When the earth shook and a girl smiled

The earthquake in Sumatra took me back to Gujarat. 2001.


It was Republic Day — January 26, when the earth shook so hard in the western Indian state that we felt it as far away as Kolkata. I was home, on vacation, visiting my parents. That winter, I knew, would be my father’s last. He was losing his battle against Alzheimer’s.

Then came the call from the managing editor of the AJC, John Walter, another man who is no longer alive. “Do you have a computer with you?” he asked. “What will it take to get to Bhuj?’

That was the epicenter of the massive quake.

A few hours later I was in Mumbai, waiting for a flight into Ahmadabad.

It was the first time I had covered a quake. I had seen hurricanes and blizzards. And floods and dust storms. But never a quake.

This week, as I watched my CNN colleagues covering the Indonesian tragedy, I thought back to the days when I slept under the stars for fear of being in a building that could crumble. I could smell again the wicked stench of rotting flesh trapped in rubble and the Muslim cleric who doused his handkerchief with scented oil and tucked it under my nose.

I thought of how foolish I was when I asked a member of a radical Hindu group why he was carting bodies to the crematorium. “How do you know if they are Hindu or Muslim?” I asked, with all the disdain of an insufferable journalist.

He pulled off the burlap covering a mangled piece of flesh. It was a woman, he said, because you could see the bangle on what used to be a wrist. “But you tell me, madam,” he said, “if she is Hindu or Muslim and I will act accordingly.”

I wanted to walk away. I was so ashamed.

I marveled at the resiliency of suffering people.

I wrote about a school girl I met while sitting at the airport in Bhuj, waiting for a plane to carry me back home, away from the horror. I meant to write it as a journal entry; the paper ended up publishing it as a column. To this day, I wonder about her.


Anjar, India

Will you remember me?” 14-year-old Bhavika Vegad asked peering straight into my camera, the smile disappearing from her face.

How could I not? Bhavika’s world was turned upside down when a Jan. 26 earthquake leveled her city. And I was there to bear witness.

All around her, relatives, friends, classmates and teachers perished under the concrete and bricks that tumbled to the ground the day the earth roared in Anjar.

Six days later, a sprightly Bhavika roamed the rubble-filled streets, shielding her nose from the dust and dodging the debris in her path. She followed me from a temporary clinic and shelter halfway to the devastated Mistry Failyu neighborhood.

“I miss going to school, ” she said in almost perfect English. “I miss my friends and teachers.”

No one knew when Bhavika would be able to return to school. Anjar, with 65,000 residents, is a bit bigger than Roswell. And the only thing left here is misery.

Now the journalists have started to leave Gujarat state. The relief agencies are also temporary. But Bhavika’s life has changed forever.

And, yet, in the midst of Gujarat’s tragedy, her face was a ray of hope — an inspiration to begin healing.

When I first arrived in Ahmedabad, the former state capital that has roughly the same population as the Atlanta metro area, the scale of the devastation eluded me. The airport in this industrial center is located in an area that was largely spared.

It was two days after the massive temblor. It was midnight. I had been traveling for almost 24 hours.

I felt lucky that I had been able to reserve a hotel room in a city suddenly bursting at the seams with media, dignitaries and relief workers. All I wanted was the comfort of a clean bed.

The first sign that something was terribly wrong struck me as the auto-rickshaw made its way deeper into the heart of Ahmedabad. So many people were out in the streets — some of them sleeping under the stars, others too scared to close their eyes.

When I arrived at the hotel, the deep fissures in the wall made me wonder whether I, too, might not be better off sleeping in the street.

“This hotel is not safe, ” the auto-rickshaw driver said.

That was all it took. That first night I slept in a dump across from the railway station. But it was a dump without cracks in the walls.

I found a better room on my second day in Ahmedabad, in the Best Western Moti Manor. But I didn’t realize that the rail tracks ran past the back of the building. Every time a train went by, my heart raced at the thought that another aftershock might be rattling the city.

The seismology experts said Gujarat was experiencing aftershocks at the rate of one every hour. It was hard to sleep at night, knowing that the walls could crumble around me at any moment.

It was then that I understood the fear and panic that had gripped this part of the world.

Usually, we find solace in our homes. But here, a two-minute temblor had robbed Gujaratis of that fundamental comfort in life. People regarded their homes not as a place of sanctuary but as a menace, an enemy.

As I visited town after town in Gujarat’s Kutch region, I realized the enormity of what had happened. Entire towns and villages lay flattened. Thousands of people were left out on the fields and streets with nothing left to their names. Out of every pile of rubble wafted the acrid smell of rotting corpses. Men and women wailed openly. Others, shellshocked, grieved in silence. Or didn’t feel at all.

In Anjar, I walked from block to block surrounded by desperate rescue workers. Four hundred dead here. Thirty-two still trapped there. Renu Suri of the Atlanta-based relief and development agency CARE had warned me the death toll is certain to be much higher than reported. She said as many as 100,000 people could have died, but that we may never know with certainty.

I thought of a conversation I’d had a week before the quake with a friend in Calcutta. We agreed that India, the world’s second-most populous country, would go nowhere without family planning. India’s best method of population control, he added, came in the form of natural calamities. We need more cyclones and floods, he said.

I thought his statement gross then. In Anjar, the words became unbearable.

Back in Calcutta, I showed my family a video of Gujarat recorded on my camcorder. As Bhavika Vegad’s face lit up the TV screen, I wondered what she was doing at that moment, 12 days after the quake.

Was she still sleeping in the cold? Was she afraid of entering a cracked building? Had her school reopened? How many of her friends died in the quake?

Bhavika told me her parents had survived. So I knew she was one of the lucky ones.

Yes, Bhavika, I will always remember you. I’ll remember your long black braid bouncing down your back as you ran.

Your smile was the only one I saw in Anjar.

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5 Replies to “When the earth shook and a girl smiled”

  1. While here in Georgia flooding caused significant damage and distress, no one had to worry about their house falling in on them. We are so fortunate not to have experienced real calamity like the earthquakes in Asia.

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  2. Nonsense? To tell a working journalist that a story is nonsense is pretty damn harsh.But I I don't think you understood what I wrote. Bhavika's was the only smile I saw in Gujarat on that trip. And after a harrowing trip, the few moments I spent with her gave me hope. She was the epitome of human resilience.

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  3. I did not say story itself a nonsense; rather, the title seems contradictory and I meant that only. There is no connection in the first half of the sentence to the final half of the sentence i.e. how can a girl smile when everything is shattered (only some journalists/reporter can – they get employment writing on and about it.Moreover, the mention that India requires more natural calamities as a way to control population is awful and shows disrespect to human life.

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  4. Yes. I agree the comment was awful. That is exactly why I included it.And you still don't get the hed: For me, those are the two things I remember. When the earth shook. And a girl smiled at me — in the midst of it.

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