Those Terrible Moments
Signs of Times
By Maqbool Ahmed Siraj
OF all places why should I be in Bhuj on the fateful Friday, the Republic Day, when the devastating earthquake struck the town in the sandy wastes of Kachch. Only way I can interpret it now is that it was a divine appointment. And it was by His grace that I came out unscathed, in one piece and with all senses intact from the rubble that the town has now been reduced to.
Pigeon Kiosk in Bhir Chowk, Bhuj before and after Earth Quake
Kachchi Memon Jamaat Khana, Bhuj before and after Earth Quake
Kachch, as I knew it from writings, had often fascinated me. Its hard life dipped in rich vegetable colours, the tales of its princely family and its art, architecture and artisans had all been beckoning me for long. So an invitation for a seminar in Ahmedabad came as a Godsend to extend the itinerary to Kachch. But in recent days a standing invitation from my long lost friend Iqbal had further added a strong pull. So when I reached Bhuj on January 25th morning, I was looking ahead for a sojourn full of nostalgia-filled sessions with Iqbal, some forays into the desert and bucketloads of memories.
But Allah had willed it otherwise. I am indeed back with memories, but most of them grotesque, poignant, of a town writhing in pain, a people whose lives have been bleached. Bhuj, I guess, would never be the same again. Resurrecting it from the rubble would be a monumental task. Given the slothful administration of Gujarat, it appears it will best be forgotten.
The mighty earthquake that hit Kachch with unparalleled ferocity will ever remain alive in my consciousness. Now I know what a catastrophe the earthquake means. We were halfway through our breakfast that the doors and windows began shaking wildly. Soon they were joined by grills creaking within their frames. It appears some mysterious force was shaking the earth to rid it of all its vestiges with a massive drone coming from beneath the ground. Tremors were picking up momentum every second. Buildings were swinging sideways shedding windows, grills, balconies and cupolas. But old stone structures, and most buildings in the town
were not so lucky. As pillars caved in, roofs slid off bringing down the structures. Within those terrible two minutes, we saw three-fourths of the town turning into a huge heap of rubble and a vast graveyard. We stood in a balcony remembering Allah, calling ‘azan’ as we are advised for such times. Our building shook for good part of the time taking us at the threshold of death but stood its ground.
As the dust kicked up by the quake settled down, we were part of and witness to one of the most awesome tragedy that would engage the nation’s attention
for weeks to come. Buildings all around us had collaped trapping their inames.
Older part of aa near by Mosque (in Bhir Chowk) had collapsed. Dome of the
adjacent Sankar Sha Dargah had been tossed away killing the newly married wife of the custodian. We descended out of the building stepping on the still unstable rubble.
The magnitude of the tragedy had just begun to sink in as count for the missing were being taken up. One Prabodhbhai was worried about his three sisters who were nowhere to be seen while another resident Ajjubhai was frantically seeking help to extricate five members of his brother’s family trapped in an under construction cellar. None seemed to be heeding his entreaties. It was ‘me and my family’ that came first.
I ventured out into the narrow lanes, mounting onto the rubble. Slanting roofs resting on the pathways and tangled mass of electric poles were enough to bely hope of an early restoration of communication. Amid the rubble lay countless cattle, some gasping for breath, others writhing in pain and yet others threatening to turn into rotting carcasses.
I preserved some scene into my camera choosing to focus on the same sites that I had snapped the day earlier. The military rescue teams were rushing in all directions. Faint cries from a crack between two tumbled slabs were providing some scope for hope. Nearby sat three women dusting a photo frame. Intimations of mortality were too obvious to be ignored.
Bodies began arriving almost in a procession by noon. Prabodhbhai was back from the
Dely (mohalla) behind the chowk. His sisters were dead, all three. Ajjubhai too could not save the trapped members. His five-hour struggle came to a nought. His next worry was how to extricate the bodies lying in an inaccessible cellar amid huge heaps of rubble. These were just a few scenes from an ambience I had befriended within those few hours.
I went round the walled town around 2 pm. Much of the town had been razed. What still stood carried little hope of remaining so for long. It was 4 pm and it was time for me to leave for Ahmedabad for next assignment.
I kept brooding over the worthlessness of this material world. How cities and civilisations raised over centuries could vanish with a few tremors. I saw it all in Bhuj as to how people were fleeing away from their homes, the homes they had raised with so much love, care and life’s earnings. Yet our lust for life, greed for more and passion for pleasures does not seem to end!
LAST month it was the turn of a small time Lucknow cleric to shoot off a controversy over the mirror image of popular beverage Coke. Though I - and many of our friends who tried — failed to read anything out of the reverse image, the controversy has kept rearing its head in one form or the other.
Muslims seem to be an excitable stuff. It is why elements interested in whipping up sentiments find the business of floating hoaxes profitable. Coke story is one such hoax. During 80s someone came up with the story of US astronaut Neil Armstrong's "conversion to Islam" following his hearing of 'azan' over the moon. Even media caught up with the "news". Some naïve Tablighi Jamaat activists even confirmed their meeting the astronaut in South Africa. They theorized that the US government was suppressing the "truth" and not allowing him to make his conversion public. I wrote to Armstrong twice and on both occasions, his secretary, Vivian White, sent me replies denying the conversion and offering apologies "if this incompetent piece of
journalism had hurt me in any way". Something similar happened in the case of pop singer Michael Jackson too.
For the last seven months the media in the Islamic world had been reporting the conversion to Islam of one Shiv Prasad. He is said to have been one among those who demolished the Babri Masjid and began to repent the same around 1997 while working in Sharjah. We have been trying to get to the source of the "news". It first caught our attention through Urdu dailies. They had quoted the Khaleej Times, Dubai. Khaleej Times had in turn quoted
Malayalam News, Jeddah. It appears mysterious because Dubai newspaper should be in a better position to interview the news source located in Sharjah. Later IINA reported the same news from Jeddah through its India correspondent stationed in Bhatkal. The Bhatkal man himself had learned it from a friend in Mumbai who had read it in an Urdu daily. The cycle was complete and we did not think it was worth pursuing any longer. No one had seen Shiv Prasad and no one had spoken to him. His was an unseen face, a person without address.
What we must learn is that rumours, hoaxes, and fakes abound in absence of a credible media. And we Muslims are not interested in raising a credible media network. A credible media requires people who could think logically, act prudently and have a constructive agenda for the community, country and the humanity at large. We have none. Nor are we interested in looking beyond our own world of fantasy. Yet we are interested in manufacturers taking due note of even the mirror image of their logos, lest it hurt Muslims. This attitude stems from self aggrandizement, of our being the chosen people of God. I wonder if we live in this world of reality.
OVERHEAD at the reception desk of a Muslim owned lodge in Mumbai:
"We do not let out rooms to nationals of Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan,
Sri Lanka and visitors from Jammu and Kashmir."