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Varun Khullar
Writer’s Blog

The ground beneath our feet: How I survived the Nepal earthquake

Adman Varun Khullar found himself in Nepal on the fateful morning of 25 April. With humour and barely-concealed relief, he narrates his experience through the turmoil, seeking some much-needed catharsis.

Violent aftershocks ripped through the city as panic spread. | Photo: Tejasvi Kaler

ll three of my friends were up and about on the morning of the 25th; I was bargaining for five more minutes of sleep as usual. We had to pack up and leave Kathmandu for Satikhel, a small town an hour away. We were going to spend three days there, so some last minute shopping for essentials was a priority. You can't go into the mountains without Maggi. So the four of us split into groups of two and divided the items on the list.

A friend and I were at a small shop close to our hotel in Naxal when the big one arrived. I lugged all 95 kg of me away from the old wobbly building I was under, the likes of which populate pretty much all of Kathamandu, and moved swiftly out onto the main road, negotiating past confused car and bike drivers. Everywhere I looked, I saw people running aimlessly. I wasn't far off; the ground still shaking beneath me like a little boat battling serious ocean waves. I managed to run clumsily towards an opening at a small crossroad. It was like being in a Hollywood disaster movie, but only as an extra.

At this point, we are only about 20 seconds into a minute-long shake-up. About 30 of us huddled together, hoping to find safety in numbers, clinging to whoever was closest. I counted at least four hands belonging to strangers clenched tightly around my back and arms. With no sign of the tremor receding and buildings still rattling, confusion and fear was palpable and writ across every face. And this is still only about 40 seconds into it.

Things took a turn for the worse when a loud rumbling sound made people clench up in fear. A building had collapsed 100m from where we were, a huge cloud of dust engulfing the road. In a trance of fear, we were instructed to sit down by a young Nepalese woman. No one was quite sure why, but everyone obeyed. Half squatting, half shaking, she told us sitting helps battle quake-induced dizziness.

Amid fearful shrieks, the longest minute of my life came to an end. The passage of time was so slow I could have seen Lagaan on loop at least 10 times (the director's cut). My body and mind were in a state of shock; I could no longer tell if it was the ground shaking or my legs. The lamp posts around were still rattling with the momentum. Slowly, and not steadily, everybody got up and looked around in relief. A few half smiles were exchanged.

Things gathered pace as people started moving about, checking on their homes and shops. The two of us made our way back to the hotel and were greeted by a swarm of fellow guests and staff. They were all packed inside a small opening far away from any tall building. We had found our safe haven. But we were far from relaxed. Two of our friends were in an area called Thamel last we spoke, and were now incommunicado. To paint a picture of Thamel, visualise the narrow lanes of Paharganj strewn with tightly-packed, loosely-built houses. If there's one place to avoid in such a situation, it's Thamel. We were trying their numbers desperately but all networks were down.

fter making sure my folks were safe back home, I learned how frighteningly close the epicentre was — 75 km from where we were.

Having experienced earthquakes before (I live in Delhi), I was relatively calm. The locals, on the other hand, were visibly shaken up (no pun intended). Most of them had no idea how to react. Probably because the last earthquake of some significance had come 83 years back.

The tension that seemed to be dissipating resurfaced with another jolt from the ground. An aftershock ripped through the city, followed by violent shrieks and panic. This wasn't over. It seemed Mother Nature had caught a bad seasonal cold, coughing up tremors. Repeated aftershocks didn't just bring panic, but also people from surrounding areas to join our little patch of comfort. Young people and old, terrified dogs, even a pregnant woman. The best part was that people were nice to each other, offering water and updates.

Soon enough, I got a text from one of my friends in Thamel — they were safe. The news was so welcoming I treated myself to a bar of chocolate from the only shop that was open around our area. Understandably, and ironically, the quake had brought everything to a standstill.

With the four of us finally reunited, and alive, let's just say we were a happy bunch. Cracking jokes, playing music, basically trying to make the best of a crazy situation. Our relief masked as laughter didn't go down well with the locals. Not many people can claim to be scolded by a security guard. I can. I got an earful from Chacha, who told us that people had died in the city. It was a reality check. With no internet or network, we were far away from the ground reality. Our neighbourhood was fine and we assumed the entire city was. We were wrong. It was only when we set about in the evening in search of food that we saw things that made our stomachs churn. Almost every lane I walked through had at least two shattered structures. Not even temples were spared.

It was 5 p.m. and we were desperate to find anything edible. We were ravenous. We somehow found this little shop called Bakes & Cakes (you guys were life savers) selling pastries and coffee. Six pastries, two packets of cookies, two packets of breadsticks and 250g of butter: Dinner.

As we headed back to our hotel, I got a call from my brother. He shared contact information and the address of the Indian Embassy. Despite repeated attempts at calling, we just couldn't get through. After reaching our hotel, two of us left immediately for the embassy. The problem, however, was that we had no clue where it was and there were no taxis on the road.

With the sun gone, Kathmandu looked like a ghost town. There was no electricity on the roads. All we saw were families making way for open-air community tents. Everyone in Kathmandu was sleeping under the stars that night.

Somehow, my friend found a cab. I think it was the last available cab in Kathmandu. We reached the Indian Embassy and were told to head for the airport. That's all. We wasted no time.The airport was bustling with people and luggage. There were people from all nationalities. But as usual, Indians dominated the head count. I finally found an official who told us, "You are at the right place. The planes are coming."

The now grumpy taxi guy took us back to the hotel to pick up our luggage and friends. We returned to the airport and joined the Indian evacuation line. Some decided it was okay to cut the line. Others told them, rather harshly, that it wasn't. There were also those who totally skipped the line and tried sidling past it into the main terminal door, causing loud fights and chaos. Shameless people were made to join the queue amidst sarcastic claps.

It took us four hours to enter the main terminal. The procedure was quick: show your ID proof and get in. Within minutes we were ushered off to the open airfield where the Indian Air Force awaited us. We were going home, free of cost, in the mammoth C-17 Globemaster III. What. A. Cool. Name. We waited for the relief cargo to be unloaded before we could board.

The aircraft was nothing like the ones we are accustomed to. This was bigger. Hollower. Had no seat belts. Or seats. We were inside a big hollow tube that was flanked by huge jet engines. The leg room in that thing can put any business class seat to shame, like the leg room of a railway platform. This plane carries tanks, so it was big. The captain then made a reassuring announcement on the PA system "We are the Indian Air Force. And we are here for you." Goosebumps rose, as did the decibel levels in the plane. Clapping and chants of "Vande Mataram" followed. The plane was full of proud Indians. And then it took off. We were up in the air and far away from any potential danger from the ground below us. We were headed home.

 
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