For the three hours that Rashi, 4, spends at her playschool every day, her father, Rahul Patadia, remains restless. He starts his day at his jewellery store near Khatri Chowk in Anjar town of Kutch district almost about the same time, but the thought of his little daughter’s safety nags him. “I am at peace only when she is back from school,” says Patadia, 26.
It’s been 14 years since the January 26, 2001, earthquake hit Bhuj. Patadia still struggles to put behind memories of the day when he lost 40 of his schoolmates at the municipality-run School Number 1. He himself had a miraculous escape.
Patadia was among 200 children from 17 different schools in Anjar who, as part of a Republic Day parade, were marching through a narrow lane to reach Khatri Chowk. They never arrived there. Buildings flanking the lane crumbled as a powerful earthquake of 6.9 magnitude struck, trapping the children under debris.
That instant, the cramped lane became a burial ground for 184 children and 21 teachers. Nearly 18,000 were killed in Gujarat in that earthquake, with its epicentre 20 km southwest of Bhuj in Kutch.
“I can understand what they (people of Nepal) must be going through. Once again I have realised that nothing is certain,” Patadia says, as he points towards Khatri Chowk, adding he does not like his child passing through the area. It is in the heart of old Anjar that was completely flattened. The newer part of the town did not record much damage.
Like Patadia, the Prajapati cousins Bhavesh and Jignesh, were among the lucky few who survived the Khatri Chowk tragedy. They continue to live in the town.
During lunch break on Thursday, Bhavesh, 28, who now owns construction and transport businesses, lies on one of two sofa-cum-beds that occupy a large part of his small office, watching video clips of the Nepal earthquake on WhatsApp.
He says the images have left him feeling helpless against nature again, but feels he does his bit by constructing stronger buildings.
“I make sure that the buildings I construct are earthquake-resistant. No compromises there. That’s the only way to save people from earthquakes,” he says.
Talking about the 2001 quake, Bhavesh, a former student of Swaminarayan School in Anjar, says, “The annual parade was to start at 7 am and we had gathered at Swaminarayan temple at 6.30 am. I was in my NCC uniform. But for some reason the parade got delayed and it started at 8.30 am.”
I keep thinking what if we had started on time? We could have passed the lane and all of us would have been alive.”
Jignesh, who now owns a mobile shop, takes up from him here. “We were moving in rows of three. In the second row, I was on the left and Bhavesh on the right and our batchmate, Hiren Gosai, was in the middle. We ran as a dust storm of sorts rose and the buildings started crumbling, Hiren lay on the ground never to get up.”
The Prajapati cousins have shifted from Old Anjar to New Anjar, which is considered safe. “My daughter, Namasvi, is only eight months old. I have decided she won’t go to school in Old Anjar,” says Bhavesh.
Jignesh recalls how he got buried under the rubble with only an arm sticking out. “To this day, I do not know who took me out. Once saved, I ran for my life.”
Kasam Kumbhar, 40, is one of the few teachers who survived. “Those days, there used to be rumours that Pakistan was going to attack India on Republic Day. So, when the earth started moving, the children and teachers thought a bomb had been dropped, and tried to take shelter in the surrounding buildings or lay down on the ground. The lane was less than eight feet wide and the buildings were three-four storeys high. That led to the high toll,” says Kumbhar.
Schools across Anjar ran in make-shift fabricated structures for three to five years amid the rubble later, Kumbhar recalls. “Students and teachers took a few years to return to normalcy. For almost a year, we were just trying to gather information on the students — those dead and alive and their addresses. For a couple of years, we lived in makeshift structures, whatever be the weather, having lost our loved ones and all our possessions. The experience was traumatic. And now when we see the visuals from Nepal, it is a sense of deja vu,” says Kumbhar.
The survivors of the tragedy have not met once in all these years. A memorial called Smruti Van is in a state of neglect.
But Ashok Soni, who lost his son, Rajesh, 10, says a few parents get together on every anniversary of the earthquake and distribute sweets to the poor. “Whenever I pass Khatri Chowk, I regret sending Rajesh to school that day. We searched for him in the pile of rubble, but in vain. We found his body a day later from a camp,” says Soni.
Soni’s son and and Patadia, then students of Class VII, used to share a bench in school. “We were given passing certificates after three months and promoted to Class VIII without an exam. I joined Swami Vivekanand School and lost touch with those who participated in that parade,” says Patadia. While all 17 schools run by the local body suffered severe damage, the trust-run Swaminarayan School withstood the earthquake.
Although Patadia and the Prajapati cousins live only a kilometre apart, they too have not been in touch. “We were too young and have moved on in life,” says Bhavesh. All three of them completed secondary and higher secondary from the same school and none went to college.
Anjar Urban Development Authority has now initiated talks with the parents to set up a memorial at the site with photographs of the victims.
“Nepal is miles away. But we all can relate to it so much. We know the meaning of 7.9 Richter scale,” says Kumbhar, who still teaches in the same School Number 17.