by Akriti Sharma
Four a.m. on a Friday, exhausted after a night out with friends, I am stirred by the familiar notification ring from BBC news on my phone. I turn over in bed to face away from my phone, now shining brightly, demanding that I check it. I wonder if there is an option to mute the news notification at night. Frankly, I don’t really care if the Duchess of Cambridge goes into labor.
A heartbeat passes and there is a tap on my door. The tap turns into a knock and before I know it my roommate, Shreya, is pounding at my door. She sounds scared. “There was an earthquake back home,” she says.
“Oh again?” I’m thinking of the 4.0 magnitude ’quake that hit three years ago. But when I open the door and see her face I know something is wrong. I pick up my phone to read the notification. “7.9 Magnitude Earthquake slams Nepal, hundreds presumed dead.” My heart drops, my brain stops momentarily, yet somehow I find myself out in the dining room with my laptop and phone. My roommate sits by me, going through the news on her phone.
“The minute I read Dharahara fell, I knew it was a big one,” she says.
Dharahara was a national monument, a tower that overlooked Kathmandu city. Hundreds of people climbed it everyday.
“I still hadn’t climbed it yet,” I find myself foolishly saying.
The images on my laptop are horrific. At my side, my phone is trying to connect to my parent’s number, but keeps failing. According to the news, the lines were down. According to the images online, half my country is rubble. I stare at the photographs mindlessly, feeling numb, scared, and lost. The phone call cancels, and I notice three missed calls. My mother called me three times an hour ago.
It felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. She had called not once, not twice, but three times, and I had failed to pick up because I had been out. Had she called me to tell me she was okay? Or had something terrible happened? My roommate was frantically trying to contact her family too.
Shreya and I stared dumbstruck at images of the destroyed neighborhoods where we had grown up. I stare at an image of Patan Durbar Square, which was a 20 minute walk from my house. It was one of the three Durbar Squares in the Kathmandu Valley, which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Built almost 500 years ago by the Malla Kings, this complex of temples, courtyards, and a magnificent palace built mostly of iconic red brick had been a magnificent example of Newari architecture within the Kathmandu Valley. The images on my screen showed piles of these lying on the ground, tourists and locals alike looking shell-shocked.
The house was quiet and Worcester slept peacefully. Halfway across the world, Nepal was in ruins, people buried under collapsed buildings, and many were injured. I would later find out that thousands were dead. In our little dining room, my roommate and I sat silently , still unable to contact our families. Right now, there was nothing we could do from so far away.
An hour later, another news alert set off my phone. Two people were dead. The earthquake had been of a “violent intensity’, the ground swaying at unimaginable magnitude.
“I wonder what it felt like,” I thought out aloud.
The last earthquake to hit Nepal had been in 1934, and since Nepal lies on a major fault line, another devastating earthquake had long been expected. We had several earthquake drills in school each year, I used to always look forward to them as a way to miss class.
The thirteen-year-old me who had no conception of the destruction an earthquake could cause her country. The thirteen-year-old me who did not know at the time that she would be fortunate enough to never have to experience the horror of April 25th 2015. That’s what I was told later, by friends and family over the weekend, that I was fortunate to not be there. But that does not sit well with me.
My family had been separated at the time of the earthquake. My younger brother was at home and my parents had been driving. Was I fortunate to not be with the three people that I without a doubt love the most, during such a traumatic experience? I am fortunate enough that an hour and a half later I received a call from my father. I am fortunate enough that my family survived. I do not, however, feel fortunate to have been in Worcester when the earthquake struck.
This might be an emotional and irrational thought of a twenty-something, but my initial feeling that weekend and the following week was guilt. I felt guilty for sleeping in a bed while my grandparents slept under the night sky, their home on the verge of collapsing. I felt guilty for laughing with my friends on the morning after,while thousands of children cried over lost family members. I felt guilty for living comfortably a thousand miles away from what really was my home.
I stayed up until the crack of dawn that day, unable to sleep and responding to messages from friends, including some that I had not spoken to for years. Many of us were scattered around the world, and we felt helpless. We shared the guilt, too. We asked ourselves why we were away. Nepal was suffering, and we were out of the country, seeking “a better future.”
Aspiring students leave Nepal to gain a better education. Less than a third return. Some of those who return are dying to leave again. It took a natural disaster that destroyed our country to make us realize how much we wanted to be home close to our families. Everyone cried, everyone was scared, but from so far away there was nothing we could do but wait for more news.
My father’s first words to me that night had been “Don’t worry.” That is something I was and still am unable to do. It hurts to see a country that had been shaken by a royal massacre and has endured a decade long civil war finally get back up on its feet, only to be knocked down again. All of this, within my lifetime. I feel guilty right now, sitting in the comfort of my apartment writing this, while my brother and a hundred of other high school students in Kathmandu sit down to write their final examinations, a week after this disaster has struck. Most of them, having already been accepted to Universities for the fall of 2015 in America must give the exams to be eligible for their offers. So they can come here and make a better future for themselves. So they can come here and join us in what I can only describe as an immigrant’s guilt.
Akriti Sharma is a senior at Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts, majoring in Economics. She grew up in Kathmandu, Nepal, and has been volunteering many years. She loves books and dogs, and she greatly misses her two German Shepherds back home.
Photo credit: “Destruction of Heritage and Culture” by Drishika Dugar – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Destruction_of_Heritage_and_Culture.jpg#/media/File:Destruction_of_Heritage_and_Culture.jpg