The Rocket In The Sky
It’s April 25th 2015 and I’m sitting on the stained beige couch of a share house in which I once lived. My ex-housemates and I are playing Super Smash Bros on Nintendo ’64 and making our way through a carton of Chang beers and pouches of Champion Ruby. It’s a Saturday and there are plans to go to a bar once the sun falls, to see bands and drink overpriced craft beers that we deserve after a long, arduous week of being university students. At some point during the fun, someone remarks that there has been an earthquake in Nepal, but the statement is drowned out by noise and the drunken repression of anything that isn’t in the spirit of good times.
The following morning, around 11am, I wake to a hangover and a text message from a friend about Nepal. I pay attention this time and while eating chia seed muesli, sift through news stories on my laptop. I read rising casualty figures and look at foggy images of razed hillside villages that resemble trampled tarpaulin in mud. I scroll through a photo series of the nation’s destroyed cultural monuments, swiping through each image offhandedly, as if they were Tinder profiles and not a nation’s worst nightmare coming to life. That is until I click on one image that makes me feel suitably nauseous. It shows Kathmandu’s Basantapur Durbar Square in ruins, and crowds of people climbing through the rubble of the main courtyard.
Rewind three months, back to January, and I’m standing in the exact spot that photo was taken. I’m with Levi, a close friend whom I lived with in the house of the Nintendo, and Anil, our guide for the day. To our left is the three-tiered Tajelu temple and to our right is the Hanuman Dhoka, the royal palace of the Malla and Shah dynasties. We shouldn’t still be in Kathmandu, we should be on our way to the popular Annapurna Circuit trekking loop, but nothing is going to plan. Nepal is in strike over the signing of a new constitution and the streets are lined with protesters in residual echo of the recent civil war. Taxi drivers have taken the day off and buses have been cancelled in fear of violence from the Maoist party.
Confined to the city, Levi and I lazily ate breakfast, watching on TV a politician swing a chair at another, and then wandered into town. From the tourist enclave of Thamel, the western side of the city’s sloping roads taper and shrink, like a building musical crescendo, until funneling out at Durbar Square. Here, all walks of Nepali life gather, from monks to beggars, drug peddlers to trekking guides, coexisting in unity of past, present and future. The Square itself seems aware of its historical responsibility to the developing nation. Erotic sculptures, paintings and detailed engravings burst forth everywhere, like memories refusing to be repressed.
There are ten centuries of culture surrounding Levi, Anil and I, but our eyes and camera are following Anil’s finger upward, to a white trail shooting across the dusty sky.
Anil asks if it’s a rocket and I tell him I think it’s just a plane.
“No,” he replies. “It’s too fast. It’s a rocket or drone. Pakistan…maybe China…” His voice meanders as he bites his left index fingernail, his other hand writhing in the pocket of his black sleet jacket.
Everyone in our near proximity is looking up also — tourists with mild curiosity and locals not blinking, hands on each other’s upper arms and mouths paused open. They look exactly how I suspect I did when I first saw the Himalayas. When I was shown a seventy thousand dollar mandala that took a grand master a decade to paint. When Anil explained some of the more esoteric aspects of Nepali culture, such as Kumari — the tradition of selecting pre-pubescent girls to be the divine embodiment of Tajelu (Hindu) or Vajradevi (Buddhist) until their first menstruation, after which another is chosen and the previous is cursed for life.
The three of us walk on but Anil’s eyes stay on the white line. He is right, of course; the vapour trail is moving too fast for a passenger aircraft. But I don’t want say this to him; earlier, he told us that he has a newborn son and it has rendered him paranoid, that the world suddenly seems out of his control.
“Relax,” I say. “We see this sort of thing at home all the time.”
“Really?” He releases his tightly gripped hand from his neck. “Are you sure it’s not military?”
I concede, “No…no, you’re right. There’s no way I can be sure.”
He shakes his head, “You should know these things. Americans are educated, don’t you learn about this stuff at school?”
“Australian,” I say. “I’m Australian.”
He gives me a look that shows it doesn’t matter.
We turn a corner into the courtyard of the Maju Deval temple. In the middle, a lone cow rests on the ground, surrounded by pigeons. A small Nepali boy in a lime green hoodie runs over and begins dancing around the brown Brahman, his arms swinging wildly. The pigeons shoot upwards, a tube tornado in reverse that starts with the boy’s dance and ends above us in the vapour trail.
