I remember where I was when the tsunami of 26.12.2004. devastated much of coastal Asia. I was hosting a birthday party for my mother, the last time I would enjoy that privilege because she died a mere month later. We had no inkling of that then, but news of the killer wave rather sobered our celebrations. Last year, the continuing catastrophes at Fukushima glued one to television sets, but for all one’s horrified empathy, there was still undeniable relief at being far away from it all. India’s west coast has been a serene sanctuary, substantially spared seismic turbulence, both from sources of land and sea.
Which is why the tremulous earth on April 11, 2012 took one by surprise. It was for me a day like any other, defined by a quota of things to be done, and irritated at anything that interfered with desired routines. A little before lunchtime, I felt that distinct instability of perception, like the computer screen wavering in front of me and my chair moving without any force on my part. Visual fatigue, I surmised, and shifted to a sofa for a break. The sofa appeared to have a life of its own; I distinctively sensed a movement that felt like the gentle rocking of a boat. It was a surreal moment of not knowing whether it was a touch of vertigo or imagination… And perhaps I would have continued with that sense of confusion, the feeling of having hallucinated, had I not received a call to leave the building, joining all those who had felt the shudders too.
Mine was not a moment of heart- stopping terror probably experienced by some. Clarity came in by and by that a massive earthquake had happened beneath the floor of the Indian Ocean near Aceh in Indonesia, 8.6 on the Richter scale, one of the strongest in a century, with after shocks of 8.2 that had this widespread and frightening impact. Television screens assured one that this was not an isolated experience, but something widely shared by people in elevated places and high rise buildings in many parts of South India. A tsunami alert was in place, even though it was later understood that the clash of tectonic plates in this instance resulted in the widespread horizontal movements reaching us thousands of miles away rather than the vertical displacement of water that culminates in a tsunami.
With the hindsight of no damage to person and property, one can count it as one of incredible and unforgettable moments, definitely for the personal store-house of interesting experiences. But the dividing line between horrific disaster and life as usual is very thin. It was a rare encounter with the cosmic which we ordinarily accept in benign form- the sunshine that warms us, the rain that revives us and all the millions of unseen phenomena that sustain life on the universe. The tectonic plates in the ocean floor that made intimate contact with one’s living space were a rare brush with cosmic aberration. A thought that like human beings having a bad day, cosmic elements can have their tantrums, mistakes and negative interactions. A wake up call that there’s more to the stuff of geography texts than we regard as relevant for our ordered lives.
The shudders in the earth will be faint memories as life regains its customary momentum. The forces of destruction and recreation constantly happen, and in the vast unknown, universes constantly die and take new birth. Our planet and our spot in it are probably too minute for a particular disaster to matter in the cosmic timeline.
There’s a popular tendency to regard the universe as a notional ally in one’s activities, a reciprocal partner of our emitted energies. As a personal construct, this probably works well to maintain self-confidence and to give a motivational spin to co-incidence. But it’s our encounter of the inexplicable negative event that humbles human arrogance, making illusory our sense of being in control, of believing we can appropriate the universe for personal ends. There’s an immensity and intricacy out there we simply cannot command or take for granted; we can only be grateful when it’s life as usual.