The day the earth shook mightily is a day few will ever forget, and none more so than writer Sushma Joshi, who had the misfortune of having her legs crushed under rubble near the Krishna Temple.
Lying on the bed of the B and B Hospital, I tried to explain to people what had happened to me in Patan Durbar Square on the day of the earthquake. But try as I may, I didn’t know what had happened to me. “The Krishna Temple fell on her,” my mother said, by way of explanation. My nose and ears was stuffed full of the dry, dank smell of centuries old dust, making me feel I was encased in burial and death. My head was full of wounds and caked with blood. Doctors and nurses, breezing in and out, and injecting me with antibiotics via the IV drip, didn’t seem to think the wounds needed cleaning. They said airily: “Oh, don’t worry, that will fall out in a few days.” But, in those few days, I slept with a giant ball of hair full of dust. The smell of decomposing blood got stronger as the days passed. At night, I would awake with the feeling that something very heavy was pressing down upon me, making it difficult for me to breathe. The women in my family finally found a pair of scissors and cut the hair off.
My father handed me The Kathmandu Post, and I saw that, in fact, the Krishna Temple had not fallen on top of me: the photograph showed the temple standing, intact, in the background, but another temple next to it was gone, like an uprooted tooth. It was not until I returned to my house, 18 days later, and a friend of mine showed me a photograph she had taken of the Square. The Mangal Hiti water complex was buried in the detritus of the small pati that had collapsed on top of it. So that, I thought, was what had buried me. I felt relieved to see the Krishna Temple, where I’d often walked around the stone balustrades, was intact.
The Krishna Temple remains etched in my memory of that day, if only because something odd crossed my mind as I looked at it just a few seconds before the earthquake. I had stood beneath the Krishna Temple, and noticed that somebody had painted the stone cornices of the temple with gilded paint. I felt annoyed with what, in hindsight, appears to be uncharacteristic pessimism—who, I thought, had done that? This was a historical structure made of carved stone, and a glitzy paint of this nature showed a lack of historical and archaeological knowledge. Almost, I thought, as if the gilt paint was a way to mark the temple from some other location, from which it could be targeted. Then, as I looked at this gilded cornice, this very un-Nepali fear crossed my mind:
What if a terrorist attack is about to occur in this place?
Reader, I have no idea why that fear crossed my mind in that specific instance. But it did. As you will agree, this is a very unusual fear for a Nepali, since we don’t have terrorist attacks on religious places, as other countries do. Almost with reluctance, I took those steps towards the water complex. Then, of course, the quake occurred.
I have no idea why the very specific sense of unease arose in me in that instance. Talking to people later, it occurred to me that the quake was already in motion when I started to move towards the stairs—in other words, I must have felt the pre-quake, but it did not register consciously.
Perhaps Krishna gives precognition to his devotees. Whatever it was, it was clear the few seconds I spent lingering under the eaves of the temple made the difference between my life and death—a few seconds earlier, and I would be dead under the weight of the huge beams that fell on my ankle instead. As it was, I fell neatly on a broad section of the stairways, where the wooden beams made a little shelter for me, protecting me from the debris. This position also made it easy for my rescuers to pull me out.
It has taken me multiple operations and 18 months to be back on my feet again. When I take my elbow crutch and go out for a walk towards a different Krishna Temple, I noticed how the people would react to me. First, the babies held by their mothers, who turned, and whose expressions change, when they catch sight of me. Babies know intuitively when somebody has been hurt—after all, the boundaries between their own bodies and those of the other is still unclear, and for them, the hurt of someone else is the same as being hurt themselves. Humans are born with empathy, and this has been nowhere more apparent than in my walks, when I see the face of a baby change from joy to an existential sadness when they see me. The moment I see the facial expression of a baby change from total happiness to sudden dismay, it reminds me of the Buddha and the moment he learnt about illness, aging, and death. And this, I think, is also the reason why the baby Krishna is so revered: because at that age, there is no hatred and no fear, only love for the other.
