In September 1993, a powerful earthquake hit Latur, in Maharashtra, in western India. This was a region of prosperous farmers. They lived in large mansions with stone walls. Owing to faulty construction, there was severe destruction of houses, with thousands upon thousands of people, all at home in the evening, being crushed to death as the walls collapsed.
I was a member of TARU's multi-disciplinary team that visited the earthquake affected area soon after. We were undertaking a rapid damage assessment exercise for the govt. of India, towards planning for reconstruction and rehabilitation. The whole area was like a war zone. We went from village to village, surveying the damage, studying the houses, interviewing people from different sections.
We reached a particular village. Or its remains. It was or rather had been a tiny village, and it had been entirely wiped out. What was once a village was now a hillock-like mound of rubble. Each and every person there had perished under stone.
In those ruins we came across a man. He told us he was in the army and had rushed home after hearing about the earthquake in Latur. He reached to find every trace of his home and village wiped out. He remembered various people of the village. There had been one Muslim family. He was calm and collected, and yet somewhat dazed, shell-shocked. He said his home had been the centre of his life. As he went from place to place in the army, he thought of each place in relation to his home. All his purchases were for people at home. His yearly routine centred around his home visits. All his plans, all his feelings were for the people at home. And now this was gone. He said he was trying to come to terms with this, with this vacuum in his life. I was reminded of some lines by John Berger:
"Home is the centre of the world because it is the place where a vertical line crosses with a horizontal one. The vertical line a path leading to the sky and downwards to the underworld. The horizontal line representing the traffic of the world, all the possible roads leading across the Earth to other places. Thus, at home, one is nearest to the gods in the sky and to the dead in the underworld. This nearness promises access to both. And at the same time, one is at the starting point and, hopefully, the returning point of all terrestrial journeys."
(And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos)
Walking in the rubble of the village, I saw a piece of paper fluttering in the breeze. I went and picked it up. It was a page from a school exercise book. On its two sides, a child had written an essay on “My Village”. The essay began: “In my village we have electricity and piped water. There is a post-office. In my village we have good roads. The village is connected to the state highway by road. Our Gram Panchayat is very active. We have a cooperative society and a store. The society provides good manure and fertilisers and improved seeds. The villagers often come together and work unitedly. ..."
The essay concluded with the sentence: "I love my village very much."
I kept that piece of paper. When our study report was completed, we used the image of the front-side of that page, with the beginning of the essay, on the cover of the report to the govt. of India.
Returning home to Calcutta, exhausted after a gruelling week of field work and a few more days of work at the TARU office in Delhi, and ravaged by all the death and destruction we had witnessed, I hugged my two-year old son Rituraj and wept.