Friday, May 23, 2008

Greetings from: LODAI

According to Mr. Jethi, who organized my tour today, Lodai is the Gujarati word for earthquake -- a sudden jolt. My auto-rickshaw driver would take me around to some of the village east of Bhuj which were damaged by the earthquake, with Lodai being the nearest large village (relatively speaking) to the epicenter.

I had some sightseeing stops along the way. In Kotay, I hiked a small ways up the hill to a tiny temple to Shiva that squeaked with bat calls. It had suffered some damage as well, but it was still in excellent condition for a temple that used no mortar in its construction (if you ignore the wooden poles holding up the temple from the inside). 1700 years old, I was told. The exterior had sandstone apsaras -- some had eroded away into skeletal shapes, remanats of divinity. But those in corners had preserved well.

The epicenter itself is in the Rann of Kutch, a desert expanse of salt plain and brush. Very little grows there, and what does has sharp, snagging thorns. You can still see pockets of upheaval -- craters with sides of fine dust -- and an earthen rift that my guide said once stretched all the way to Ahmedabad. Seven years have passed for the rains to smooth over the rip, for the winds to even out the edges.

Several villages have been completely rebuilt with the help of different aid organizations and religious charities. The new houses, most of them built of bright pink concrete, stand against the landscape of dry hills. The reconstruction is heralded with proud arches, plaques, and roadside signs.

Looking at it now, you’d be hard-pressed to say that Lodai had sustained any damage at all. But a few steps from the tiny town center, and you come across a Hindu cemetery, the dead commemorated with white, rectangular pyramids marked with orange dots. As I approached, a woman waved at me. I assumed I was headed for sacred ground and was trespassing. She indicated I should sit next to this man whom I assumed to be a holy man -- he wore the long flowing clothes of one and had a wooden necklace that looked like a string of dried dates. Again, the language barrier: we could only gesture futilely to each other. Soon enough, his son, Hari, who had a passable grasp of English, arrived on a motorcycle with his own son. Hari’s seven year-old son had dark Hindi kohl smeared around his eyes and apparently was hooked on the WWF. Four generations of the same family sitting in the shade.

I explained I was from America. I was here to study the bukum. I made a shaking gesture with my hands when I said it. Hari said that played drums for wedding ceremonies. And would I like to stay for lunch?

We sat on the tile floor of the Hari’s porch, just past the cemetery. Hari’s wife, mother and sister-in-law also present. His older son shot a toy laser gun; his infant son stumbled around, cooed after by his grandmother, mother, aunts. This was a different thali from the Prince Hotel: still all-you-can-eat, still with food remorselessly slapped onto your stainless-steel plate, but a humbling experience. The chapattis were dense and tasted earthy; the vegetable was green beans in a thin, spicy tomato sauce. The mother poured me a glass of unpasteurized milk -- slightly sour, slightly rich. She broke open an onion with the edge of her hand and put it on my tray. A simple meal, served simply. I promised Hari that for my wedding, I’d fly him to America so that he could play for the guests. And I thought, This is something the earthquake could never destroy.

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