Then there are the toddlers, who at two or three know something is wrong when they see me with the stick. “Oo!” they say, pointing. “What is that?” They are not saddened like the babies, but they are not going to walk past ignoring my injury either. The answer depends upon the diplomatic skill of the mother, who may try to hurry the child through, pretending to ignore what he or she has just seen. Other mothers are more kind, and will say: “Oh, didi has been hurt, see. She needs a stick to walk.” Often, they will smile at me, teaching the child the all important lesson: “Look, this is not so bad. She just needs a bit of support now.”
And then the human race starts to get darker as they head towards teenage-hood. One day I heard hysterical laughter behind me and turned: a girl dressed in all black, in the manner of Angelina Jolie, could not control her laughter at the sight of me and my elbow crutch. Her laughter was so uncontrolled, her boyfriend, embarrassed by her cruelty, separated himself from her and started to walk on the other side of the road. The teenager, seemingly oblivious to the ravages of time awaiting her pretty body—operations, broken bones, cancers, and hospitalization—pulled out a mirror and checked her beautiful face, before being on her pretty way. There was nothing Radha-Krishna about this encounter, although in the height of her beauty this young woman should have reminded us about the beauty of love. Instead, she made me think about the cruelty of teenagers, and she made me wonder what it was about our society that turned loving babies into these monstrous beings.
Another day, I was minding my own business, walking with a bag of butter I had managed to buy after my first long trip to the dairy, when I saw two men being disgorged from a long distance bus. The men, big strapping young men with the face of those from the far or mid-west, then stared at me and my crutch with unabashed contempt, and made some sneering sounds. I looked back at them, amazed at their handsome oafishness. Did these men not know how dumb they looked, harassing a woman with an elbow crutch? But they seemed quite oblivious to how mean and cruel they looked. It occurred to me that, where they came from, sneering at a woman with a disability was probably the height of manliness, and something that bolstered their status and prestige. I glared at the man, but he only looked back at me with the most startling emotion of all—a hint of hatred. They were only doing what had been taught to them by a patriarchal Hinduism.
That day, I got a taste of what it feels like to be a woman in a different part of my own country—the far-west, or the mid-west, where women are still treated like animals if they ever have the misfortune to ever need a walking aid. And this, I realize, is what is wrong with Hinduism, despite all the love Krishna tells us is in our culture: unlike the Christians, we never made a real effort to address disability, and to teach people that these misfortunes can befall anyone. Having a sports injury is a normal everyday part of life in America: even the worst-behaved person in America would not deliberately target those with disabilities. And yet, in Nepal, it is obviously still something that we have not learnt to be practical about, and deal with in a compassionate manner.
I do not want to blame Hinduism for everything. If so, I would also have to blame it for the outpouring of love and concern that people heaped on me the first few days I was able to walk again. Strangers were stopping me on the streets to ask me what happened to me, and how glad they were that I was walking again. One day my mother and I went out for a walk, and a gentleman stopped me, said how he was in his 70s and could almost be my father, how his own daughter had suffered in the same manner and how she had finally recovered and gone to Australia, and how I should not stop doing physiotherapy. “Hai baba, don’t stop physiotherapy hai,” he said, before being on his way. Then a farmer carrying straw on his bicycle asked me if I was now fine, almost as if he knew me, then more people started to stop me on the way. “Humanity,” my mother said to me, using the English word by way of explanation, and making me cry.
A few days ago, I had that glorious moment when I realized I could stand up by myself and do a slow pivot around the vegetable market. Dazzled by the sudden freedom and the colors of the market, I took out my cellphone, and was in the process of doing a 360 degree shot around the market when I heard this little voice say: “What is this?” It was a boy about 10, the mischievous Krishna age, and he was pointing to my elbow crutch. Caught up in my photography, I tried to shake him off. In that voice you use to two-year-olds, I said: “Oh, it’s a stick.” When I looked down after my photograph was done, he was gone. Then I realized how I’d missed the opportunity: here was a little boy who was genuinely interested and asking me, “What happened to you? Are you okay?” And, instead of giving him the answer he deserved, I’d brushed him off, much like the mothers who hurried their toddlers past me, muttering, “Lets go.” I had missed an opportunity. To tell him that I was injured, but was now getting better. And that this stick was an implement that helped me to be strong and helped me to balance on my feet. And that, yes, it could happen to him too in the future, but that he shouldn’t worry, because when a human being falls down, the whole of humanity picks him or her up, and makes them walk again.