In October 2001, I spent a month in Kutch. I was asked to photograph life nine months after the earthquake of 26 January. I planned forays in the districts of Anjar, Bhachhau and Bhuj. What I encountered left me shaken and numb. I could barely take any photographs. I spent my days going from home to home, listening to stories of survival and making many notes. I planned to write an account.
A few months later, in February 2002, another disaster struck—a humanmade tragedy. A railway coach of the Sabarmati Express was set on fire in Godhra, Gujarat. Women, men and children were burnt alive. Atrocious killings across the state followed this gruesome act, weeks of targeted arson and decimation. Many people were forced to flee their destroyed homes and seek shelter in relief camps or move far away.
In times of disaster and collapse, a return to the seeming normal everyday feels like an illusion. Life is pushed to the brink—belongings scavenged, kitchens re-assembled. Gathering over a meal of dal and rice, sitting down together once again with those who remain, brings solace. The chance to reach for balance in adversity is to feel that you are not alone in what you must meet. There are others with you. You will help one another along as you return to the basics of every day. People meet what has come, and create the life they must.
Change and unsettlement permeate life. We meet changes, we live them. We are knocked down and we stand up. We sink and surface and stay afloat. Upheavals on a massive scale, tidal waves rushing in suddenly, seem to have a gravity of another order. And people emerge from these as well, with remarkable courage and endurance.
Recent tidal waves in the subcontinent have affected thousands.
In the Kashmir Valley, an entire generation of young adults, born at the cusp of the 1990s, have already lived through violent and uncertain times, with a spirit of resolve and determination. The simmering calm is shattered. The valley is under siege. We hear that young people are being pulled out of their homes at night and detained. Mothers, sisters stand guard through the night. Those who are able, barricade their neighbourhoods and keep vigil, lest they be assaulted. Although schools have been declared open, children stay at home.
These are the glimpses of tenacity, just getting through one day at time as your world is in turmoil. Attending to the every day as best as you can, a reach for balance when all around, your world is shattered. You must hold onto and protect any semblance of safety for your children and for yourself. Another valley is in the news.
The Valley of the Narmada River, one of India’s holiest rivers. Pre-independence, plans to build dams on the Narmada River were under way.
Construction began in 1961. Small, large and two mega dams were slated for the main river and many of its tributaries. Without clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests and flouting a Supreme Court stay on construction, dams have been built. The backwaters have submerged homes, fields, pasturelands and forests. Members of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, a movement to save the valley, have once again embraced satyagraha or non-violent adherence to their convictions, insisting that justice come to thousands of people whose homes and lands are under water, or under imminent threat of being submerged.
In mid-September 2019 the Sardar Sarovar Dam, built illegally on the Narmada, was filled to its fullest. A further 178 villages are in danger of being swallowed.
In both the Kashmir and the Narmada Valleys, an entire generation has grown up facing forces that speak for the greater common good even as they erase entire ways of life. In both valleys, strength born from sheer endurance keeps people going.
It is the seemingly small things that rest the mind, that allow you to continue when all around seems hostile. The pain that crushes your spirit may also be a wellspring of clarity and tenacity. You see the deeper and wider contexts of the situations that have arisen. Strength comes from seeing the wider picture. And strength to bear pain comes from standing together with others. You feel yourself to be part of a larger being. You are not alone as you face the tide, there are hands to hold, people to embrace. It seems that the strength to bear relentless pain comes from an ability to meet what is before you; to be where you are even as you face horror. Endurance may help you meet the swollen tide; not to romanticize endurance and strength though. Innumerable people are crushed, in body and spirit, as they live in the madness. Entire generations are growing up in worlds of ceaseless turbulence.
In Dhamadka village in Anjar District in Kutch, I met Yaqub Bhai, a master block-printing artist. The day he invited me to an evening meal, his storehouse had burned down. It had survived the earthquake, but now an electrical spark had destroyed everything in the godown. The book, Sindh Jo Ajrak, by Noor Jehan Bilgrami, a history of Ajrakh printing, had survived the fire. He placed it in my hands, inviting me to look at many pages of exquisite Ajrakh block designs. I opened the book to find a sura from the Koran. It says:
He hath created man
He hath taught him the power of expression
The sun and the moon are made punctual
And the sky he hath uplifted And he hath set the balance
That ye exceed not the balance
But observe it strictly, nor fall short thereof.
Quran Sura LV:The Beneficient
Perhaps this is a call for vigilance, a call to continuously watch the movements in our waking lives and worlds. And in that vigilant watching, to restore rest and order, even as we watch a world swing to a senseless extreme.