Earthquake From Afar

My heart sank when I saw all the missed calls. The news could not possibly be good. Fearfully, I called my brother in Vancouver. A 7.8 Richter scale earthquake had hit Nepal. The earthquake had destroyed many parts of Kathmandu where my elderly parents now live. Their neighborhood was largely spared, but everyone, including my parents, were now in the streets, fearful of the powerful aftershocks. The rumors were circulating about an impending earthquake that would be even more powerful. My father seemed traumatized. I can only imagine what my mother felt -- who suffers from late Parkinson's disease and is mostly bed-ridden.

The young in Nepal have always left their homes to pursue opportunities elsewhere. I grew up in a tiny hamlet in Gorkha -- Jaubari -- a few miles from the devastated village of Barpak, which is the epicenter of the earthquake. Barpak, then as now, was mostly inhabited by Ghales. It was the birth place of Jamdar Gaje Ghale, a textbook Nepali hero who had received the Victoria Cross for his bravery during the Second World War. Many of my classmates in my local school were Ghales from Barpak. But few of them graduated from high school as most were recruited as Gurkhas in the British or the Indian army. Many from my own village -- who were of a different ethnic group and were not considered by the army recruiters -- had to make do with some menial jobs in India.

This trend was accelerated during the Maoist insurgency that started in the mid '90s. A weak democratic polity had unleashed expectations to the populace, but the politicians -- then as now -- were bickering among themselves to divide the spoils. There were few opportunities for the young and little hope for the future. Many joined the Maoists to realize a communist utopia -- initiating a civil war that was to last over a decade and ravaged the whole society. Those who did not, left to work in the factories of Malaysia or the deserts of Gulf States. The better educated ones made it to North America and Europe.

This huge Nepali diaspora is now observing the unfolding tragedy in Nepal with pain and dread. The images and video are heartbreaking to watch. Along with the loss of life, the structures that were part of one's life -- the temples and the monuments -- all lay in ruins. Many in the diaspora have lost their relatives or are listed as missing. It is hard enough to communicate as power lines are down and telephone/cell phone service is erratic. And the social media can be a double edged sword. It provides a much-needed community, but also can be a source of rumors and half truths. Already there are reports of looting and arson. Fears of an epidemic could very well prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sometimes, it is almost as if one is reading a chapter of Saragamo's dystopian Blindness.

Nepali diaspora has been trying to help. Huge sums of money and resources are being raised in different parts of the world. Within communities, there are also arguments as to how they are to be disbursed. But the pain is still palpable and a sense of helplessness pervades. A line by the poet Stephen Spender -- who wrote it while waiting for a war -- keeps coming back to mind: "We who live in the shadow of war. What can we do that matters?"