and my bed to shift a few millimeters sideways. The curtains on the windows blew inwards towards me, blocking my view of the pages of my book. I sat up abruptly, my eyes wide, but it was already over.

Did that just happen? Was I really so tired that I had entered a state of exhaustion vertigo? I got out of bed gingerly, not trusting my own sense of balance. I walked cautiously through my apartment, glancing into each room to ensure that everything was as I had left it. It was. I took this as a sign that I should turn off my headlamp and go to sleep.

The next morning in the auto to work, I approached my coworkers about the event.
“This may be a weird question, but was there an earthquake last night?” I asked, a little embarrassed.
“There was one in Pune.” Replied one.
“No, no . . . here.”
“Uh . . . I don’t think so.”

But I wasn’t ready to concede defeat quite yet. I knew what an earthquake felt like, I was in one just last year in Washington, DC, and I was convinced that this was the same. So when I arrived at work I did some internet searching, and – HA! -- I was right! At 1:44am that morning (Wednesday, June 20, 2012), a 5.0 quake with an epicenter at Dolevira in Eastern Kutch had shaken the region while (almost) everyone was asleep.

For some, an earthquake inspires confusion, speculation, soliloquies about where we were when . It inspires people like me to write pompous blog entries about our own exceptionality for experiencing the unusual.

But my reaction is like a bullhorn screaming “I AM NOT FROM KUTCH.” This is because:

1)      Kutch gets A LOT of earthquakes, fairly regularly. Located on the boundary between the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates, the region shifts positions every once in awhile just to keep things interesting. And approximately every 50 years, it gets a real doozy. On June 16, 1819, an earthquake in the region killed 1500-2000 people, shifting the location of the shoreline (in the ancient northwestern city of Lakhpat, near Pakistan, you can see the delivery dock where people used to sail right up and deliver goods. Now there are several miles of salty sand before you get to the water). Even the Indus River shifted course.

Sitting on the wall in Lakhpat. The white you see on the right is salt-- part of the Great Rann of Kutch, which spreads across the region and has inspired lots of poetry, movies, and books.

2)      The 2001 earthquake.

I have alluded before to the Kutch earthquake of 2001. But my experience last night is a reminder that it is time to expand.

On January 26 (India’s Republic Day), 2001, at 8:46 am, a 7.7 earthquake shook the region. Though centered near Bhuj, it’s vibrations reached as far as northern India, much of Pakistan, Bangladesh, and western Nepal. It lasted about a minute and a half—a century in earthquake time. Houses collapsed. Bridges fell. Roads split. Historic monuments crumbled. Because of a minute and a half, every person in the region’s life changed.

Because of those 90 seconds, at least 20,000 people were killed, nearly 167,000 were injured, 339,000 buildings were destroyed, and 783,000 structures were damaged in the Kutch region and nearby parts of Gujarat (source USGS NEIC). To put this all in context, Bhuj has a population of 150,000 people. This one event killed 10% of the city’s population (source Lonely Planet).

Eleven years later, the city hides and reveals its scars in unexpected ways. Once concentrated in the city center, Bhuj’s population now spans outward, with new developments popping up all the time (this is partly a result  of the recent industrial development of Gujarat thanks to it’s Chief Minister Narendra Modi, whose ideas about development incite both praise and hatred– but that’s a whole OTHER conversation). There are very few buildings more than three stories high, as any new building must adhere to height limits. Every once in awhile you see a gray, ghostly building rising up out of the skyline, exposing dark, empty windows like vacant teeth in a rotting gum. No one wants to live in the really tall buildings, because they remember what happened.

I find people to be quite forthcoming with their memories of the earthquake, and have slowly been filing the stories I hear in the back of my brain, to share now.


·         In my first week in Bhuj, I was looking at potential apartments to live in, and visited the home of a Jain family with a room (but no kitchen – deal breaker!) available. The couple directed me into the living room, and sat me down on a couch. Across from me were the couple, their twelve year old daughter (who was translating), and her grandmother. I noticed a photo of an older woman on the mantle and asked the daughter who it was. “That’s my Dadi (father’s mother),” she explained. I turned to the old woman to my right and said, “wow, she looks really different in that picture.” “No, this is my Nani (mother’s mother). That is my Dadi, who died in the earthquake. She was crushed.” I was impressed by the matter-of-factness of the girl’s explanation, and a little taken aback. It was the first time I had met someone whose family member had died in the quake. But I knew it was just the beginning.

