I was going through the account I wrote on the Gujarat Riots sometime back. It prompted me to write about my experiences of the earthquake which shook Gujarat an year before the riots burnt the city. This will be probably the first time in last 11 years since the disaster that I’ll be sharing the complete experience.
‘The Day Before’ (25th Jan 2001)
This was a special day for me back then. The plan of going to school on my bicycle for the Republic Day the next day had just been approved by my mum. I would be riding my bicycle to school for the first time in my life! I prepared my cycle for the special occasion that awaited me. We used to live on the first floor of the apartment back then in Ahmedabad. I hadn’t cycled for a while and it had become quite dusty. I brought the cycle to my floor and spent about an hour and a half cleaning it thoroughly. My cycle was all cleaned and oiled up for the 3 km journey from my house to the school (a big distance for a first timer!). I had planned to make the journey with one of my school mate early in the morning. The function was to start at 8 am and we were planning to leave an hour earlier.
I left home and went to my friend’s apartment on a chilly January morning. He used to live adjacent to my society. He was accompanied by his younger brother. All three of us made it to the school early and spent time chatting with our mates. The stage was getting set and we were all excited for the function to commence.
It started at exactly 8 am after the morning prayers ended. All the students were grouped together according to their respective classes and were made to sit on the ground facing the stage. Our school used to have two shifts. The secondary students used to come in the morning and we primary students used to study in the afternoon. That day, because of the special occasion there was a mixture of both the students. Not everyone came to attend the function though (which turned fatal for some).
‘And it shook’
We must have been 15-20 minutes into the program when it happened. We were sitting on the sand watching the function when all of a sudden I started feeling dizzy and could feel the ground beneath me shaking. I looked down and saw that it was moving violently making the sand jump up and down. I couldn’t believe my eyes! That was the moment when I felt the world was coming to an end. I thought we will be gobbled by the Earth! The students around me panicked and started running here and there. Our science teacher started shouting “earthquake earthquake”. I ran towards the end of the ground where my cycle was parked. When I looked up, I saw at a distance a building going down and there was a huge ball of smoke. The building disappeared in the smoke. Horrified, I took my cycle and rushed out of the school premises. Meanwhile, from what I saw from the last few glances at the chaos on the school grounds – the students at the stage had started singing the national anthem to a terrified looking bunch of students who were all over the place. I took off from the school with some other students. I remember getting an overwhelming feeling of patriotism as I furiously cycled my way back to home. All the people on the road became my brothers and sisters at an instant. I have never ever experienced such a feeling again!
I reached home to find my parents standing outside the apartment block with other people. They were waiting for me and were relieved to see my face. The earthquake sparked rumors those days. Somebody heard on the radio that another quake was on its way towards the city. People panicked and rushed out of the apartment. Even me and my family were scared so we went out on a car ride. We saw damaged buildings on our tour of the city. The road leading to the building which I saw collapsing earlier in the day was filled with people witnessing the rescue operations. It was a 10 storied apartment. Almost 100 people lost their lives in their sleep in that building. That night we slept in our car. Stuff at my apartment was tossed up here and there. On 27th night we slept at a party plot along with other families from my locality. The party plot was (it still exists and brings back the old memories!) a large hall and was single storied (so safe!). Families huddled up together on their mattresses. It was a weird feeling sleeping with so many people. It gave a view of a civilized refugee camp! We were woken up the next morning by a strong aftershock measuring a good 6.2 on the Richter scale. My parents woke me and my little sister up and we rushed outside into the chilly morning air. That rush sent shivers down my spine!
We left Ahmedabad that afternoon for my aunt’s place in Indore as my family couldn’t take it any more. We made a 10 hr car journey to Indore, a city situated 350 kms away from Ahmedabad in the state of Madhya Pradesh. We took a wrong route on our way to Vadodara which made our trip longer by a couple of hrs. When we were crossing Jhabhua district that night, we had to stop at a police check post with other vehicles. It was too dangerous to cross the stretch that lay ahead on our own as the route was infested with bandits! An armed police constable accompanied us for the next 45 minutes. There was a moment when the constable took out his gun and pointed it outside the window. We saw some people running at a distance. They were probably the bandits from whom we were being protected. It was one hell of a ride! I’ll never forget it!
So we took a week’s break away from the state of Gujarat which was rocked by one of the deadliest earthquakes of all time measuring at 7.7 on the Richter scale. I was too terrified to go back home. When we returned to Ahmedabad, we were greeted by another aftershock which hit us on the 8th Feb at around 22:30 at night. It measured 5.7. The fans in our apartment were swaying! The students of my school hardly went to school that term. The entire period between Feb and May was spent away playing cricket with my apartment mates. Everyone of us were promoted to the next grade. I made it to the 6th grade that year! Some students lost their lives in the disaster and some lost their relatives. It was a catastrophic disaster that struck my state. Over 20,000 people lost their lives. Cities in the Kutch district, which was the epicentre of the earthquake, were literally razed. The whole district was pulled back to the stone age. It took Gujarat almost a decade to recover economically and emotionally. Gujarat did bounce back strong thanks to its resilient and hard working people and a forward looking administrations whose efforts, its critics, who never saw the death and destruction, would never be able to understand.