On Saturday the 25th of April 2015, a little before noon local time, a massive earthquake struck Nepal, measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale. The capital Kathmandu was severely damaged, and current estimates are that over 4000 people were killed, with many more injured. These figures are expected to rise.
I have been deeply affected by this tragedy, and am struggling, like many, to make sense of the welter of raw emotions which I feel. I was not intending to write about it – the story has been widely covered by the world’s press – but somehow I find myself doing so. At the same time I feel a curious sense of shame, as if my own feelings are an indulgence; those affected are struggling to survive, coming to terms with unimaginable grief and loss. It seems almost mawkish to add to the subject by interjecting: “This is how I feel!”, as if one were piggybacking upon a calamity that had fallen upon others. How I feel is of no importance to anyone but me. Perhaps this post will never be published. This is not good writing, but yes, you are right – it doesn’t have to be. So I will write it anyway, because I am honouring a memory.
I spent two months in Nepal earlier this year. It is one of the most enchanting and extraordinary places I have ever visited, due, inevitably, to the people. They are warm, friendly, welcoming and have a wonderfully wry sense of humour that transcends cultural boundaries. I am in profound shock at what has happened – that they and their country have been struck this terrible blow.
Nevertheless, it was not unexpected. We all knew it was a matter of time. There was an earthquake in Pokhara when I was there: a deep boom, a sudden tremor, and then the earth violently shaking back and forth beneath my feet, on and on, as items crashed off the shelves, tables and chairs skidded around the patio and water tanks toppled off roofs. When the movement subsided I found myself on my knees in the courtyard of a guesthouse, my heart thumping, hearing screams that were raw with fright, and then, suddenly, relieved laughter, almost hysterical, when it became clear we were OK. That earthquake was 5.7 on the Richter scale, and lasted about 20 seconds. The one on Saturday went on for more than two minutes, and was far stronger. Numerous aftershocks have added to the terror, with people too afraid to go back indoors.
Many of the places I visited are no longer there. Temples are reduced to rubble, and may never be rebuilt. Those pagodas where we sat and watched the pigeons take off and land again on the tiled roofs – they are gone. Durbar Square in Patan – Lalitpur, “the beautiful” – is beautiful no more. It has been destroyed. Hundreds of buildings in Bhaktapur, one of the best-preserved towns in the country – have been damaged, many beyond repair. The hotel in Thamel where my friend stayed – it has collapsed, with everyone still inside. Everything is broken.
But the city will rise again – in a slightly different form, perhaps, bearing the scars, but it will become whole again. And in time those scars will fade. Life goes on, they say. What is this life, when we are sleepwalking through darkness, heavy with grief? That too is life, and as day follows night, slowly light will return to it.
Disasters have a language of their own. Casualty figures spiral incomprehensibly into the realms of statistics and data, and to an extent we take refuge in that; the full emotional impact, that each victim is an individual, much loved – whether a mother or a child or an uncle or a lover or a friend – is too great for the human heart to bear. Yet it is so. How do we dare to love, to open ourselves up to receive the inevitable blow? And yet we must.
The mind takes a snapshot without our realising at the time – a mental image forever fixed in our memory. Someone smiling at you across a table, their eyes sparkling in the candlelight. Sitting overlooking a square and laughing with friends at something so silly, so banal, that I don’t even recall what it was. But I remember how much we laughed, and how alive we were. A vision of someone walking away, slowly swallowed up in the crowd, until I just caught the occasional glimpse of them, and stood craning my neck until I could see them no longer. But the trace of their presence remains after they have disappeared, like the glass-smooth wake of a boat upon the water long after it has vanished from sight. Such grace in them, so beautiful they were, that it will stay with me forever.
We live on in the memory of others – those that dare to love us too. And too often we don’t tell them, at the time. “This is what I love in you.” How can we? We demur, affect embarrassment, because it’s sentimental, it may be misinterpreted or seem awkward. But we should. If we are lucky, they are still here to tell.
Come sit by my side, Lydia – by Ricardo Reis (Translated by Peter Rickard)
Come sit by my side Lydia, on the bank of the river
Calmly let us watch it flow, and learn
That life passes, and we are not holding hands.
(Let us hold hands)
Then let us reflect as grown-up children, that life
Passes and does not stay, leaves nothing, never returns
Goes to a sea far away, near to Fate itself,
Further than the gods.
Let us hold hands no more: why should we tire ourselves?
For our pleasure, for our pain, we pass on like the river.
‘Tis better to know how to pass on silently,
With no great disquiet.
With neither loves nor hates, nor passions raising their voice,
Nor envies making the eye rove too restlessly,
Nor cares, for if it knew care, the river would flow no less,
Would still join the sea in the end.
Let us love each other calmly, with the thought that we could,
If we chose, freely kiss and caress and embrace,
But that we do better to be seated side by side
Hearing the river flow, and seeing it.
Let us gather flowers, and do you take some and leave them
In your lap, and let their scent lend sweetness to the moment –
This moment when calmly we believe in nothing,
Innocent pagans of the decadence.
At least, should I first become a shade, you will remember me after,
Though remembered, I may not inflame nor hurt nor disturb you,
For we never hold hands, nor kiss,
Nor were we ever more than children.
And if, before me, you take the obol to the gloomy boatman,
I shall have not cause to suffer when I remember you.
You will be sweet to my memory if I remember you thus, on the river bank,
A sorrowful pagan maid, with flowers in her lap.