My mother, father, my infant five months old brother and I, lied in one room under the only fan which was working amid frequent power failure. Fans of other rooms were almost motionless due to low voltage. As we tossed restlessly in our beds on that warm night of October, my baby brother started to cry. My mom sat up with him in her lap trying to lull him to sleep. I was barely eight then. The little green bulb which my mom use to switch on at night, flickered. My father wiped his sweat and turned towards the other side.
Mom had opened the windows. Yet the room was suffocating. All we needed was cold breeze. My bed was right next to the window. Unable to sleep, I opened my eyes. Outside the window, the giant Neem tree stood still, without a single leaf moving. For the first time the tree looked scary to me. Dark and ghostly, the tree made me feel more uneasy.
On the roads, strays too barked in frenzy. There was a discomfort in the chirping of birds as well. May be they were crying for water. The shrill howling of distant dogs started nearing. Clearly the dogs were not fighting, but crying.
My brother did not stop crying. My mother was wide awake by that time. The room felt like a hot oven. The birds residing in the giant Neem Tree flew away suddenly, squeaking loudly. I reached for the water bottle on the table near my bed. I stretched my hand when the bed shivered. I turned my head towards the window to see if it was the wind coming from the rustling of the Neem tree. I could not see anything in pitch darkness. Gradually the shivers converted into wild tremors. My bed shook violently.
“Bhumikompo!” (Earthquake) my mother panicked and shouted in Bengali, as she held on to my little brother. The green light was still on and I could see my father with his eyes wide open staring at the ceiling fan. He lied on the bed motionless with a horrified face. He had his palms open, facing the ceiling.
“Ki dekhcho” (what are you staring at) my mother shook my father. He did not reply.
The tremors shook the house. I saw the ceiling move horizontally. I heard the utensils of the kitchen banging the floor. Show pieces of glass in the living room smashed to pieces. I heard the noises, loud and clear. There was chaos and fear outside. My neighbors had gathered on their terrace or balcony, looking for safe open places.
“Shilpi stay where you are,” I heard my mom shout again, amidst her wailing and attempt to protect my little brother. My eyes were fixed on my dad. I was petrified to see his unusually scared open eyes and palms facing the fan.
The tremors slowed down. My bed stopped shaking. Only then my mom ran out of the room with my bro in her arms and dad followed her holding my hand. We ran in our garden. I remember I was barefooted.
“What were you staring at?” my mother asked dad again.
“I was scared of the ceiling fan. If that fell on us, I was preparing to catch it” dad replied, stroking my head as he panted.
The devastating Uttarkashi Earthquake of 1991 had killed over a thousand people and caused extensive damage to property in the Garhwal Himalaya region. At a magnitude of 6.6, major cities including Dehra Dun and Almora were affected. Thankfully we were safe. Our house in Dehradun had developed fissures in many places and needed repairing thereafter. It was a collateral damage worth crores. For me it was an emotional damage. Even today when the ground shakes or I hear the painful news, my father’s horrified face relives in my eyes.