Installment #25 — February 20, 2001

Kutch Villages — Part 2


4:45AM — Up early because I was told that we may leave Rajkot for Dhaneti as early as 5:30AM. Sonia Gandhi is scheduled to visit the school in Dhaneti at about 11:30AM. We leave the Ashram at 6:30AM.

10AM — Our jeep arrives at Dhaneti—the fastest trip yet. I’m told that Mrs. Gandhi’s visit has been rescheduled for tomorrow. The truck has already left for Rapar to distribute relief supplies to villages in that area, so there is not much for us to do—a day off.

6PM — I walk to nearby Dhaneti village for exercise and meet several men who have volunteered at the school and know me from there. One of them invites me to visit his home. He points out many of the damaged homes as we walk through town. His family is living mostly outdoors and I am seated on a bed in the open air and given a saucer of tea. The family gathers around to have their picture taken. One woman is making and cooking rotis over an open fire. Another is milking a cow while a third is washing dishes.

9:30PM — I spread my sleeping pad on the floor in the sleeping tent and bed down for the night. Some time later I hear the distribution truck returning from Rapar.


9AM — I begin to help with the ongoing task of maintaining the distribution records. The Ashram tries to keep track of exactly what was given to whom and, with tons of supplies distributed to hundreds of families, it is a big job.

10AM — The first of the security team for Mrs. Gandhi arrives and starts to go over the entire school compound with metal detectors and a sniffing dog. Guards are posted around the perimeter.

12PM — Villagers begin to arrive, go through security checks at the gates, and sit in the shade waiting for Mrs. Gandhi’s arrival.

1:45PM — Mrs. Sonia Gandhi arrives, distributes some relief supplies, presents a plaque, enters the office for a brief talk with Swamiji, speaks with several audience members as she crosses the compound, and then leaves with her convoy of at least 25 vehicles.

3PM — Dhaneti villagers line up in front of the school compound to receive food and blankets. They are allowed into the compound a few at a time to be processed through a series of stations. The first records the family name, collects a signature or a thumbprint, and issues tokens. The remaining stations issue cooking oil, gud (molasses sugar), rice, potatoes, and blankets.

5PM — We drive to the village of Khanderai 14km away, where we follow the standard token-issuing procedure but, rather than issue supplies there, we bus them back to the school where they join the line and move through the stations. The last truckload of villagers and their supplies is returned to Khanderai at about 9PM.


8AM — I met a team from the Indian Institute of Technology that had arrived at our compound during the night. They were here to measure earth movement due to the quake and set up a GPS base station on the roof of the school building in order to take differential GPS (very accurate horizontal and vertical position) measurements near the epicenter (the point on the surface of the earth immediately above the center of the quake), which is believed to be located about 16km from here and a couple of km from Lodai. They invited me to go along with them, and I jump at the opportunity to visit the epicenter with a geologist and several seismologists.

Water came to the surface in the area of the epicenter and some was still there during our visit. There were two holes that looked like they had been dug by a backhoe but had appeared at the time of the quake. They had straight, even sides, and were partially filled with water. One of the seismologists said that the seismometer evidence indicated that the fault may have slipped as much as 6 meters (that’s about 20 feet!) near the origin of the quake.

3PM — We leave by bus to distribute supplies in Saraspur, north of Bhuj. This time a jeep had preceded us, listed names, taken prints, and issued tokens, so we knew how many families there were and had loaded the correct number of blankets, tents, and self sufficiency kits. But not all families show up with their tokens, and we return, after dark, with some unclaimed stuff.


8AM — I help prepare an Excel spreadsheet of items distributed, to be sent to headquarters in Rajkot. By the time we finish, the trucks have left to visit seven villages and distribute as needed.

Sometime in the afternoon, a gentleman from a German relief agency arrives. He has had ten years of experience in Africa, and had a lot of knowledge about what works and what doesn’t for development of remote villages—and he speaks excellent English!


8AM — We set up our outdoor production line to cut plastic from giant rolls into 40 foot lengths, and fold and tie them. I try to both supervise and work and by noon, when we shut down for lunch, I’m bushed. Let me tell you, it’s quite challenging to supervise a bunch of enthusiastic kids whose language I can’t speak, and who don’t understand English.

