Nepal earthquake: Four days of waiting and a funeral

The writer (above, right) with her mother-in-law Laxmi Gurung (left) and eldest sister-in-law Goma Gurung at the Peace Pagoda in Lumbini in January last year. The writer's youngest sister-in-law Aayasa Gurung (below, left) was in Pokhara for a yearly
The writer (above, right) with her mother-in-law Laxmi Gurung (left) and eldest sister-in-law Goma Gurung at the Peace Pagoda in Lumbini in January last year. The writer's youngest sister-in-law Aayasa Gurung (below, left) was in Pokhara for a yearly meet for indigenous women when the quake hit last Saturday. About 40 per cent of buildings - such as these in Khokana (below, right) - in 20 of the country's 75 districts are severly damaged.PHOTOS: CHEONG SUK-WAI, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
The writer (above, right) with her mother-in-law Laxmi Gurung (left) and eldest sister-in-law Goma Gurung at the Peace Pagoda in Lumbini in January last year. The writer's youngest sister-in-law Aayasa Gurung (below, left) was in Pokhara for a yearly
The writer (above, right) with her mother-in-law Laxmi Gurung (left) and eldest sister-in-law Goma Gurung at the Peace Pagoda in Lumbini in January last year. The writer's youngest sister-in-law Aayasa Gurung (below, left) was in Pokhara for a yearly meet for indigenous women when the quake hit last Saturday. About 40 per cent of buildings - such as these in Khokana (below, right) - in 20 of the country's 75 districts are severly damaged.PHOTOS: CHEONG SUK-WAI, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
The writer (above, right) with her mother-in-law Laxmi Gurung (left) and eldest sister-in-law Goma Gurung at the Peace Pagoda in Lumbini in January last year. The writer's youngest sister-in-law Aayasa Gurung (below, left) was in Pokhara for a yearly
The writer (above, right) with her mother-in-law Laxmi Gurung (left) and eldest sister-in-law Goma Gurung at the Peace Pagoda in Lumbini in January last year. The writer's youngest sister-in-law Aayasa Gurung (below, left) was in Pokhara for a yearly meet for indigenous women when the quake hit last Saturday. About 40 per cent of buildings - such as these in Khokana (below, right) - in 20 of the country's 75 districts are severly damaged.PHOTOS: CHEONG SUK-WAI, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

AT 1.45PM Singapore time last Saturday, my youngest sister-in-law Aayasa Gurung was shaking hands with fellow delegates at a yearly meet for indigenous women, held this time in Pokhara.

Suddenly, the earth went mad, juddering and jittering, flinging them every which way in a hellish blur.

Somehow, Aayasa, 26, and the 700 people with her found their feet and fled the conference hall for an open field nearby.

It was her first visit to Pokhara, a tranquil if touristy lakeside town. Although she had no family or friends there, her time there was to have been a rare respite from her 5am to 9pm toil daily on the family farm in Sindhuli, about 395km away via the East-West Highway. Sindhuli, an agrarian county, is 151km south-east of Kathmandu.

She slept fitfully in the field that night, amid three aftershocks and after not being able to get through to anyone with her mobile phone. All the while, news was swirling about her that thousands had been killed by flying concrete in Kathmandu, where her elder sisters Goma and Sumitra live.

Unbeknownst to the sisters, their maternal uncle, Yadav Gurung, and his wife, both in their 40s, were among those who perished that day; they were praying in a church in Kathmandu when the roof fell in on them. Their two sons survived, but the younger lies badly injured in a Kathmandu hospital. He missed his parents' burial by relatives and Nepalese soldiers on Tuesday, even as corpses piled up in Kathmandu's narrow streets.

Aayasa was very lucky to be where she was, as a huge mountain stands between Pokhara and Lamjung - the epicentre of Saturday's earthquake being between Lamjung and Gorkha. So the peak shielded Pokhara such that only two deaths were reported there.

Also, she had a tent and all the food and water she needed because, with its community of largely retired Gurkhas, Pokhara is better off, better organised and better built than most other places in Nepal.

By 7am on Sunday in Singapore, my husband Indra, who is 35 and based here, had managed to speak to Aayasa over the phone and urged her to head home, as my mother-in-law Laxmi, 66 - who I call Aama - was worried sick about her.

