2015, Nepal, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

Deluged by the dead – Pyres set water on fire

Pashupati, Kathmandu, April 27: The Bagmati flows scant and shallow through Kathmandu. Today, it flowed slow and sorrowful, laden with far too heavy a mortal consignment to push along.

The banks had run out of ground to stack pyre on. The bodies would not stop arriving, each attached to its tableau of the inconsolable.

There was nowhere to go. They had to be waded in on a wobbly bamboo raft and set alight midstream.

 The Bagmati had become a river deluged by the dead, its waters on fire, its pebbled bed choked with the remains of what is no more.
Victims of the earthquake being cremated in Kathmandu on Monday.
Smoke rose in blue plumes and hung still on the trees, evading the drifts. The forbidding pagoda of Pashupatinath brooded over the proceedings, the eternal eye presiding over ephemeral rites.

Rush hour at the open crematorium by the Bagmati had run more than 24 hours. There was no sign it would come to ebb anytime soon.

“We have been burning them all day and all night,” said Tarak Nath, a crematorium handler, catching his breath between one smoked life and another. “You can tell this will go on for a while. Everybody wants their dead brought to Pashupati.”

An old man sitting haunched nearby muttered to no one in particular that he had heard more than 3,000 people were reported to have been consumed by Saturday’s quake. (The official count stood at over 4,000 on Monday evening.)

A woman’s anguished shrieks rang over the hubbub and she swooned over the corpse she had just led in. Even in the great temple of the Lord, solace was hard to come.

Mourners stood huddled around their dear departed across the black-stoned Pashupati concourse, awaiting their turn by the Bagmati. Straw mattresses lay piled in the temple’s nooks, awaiting more dead.

The good news thus far was that no after-tremors had followed till this evening; the bad news was that the first two days of shock had already claimed far too many.

Just how many nobody can spell out yet, for large parts of the valley and the hills and the frozen Himalaya remained cut off and inaccessible.

It will take time and patience and grinding work to tell the final toll. But it will climb in the days to come – most reckon, steeply.

“Our experience in such disasters is that initially it is impossible to get close to a realistic figure of casualties,” said Aftab Alam of Plan International, a UK-based disaster management concern. “There is usually no way to tell until search and rescue are completed. We are just starting in Nepal.”

Kathmandu wore a stricken look, beset by its unforeseen tragedy and flustered by foreboding over what may yet come.

Rife rumour has constructed a surreal certainty of aftershocks about to come the next minute. A bird takes flight or a dog barks and people begin to fret and run.

“Is it true that gathering clouds are a sign of another quake?” Rita Bhairab, a college student currently homeless, asked. “Someone said clouds will bring it on and I am scared to look at the sky.”

Rita seemed to herself suspect how unfounded her alarm was. But anxiety had overtaken her good sense.

Around her, at the Tudikhel camp, where the Dharahara minaret stood till the other day, such worry rippled among the thousands displaced. Every kerbside, every roundabout, every little open space has turned into a bivouac of those the quake has tossed out of home.

Tents have been erected in some spaces by the army and by aid agencies but only the fortunate ones are getting to sleep under some manner of cover. Many parts of the town are without water and power.

The queues at fuel stations are long and multiple. The shops are mostly shut. There’s lots to buy in a city that has suddenly suffered monumental deficit – food, medicines, drinking water, cooking gas, matches to light a candle, batteries to light a torch, linen to spread under the sky, far too many things that people suddenly lack for.

But there’s nobody selling them. Kathmandu isn’t staring at a scarcity of essential goods yet. The airport is piled over with aid cartons, and the Prithvi highway – the main supply route from India – is open and running.

But retail and distribution have become a concern. The citizenry remains panicked.

People are not reporting to essential services desks, shop owners are not lifting shutters, taxi men are few to find and exorbitant to hire. Hospitals are stretched. Public transport is haywire. The Internet is comatose and telephony very fickle.

Nepal is on a string.

The capital rang incessantly with the scream and whine of sirens, a frantic ambulance, a fire tender tearing through, troops rushing to rescue.

Overhead, today’s clear skies rumbled all day with rescue and relief operatics – chopper gnatting about on sorties, gargantuan transport aircraft groaning in and out.

Aid is pouring in overtime – from India, from China, from Pakistan, and from Israel among other nations. But as Yashraj Upadhya, a local aid worker struggling to evacuate aid crates from the airport red tape, remarked: “The stuff needs to flow, get around.”

Within stone’s throw from the airport’s periphery, smoke still rose over the dead at Pashupati as the sun came to set. And the Bagmati struggled to flow, quite unquiet.

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