5:15PM — We resume plastic processing and continue until it is too dark we see what we are doing.


8AM — We rush to the site where Dhaneti is to be rebuilt, and set up a tent, ground cloths, and sound system for an 8:30 ground-breaking ceremony. At 8:30, a slew of swamis and officials arrive, and the ground-breaking is held.

10AM — I leave with a convoy of three jeeploads of swamis to visit Jawaharnagar, the earthquake epicenter, and the old village of Dhaneti. I’m the photographer and epicenter guide.

12:30PM — Lunch is served in one of the classrooms rather than the garage, to accommodate the VIPs. I sit cross-legged on the floor like everyone else and, with my normally inflexible legs and soreness from yesterday’s plastic cutting work, I can barely stand for a few minutes afterwards.

2PM — The sound system from the ground-breaking ceremony is set up at the school and we are treated to a show by a volunteer from Kerala who is also a prize-winning mimic. He imitates anything from musical instruments to animals. He arrived a few days ago and, since that time, whenever we hear a dog bark, we can’t be sure if it’s him or a real dog. Sometimes it’s both as the local dogs join in with him.

3PM — The truck leaves for distribution. I’m told to stay behind and rest. I’m scheduled to return to Rajkot on Sunday.


10AM — We leave for distribution with the bus and two trucks loaded with plastic tarps and blankets. We go to a village north of Bhuj, and to several isolated groups of families.

1PM — We stop at the Ramakrishna Ashram in Bhuj for lunch, and then head southwest toward the coastal city of Mandvi. Along the way, one of the trucks develops a gearbox problem, so its load is transferred to the other truck and the disabled truck returns to Dhaneti for repairs. We continue on to two villages near Mandvi, where we continue distributing plastic and blankets until 10PM. We arrive back in Dhaneti at 1AM.


8:30AM — I learn that I will not be returning to Rajkot today; that has been postponed until tomorrow. Today we will distribute.

9AM — We leave for the Rapar area, arriving around noon. We pick up a local guide and distribute plastic and blankets in nearby villages. We follow the usual procedure—one or two teams visit individual families at their homes (usually temporary shelters near their damaged houses), get the name and thumbprint of the family head, and issue a token. The bus and/or truck is parked at a central location and people come there to exchange their token for supplies. I sometimes help with distribution of tokens, sometimes with distribution of supplies from the bus or truck, but most recently I have become the semi-official photographer, taking pictures both for myself and for the Ashram.

6PM — Returning through Rapar, we stop at a temporary kitchen and dining tent set up by the Vishav Gurmat Roohani Mission from Punjab. They give us a tour of their facilities.


7:30AM — I learn that I will not be returning to Rajkot today; that has been postponed until tomorrow. Today we will distribute.

9AM — Class starts in one room of the school that has been converted back from a relief supply storeroom to a classroom. I’m told that the government has ordered schools to open for half-days beginning today.

10AM — We leave with a truck and a bus and return to the Mandvi area where we pick up a local guide, visit several villages, distribute, and take pictures. The Mandvi area seems to be a prosperous farming area, with many well-kept farms. The damage in the cities seems relatively minor, but the poorer villages are hard-hit. We distribute until dark.


7AM — There is a jeep parked outside my tent from Ramakrishna headquarters! This is probably the vehicle that will take Swami Sarvasthananda back to Rajkot, and I expect to go with him.

10AM — Seven of us (driver, six swamis, and I) leave Dhaneti for Rajkot. I’ve said my goodbyes to the other volunteers, and had a final walk around the school compound. It is hard to believe that I will be home in a little more than a week.

Most of you probably recall Mr. H. D. Joshi, with whom Allen spoke in Bhuj (see Installment #22).  One of our mailing list members, Leon Miller, spotted an article in the New York Times in which Mr. Joshi was interviewed.  The article is excerpted below, but be forewarned that the tale is not a happy one.

Flames Consume the Dead, but Not the Anguish of India

New York Times, February 3, 2001


BHUJ, India, Feb. 2 — In the last few days, Bhuj, a city of 150,000, has become crowded with heavy machinery, their great claws scooping into the spectacle of devastation. The daily death count now seems to be tapering off. But that may not owe to a lack of supply. The remaining dead may just be better hidden in the ruins.