But continued aftershocks had scared off public bus drivers. So Aayasa tried to get on a privately operated bus, but the fare was 5,000 Nepalese rupees (S$65) for half the distance between Pokhara and Sindhuli, compared to the usual 1,200 Nepalese rupees on a public bus for the entire journey. With that sum of 1,200 rupees, you can buy three meals of rice, spinach and curry sauce.

Later that day, government officials had to issue a stern warning to such profiteers that they would be jailed 10 months and fined 200,000 Nepalese rupees.

Aayasa spent another night in the field, amid two more aftershocks.

By 10am Singapore time on Monday, Pokhara's public bus drivers had decided to work again and, after steadying cups of chiya (milky tea in Nepali), Aayasa was on her way home, albeit at a snail's pace because of quake-riven and rubble-blocked roads.

Midway through her day-long journey, there was a massive landslide, from relentless rain. My husband's heart was in his mouth when Aayasa told him about this.

Fortunately, bulldozers soon rolled in to clear the road. Landslides are a common occurrence on Nepal's many mountain roads, and so the Nepalese have learnt to station rubble-removal equipment along the way. It still took the bulldozers four hours to finish the job, by which time Aayasa decided to break her journey in Hariwon, in Nepal's south-eastern plains.

The next day, April 28, she caught another bus to Sindhuli, now just 94.5km away.

Finally, at noon Singapore time that day, Aayasa arrived home - to a house listing dangerously backwards.

Save for its concrete floors and mud-and-stone side wall, the family home was all wood, built partly from sal (Shorea robusta) trees my husband had felled in a nearby forest when he was 17. The side wall was on the brink of collapse.

Aayasa found Aama camping in a corn field with their fellow villagers, most of whose homes were no longer standing. Sighing with relief, Aama could now get some sleep for the first time in four days.

"We are all right," my husband keeps stressing to me. "We are very lucky our immediate family is unhurt, unlike so many others."

He also thinks it a blessing in disguise that the quake was during the day on a Saturday because that meant most families were out and about, and no children were in school.

The United Nations has since estimated that more than a million Nepalese children's classrooms have collapsed, which also means that more than one million Nepalese children may still be alive, amid a death toll that jumps by the thousand every day. Nepal's prime minister Sushil Koirala fears that the final toll could be as high as 10,000.

Aid agencies estimate that 80 per cent of Nepal's 30.5-million population are suffering from the quake, in a country where 12 million people live on less than $1 a day. And 40 per cent of buildings in 20 of the country's 75 districts are severely damaged.

My father-in-law Hasta, who is 68 and who I call Aapa, is still in the dangerously tilting house, though. Aapa's attitude is: "If I die, I die in this house."

My husband, a journalist turned publicist, will have to rebuild his childhood home as soon as he can take some leave. Summer is near and it will bring thunderstorms, which will hasten the house's collapse.

While the heart of Nepal may have been shattered physically, it remains mentally indomitable. I was struck, and then overwhelmed, by how upbeat, even chirpy, all our friends and family sounded whenever we called them in the past week.

My husband believes that Saturday's calamity is actually the beginning of the healing and uniting of Nepal's many diverse peoples.

Their ties were frayed to wisps by the Maoist insurgency between 1996 and 2006.

Indra says: "People have been digging through rubble together with their bare hands, finding babies alive after 62 hours. The usual divisions of race, religion and party are nowhere to be seen. We have fighting spirit and have learnt to rely on ourselves."

He adds that the insurgency put progress back by 25 years. In the past five years, with the help of Japanese and Chinese contractors, Nepal has built major infrastructure again. So it was draining to see so many recently tarred roads ripped to ribbons last Saturday.

Already, my youngest brother-in-law, who is 33 and whose name is also Yadav Gurung, is organising health camps for quake victims across the country which he and his fellow doctors will run for free once he returns from his Master in Public Health course in New Zealand at the end of this month. He had run similar health camps in Sindhuli, Dolakha and other remote, poverty-stricken parts of Nepal since 2012.

Indra hopes that Nepal's government will finally go great guns on preparing everyone to cope with earthquakes.

He says: "Nepal has long been a red zone for seismic activity, but there is little awareness among its people about what to do when a quake strikes. But when people are so poor, who has time to think about such things?"

suk@sph.com.sg