·         Last week I was in the village of Kukma, chatting with the 14 year old son of one of my coworkers. I asked if he liked to play cricket (pretty much everyone in India loves the sport). He smiled and pulled up the bottom of his left pant leg to reveal a wooden leg and foot, saying “I can’t exactly play.” I responded somewhat awkwardly “ahhh, well, that makes sense.” He proceeded to explain that he had been at preschool when the earthquake hit. A large object had fallen on his leg, trapping him. Medics had no choice but to amputate. “But don’t worry, no one died, and I was the only one who got hurt,” he reassure me. I wasn’t reassured.

·         I was at the brand-new home of a bandhani artisan friend for dinner, talking to his wife about her family. “I have four brothers, who are all married. I used to have a sister, too, but she died. She and her husband were in bed, and the roof fell on them. They had gotten married only 20 days earlier. We were really intentional about what we built with when we built our new house.”

·         One of my coworkers laughs whenever he thinks about the earthquake. “It was my wedding day! Every single person in my family had come from all over the region, and they were staying with us in my family home in Mandvi. The damage wasn’t so bad there, and my home was okay, so the entire family just stayed at our house, because they didn’t want to go home and see the damage. Our house was full of people for a month!” If my limited experience with weddings suggests anything, I am going to guess there were dozens, perhaps even a hundred family members staying with him.

·         My Gujarati teacher and her family (including her son, who was then a baby) were safely in their apartment – the same one in which they live today – when the earthquake hit. “The entire wall split”, she explained, “we had to do some repairs, but it wasn’t really that bad. Some people in our building also had minor damage, but when the government came to assess the damage they claimed that more had been lost so they could get more money in reparations.” She explained that in the months after the earthquake, Jubili Ground (a public space where people host everything from cricket matches to concerts, minutes from my apartment) had become the make-shift refugee camp where their family had stayed, as well as the city hospital. 

People hanging out at the food stalls by the gates of Jubili ground, today.

“There weren’t very many doctors or supplies, so a lot of people lost limbs or died either because they couldn’t get treatment fast enough or because the doctors didn’t have the supplies they needed to treat them. After a disaster you have to act fast, but there were too many people in need of support and too few people able to give it to them. There were piles of bodies, pushed aside because no one could deal with them when there were so many injured people to attend to.” I asked if she still thinks about the experience when she walks by Jubili ground. “Not really,” she replied. “You know, sometimes you have to forget those things in order to move on. And life always just keeps moving forward.”

What my Gujarati teacher said really struck me, because it represents what I see of Bhuj in general. The earthquake changed the course of Kutch’s history – even my NGO was created to respond to the specific needs of artisans in the region, in an attempt to preserve cultural heritage after the earthquake - and you can still see the shadow of the earthquake in the city today. Walking around, you will find ledges sticking out of buildings - once floors and ceilings – with bathroom tile exteriors. Tucked behind a new building are the remains of a temple, covered in plants and trash. At the same time, you might be passing a reconstructed building without even knowing it had once been in pieces – the Kutch museum, the Prag Mahal and Aina Mahal are some of the historical buildings either recently reconstructed or in process. And of course, all the new houses, reaching out into the desert like American suburbs.

Neither the city nor its people seem to hide their memories of the earthquake, nor are they frozen in those memories. Which is probably healthy.

And do you remember when I mentioned that earthquakes happen in Kutch approximately every 50 years? The people in the region are already preparing for the next one. Many are building their new houses with more sustainable materials (the traditional buildings made of dung and mud were the least affected by the earthquake, so NGOs like Hunnarshaala are developing new building technologies that integrate these traditional building practices). The region is trying to develop its infrastructure, like better roads.

So I guess it makes sense that people were unimpressed by the little earthshake we got Wednesday morning. It's all just part of life on the fault line.

You can almost see where the mountains pushed their way out of the fault lines.

A new house in my neighborhood built post-earthquake.

Amitabh Bachan, perhaps the biggest Bollywood movie star ever, has taken on Gujarat as a pet project. The recent marketing campaign for Gujarat tourism has increased both financial resources and people in the area.

Some of the only tall buildings in the city.

A vegetable stall in the old city tucked into an old ruin.

This apartment by my house was under construction when the earthquake hit 11 years ago. Construction, and the building, were abandoned.
Where the 2001 earthquake struck.


  1. Dear Raina: I am glad it was only a little shake instead of a quake! I am enjoying reading your blog postings. Truly amazing experiences! I have always been fascinated by life in India, reading stories and novels about life there. (Just finished a true story about life in a Mumbai squatter's slum.) One thing you said a few weeks back really made me think for a good long time: about how we view our sisters and brothers in India as backward objects because they do things differently than us. Stay well and keep taking pics and writing! Sending love, Florey Lee Miller

  2. Insightful as always, friend :-)

  3. Hello miss Raina.
    It was an interesting article and was helpful in understanding the region's geography better.
    I had the opportunity to visit the Kutch region, but was enlightened by your explanations about the earthquake faultlines.
    Regards, from India.