I spend the last week of April attached to my MacBook. I consume any and every piece of media coverage about the earthquake I can find, from Associated Press reports to opinion pieces to Go Pro footage recorded by avalanche survivors. I learn that the earthquake was expected, that records show intense seismic activity in the country every seventy to eighty years, the last being in 1934, registering a magnitude of 8.0 and killing over ten thousand Nepalis and Indians. Mahatma Gandhi wrote that the 1934 quake was divine retribution for the region’s failure to address caste inequality. I wondered what Nepal had done this time to deserve the wrath of God. I also learned that an earthquake of the same magnitude in Southern California would be a hundred times less fatal due to better building codes and infrastructure. I see that Facebook has introduced a feature that allows Nepalis to signpost whether they are safe, or at least alive. I also see people in my news feed from America and Australia jokingly post that they are safe, I assume as some sort of commentary about the invasive omnipotence of social media. I delete them from my friends list as I think about all the people Levi and I met during our time in the country. The managers of guesthouses that made us apple pies at the end of days in the mountains. The Californian girl with the cringeworthy stoner Instagram profile who is volunteering in an orphanage for the year. And Anil. I can’t stop thinking about Anil.
I message a friend who has worked with NGO’s in Nepal for years, asking for his advice in regards to the best charity for donating. I wait an hour for a reply then impatiently start doing my own research. I blindly give half of my week’s paycheck to the first charity that seems vaguely reputable. I put all the university and freelance work I should be doing to the side, along with my personal life, and focus my mind on the earthquake. I don’t know what is going on. It all happens involuntarily. Usually, I’m the sort of person who doesn’t dwell on world events, believing that they’re going to happen whether I think about them or not. Maybe it’s because I was in Nepal recently and I’m part of that ignominious group who doesn’t care about anything unless it hits home. Or maybe it’s just human nature to be transfixed by a spectacle, chaos that has a tangible and visual representation, especially when one recognises the people and places involved, and the entire ordeal feels like it is happening in front of you, live in 3D.
After we finish our tour of the heritage site, Levi and I buy hash from Anil. He introduces us to his business partner and friend, a goateed, aviator-wearing Nepali who by self-admission has spent too much time in the Indian party town, Goa. He looks like has just hopped out of the DeLorean from Kathmandu’s hippie days of yore, when Cat Stevens and The Beatles frequented the city’s famous Freak Street.
The four of us move to the third-storey rooftop of a café that overlooks the Square. We are the only patrons upstairs so Anil’s friend brazenly wields our two options, black and yellow, listing their respective pros and cons loudly in a faux-American accent. Anil grimaces through the sale, telling us that he wants to stop selling the drug but it provides the second income he needs for his new young family. He tells us that at our age he and his friends had a penchant for smoking hash at altitude. They would climb to heights of up to seven thousand metres, to places blanketed by avalanches when the earthquake hit, and smoke. The lack of oxygen makes the high much more intense.
“It was stupid,” he says. “We thought we were invincible. You learn quickly in life that you are not.” He readjusts himself in his chair and then his eyes rest on the sky, as they have continually all afternoon.
As more journalists flood into Nepal in early May, the specifics of the earthquake become more readily available. I find out from National Geographic that all the Kumari goddesses survived the earthquake, and lament that I will never know if Anil or his family did. I find out that the debris of Kathmandu’s Durbar Square has been left essentially unguarded, many of the important historical pieces having been stolen, making restoration highly unlikely. I watch videos shot from planes over the nation, examining the damage and dropping support, surely leaving the sky streaked with vapour trails.
I read a lot about the earthquake in 1934. Over ten thousand perished, yet Anil never mentioned it. In comparing the major points of modern Nepali history — Gorkha rule, regicides, the civil war — to the information Anil gave us, the quake is a glaring omission from his otherwise thorough guiding. I wonder if for him it was an unspeakable thing, if there was fear that even uttering the word could stir the long dormant. Susan Hough, a U.S. seismologist, told the New York Times that the nation’s people were aware of the threat, but that there was an attitude of fatalism, of the problem being so large and outside of human scope (unlike say, a threatening aircraft) that the only response was acceptance. After all, the central tenet of Buddhism is the inevitability of suffering.
At some stage, after the media circus has died down, I start writing. I put together a handful of drafts about the earthquake and my reflections. All of them feature Anil. I realise that for me, he is Nepal personified. The embodiment of a stoic country, seeking a better future, but unable to catch a break.
The drafts also all end the same way, with Levi and I parting ways with Anil and his friend, never to see them again. We return to our hostel, which is without power, and climb the shaky spiral staircase to the roof. Then we roll a joint as the sun descends over the Himalayas, mountains that began forming fifty million years ago when the Indian and Eurasian plates spectacularly collided. Mountains that serve a constant reminder of what lies below Nepal, that which will invariably rear its head again and again.