Learning from the pastThe sky is beclouded as I write this piece. In a moment a loud noise will ripple through the surrounding and webs of light will spread out into the sky.
The sky is beclouded as I write this piece. In a moment a loud noise will ripple through the surrounding and webs of light will spread out into the sky. As the first drops begin to pour, people on the road will scuttle for shelter. Those that live nearby will try to make their way home. Those that live far away will wait for the downpour to subside.
We are lucky. At least we have a place to call home. There are still those for whom shelter from the rains means a flimsy stretch of tarp or a rusted piece of tin. It has been the same for the last two years. It will be the same for a long time still.
The quake came and went, but we did not learn our lesson.
It was a month of little rain and much sunshine. There were no omens to warn us, no premonitions to foretell the disaster. Lord Matsyendranath’s chariot was yet to totter lugubriously through narrow alleyways on its wooden wheels, as it had for centuries, allowing onlookers to divine the country’s future. Dolakha Bhimsen did not sweat through stone. It was then that on a balmy Saturday afternoon, when most of us were enjoying our postprandial nap that the maw of death opened under our feet.
The earth shook violently. Birds flew, dogs barked, people cried. Thousands died under falling roofs like insects squashed by stomping giants. As memories come, this was the most devastating one in recent history. A blunt force trauma that should have left the survivors reeling with pain for life.
Yet just two years down the line, it has receded into the fuzzy corners of our mind. At best it resembles a dantekatha about god’s wrath and man’s struggle in the old days; at worse it seems like a dream that one struggles to remember upon waking up.
Memories in general are unfaithful companions. They zoom in and out of our lives without notice. They blend and meld into each other, giving us inaccurate pictures of the past. A lot of them disappear without a nudge. Many make their way to the distant shores of our consciousness like driftwood from a sunken ship, waiting to be retrieved one day. For some just a piece of cake dipped in tea is enough to summon them back. For others even an eternity falls short.
But there are some memories that stand above the rest. They weft and warp through our mind and colour our present. They singe our being and alter our lives. The scalding hot plasma of past experience burns through our skin, flesh and bones. The wound might heal, but the scar remains. Time, in this case, becomes a race away from those nightmares, a unit measured in distance not seconds.
The Gorkha earthquake should have been one of those unforgettable moments, an incident writ large in our collective consciousness. Not just for the sake of preserving it forever, but to make sure that the future generation will not have to go through the same ordeal again. For memory can be a hard taskmaster if necessary, forcing us to recount the past to change the future.
Those that learned from the past have transformed themselves. The North Sea flood of 1953 turned the Netherlands into a leading country on water management. Countless quakes have made the Japanese world leaders in structural engineering. Those that do not learn from the past find themselves limited to making monuments, like we are doing now.
We made a monument of Dharahara after it fell. We are in the process of making an earthquake memorial park at its epicenter in Barpak, Gorkha. Maybe, a few more monuments will come up in Sindhupalchowk, Nuwakot, Rasuwa and Dolakha. Apart from being tragic reminders, they won’t change anything. Not unless we try to remember the horror and take steps to avert one. Not unless we try to imagine how it is to be old and poor and living under a leaking tarp during the monsoon.