Volunteers at the cremation pyres are by now exhausted. The fires need to be big, so the pushcarts are always heavy with huge branches, brought in from the giant woodpiles near the street. The routine is monotonous, one bundle like the next, though this morning there was something unusual: bodies of a mother, son and daughter fused together in an embrace.

The man who mentioned it let his eyes roll back into his head as if trying to store the image in a warehouse of memories. Then an ambulance pulled in.

"How many inside?" he called out.

There were three bodies: the wife, daughter and granddaughter of a man named Joshi, H. D. Joshi, a white-haired government employee. The dead had been recovered that morning after the army had been digging for three days. Death's sour breath filled the air. Those volunteers who had surgical masks pulled them up over their noses.

This Mr. Joshi, 58, was determined to appear strong. He spoke not of grief but of a turn of fate. "Our apartment is perfectly all right, not a frame broken," he said. "Can you imagine, my wife, my daughter and my granddaughter would be alive today had they only stayed put. But they ran to get out, into the passageway. The passage fell and crushed them."

As he spoke, yet another body arrived, this one carried in a black-and- yellow auto-rickshaw. The corpse was too wide for the small vehicle. The head and feet stuck out on the sides. They belonged to a woman who had been working as a maid when the earth had gone into its convulsions. Her son, Ketan Shantilal Goyal, 22, had found her crushed body hours before and dug her free with his own hands. The trauma of that ordeal still seized him in its full grip. He paced. He sat. He paced some more.

Logs were stacked, and the woman was placed in the center of the pile. Mr. Goyal asked for a final look at his mother. "Are you sure?" he was asked. And he nodded.

The body was face down. A volunteer peeled back the blanket, exposing the head. There was no delicate way to comply with the request. He yanked the woman by the hair, pulling up her blackened head, grotesque after a week of erosion. The son whispered his goodbye.

Then H. D. Joshi's three relatives were placed on the same heap, and the pyre was lit, sending off its fierce heat and making its noises, the hissing and the crackling.

Mr. Goyal backpedaled and sat stunned in a plastic chair. And Mr. Joshi took it upon himself to comfort the younger man. "Keep courage," he said. "I've lost my wife. I've lost my daughter. I've lost my granddaughter. But I have courage."

The two survivors then stared into the fire, together in their bereavement, alone in their thoughts. Ashes had begun to rise with the wind, the little white specks fluttering in a silent, hypnotic dance.

Click on the thumbnails below for a larger view, then use your browser's Back button

Swamiji, the head of the Rajkot Ramakrishna Ashram, holds an informal meeting at Dhaneti during a brief visit.
A crew of volunteers poses with Swami Sarvasthananda while unloading blankets.
This herd of camels passed by the front of the school. I’ve never before seen so many camels in one place.
I visited this family in Dhaneti. Word that I had a camera that displayed pictures immediately after they were taken had spread fast, and everyone wanted to see their picture.
I was impressed by the appearance of these two gentlemen and they agreed to have their picture taken.
Mrs. Sonia Gandhi arrives at Dhaneti and is accompanied by Swami Jitanmand and Swami Anand Maharaj (also known as Swami Sarvasthananda).
Mrs. Gandhi talks with Swamiji and the (female) sarpanch (village chief or mayor) Meera Ben of Dhaneti. The head belongs to Swami Anand Maharaj.
People from the village of Dhaneti line up outside the Vivekanand Vidhyalaya School to receive their share of relief supplies.
Gud (cane molasses) is distributed at this station.
This Dhaneti resident looks happy as he makes his way from station to station collecting supplies.
Women can carry enormous loads on their heads, but sometimes need help getting the larger loads up and down.
These villagers are leaving the school with their supplies loaded onto their heads.
The Earthquake team sets up the remote GPS station to take measurements that will help them determine how much ground movement occurred during the quake.
These holes appeared at the time of the earthquake at what is believed to be the epicenter.
These Saraspur villagers watch the distribution operation with their damaged homes visible in the background.
A Saraspur home destroyed by the quake.

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