At 8:45 a.m. on Jan. 26, children in towns and villages across India were putting on starched school uniforms and gathering to celebrate the national holiday marking the country's birth as an independent republic. In the village of Wonde in the western state of Gujarat, 50 schoolchildren began marching through town in the annual Republic Day parade.
Minutes later, the earth started shaking and the ground swelled up like the ocean's tide. Buildings and homes collapsed. A woman watching the parade instinctively grabbed several children to protect them from the house crumbling behind her. The woman and the three children survived, but 35 of their classmates were among the tens of thousands who died in the earthquake that day.
The massive Republic Day earthquake that struck India four months ago hit hardest in the desert district of Khutch, home to all of my immediate and extended family. I was in Gujarat at the time of the disaster, working on environmental justice issues with a local activist organization. Two days after the quake, I rushed to the city of Bhuj to find out how my family had fared.
By some combination of karma and good luck, all my immediate family members survived, though we lost several relatives. But in places like Bhuj, where families have lived for generations, the entire population feels like kin. I heard many stories there, including from the woman who saved the schoolchildren. As rescue efforts unfolded, my sense of loss grew far beyond the boundaries of my own family.
Here's how I described the situation in a letter to friends and loved ones about my time in Khutch: "The situation is very dismal. ... Certain small villages near the epicenter point have been completely sucked into the ground, disappeared from the map. Khutchi culture becoming extinct. The city of Bhuj reeks with the smell of dead bodies. Everywhere, people feel the presence of lingering, restless spirits and ghosts."
Out of Bhuj's population of 125,000, the death toll from the quake was 25,000. Months later, those lucky enough to remain alive are faced with the harsh reality of displacement. Currently, none of my relatives are living in their original homes. They are scattered in relief camps in Bhuj and in Bombay, 500 miles away.
April in India means heat, and this is especially true for the desert region of Khutch. Right now, people are building temporary shelters in scorching 110-degree temperatures. They're working against the clock, as the monsoons will begin in another month, and no one wants to be left living in tents when the rains begin.
On May 19, local artists, community activists and friends of quake relief will host a fundraiser from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. at the Hayti Heritage Center in Durham. Proceeds will go directly to helping earthquake survivors in Gujarat.
In my letter, I called on friends to do three things in response to the quake:
"1) Cherish your days on earth and truly live in the present. As we can see, it can end at any time.
2) Consciously try to be a supportive and grounding force for your family and community.
3) Lastly, please, never forget the force of nature and remember to honor her daily and humble yourself. Ironically, [in Khutch] everything man-made crumbled. But the trees remain standing."
For information on the benefit, call (919) 858-0401 or go to www.quakerelief.org.