No, this article isn’t about Mangan or Sikkim or the recent 6.8 on Richter earthquake that was followed by another with an intensity of 4.8 on the Richter scale. This isn’t an article about this earthquake or any of the others that have rocked the world quite so often in recent times. However, we shall certainly be discussing tremors.



Lots of people on the social networking sites moaned that they had not even ‘felt the tremors’ which made me cringe uncomfortably because what we need to feel are the tremors that suffering of any form creates and not just those dished out by a couple of earth-plates behaving erratically! This quake, like most others that have plagued the world, managed to make humanity appear more cruel and casual as more and more updates on the net made it appear as if most of us were actually clamouring for a first-hand experience of the tumble and rumble without realising that both man and structures are destroyed by such events.

The internet has certainly made it much easier for us to analyse psyches more effectively than do mere newspaper reports and customised AV presentations. The media just goes on to supply the sordid details with a few exclamations of sympathy thrown in for effect.

The recent Mangan quake made me realise that humanity tends to respond to any calamity in rather expected ways. Let me examine them one by one.

The Curious: Gimme more! Gimme more!

‘I didn’t feel any tremors here!’ was a common refrain of many around me physically as well as on the net. But even these busy souls who couldn’t be bothered about earth plates shifting had their curiosity awakened like a giant kundalini and wanted all the information from every possible source. You could discern this sudden shift… and such human rumblings and quakes do disconcert me a bit. The ‘Gimme more! Gimme more!’ clamour picked up acceleration faster than the earth plates came to a screeching halt!

Then there were the ‘I’ll offer info and wait to give you more’ sorts who tweeted with an unshaken frequency facts like: ‘earthquake.. scary.. cant get in touch with one in gangtok.. have many friends there.. other friends in delhi also cant get through..’ Well, just like the absent punctuation, they went on and on and on until they were sure that the entire world had caught on this epidemic of curiosity.

The third curious sort is the one who begins their political and socio-economic commentary in an attempt to quench a presumed lust for such information. During a not so recent quake in the Far East there was this tweet that illustrates this type rather blithely: ‘Pakistan leaves aside political, ideological differences when disasters strike.’

The only sane category is the one who patiently digs out relevant information and uses the social networks to pump up such tidy bits for mass consumption. Sarika Baheti, a friend on Facebook, had this to say after the hullaballoo about the Sikkim-Mangan quake had slowed to a sensible and analytical mode: “Climate change is among the most pervasive threats to the Earth today. Many earthquakes and tsunamis we’ve faced lately have destroyed the lives & livelihood of many humans, costing billions. Earthquake patterns have changed because melted ice forces Earth’s plates to shift differently.

We need to keep Earth Greener and let it breathe (let out its heat) the natural way and not be retained beneath the man-made concrete structures and then vented out through earthquakes, tsunamis & others disastrous ways…” makes a lot of sense and, importantly, makes curiosity suddenly sound healthier, doesn’t it?

The Advisor: Do this the next time it happens…

An educational institute posted this as its FB status update a few hours back; ‘A second quake in a matter of few days! Share your safety tips with everyone in case a big one really hits.’ It is almost like that advice to pilgrims and visitors at the Kurukshetra Kund that said: ‘Call <mobile number> in case you are drowning!’ No, this isn’t funny; it is symbolic of our willingness to advice, to read well-meaning tips, and to forever be in search of safety regulations without intending to remember and follow any of it in an actual moment of crisis.

Why else would one read news headlines that go: ‘PM directs Cabinet Secretary to call emergency meeting of disaster management authority: PTI’ Our decision-makers too are the sorts who debate and formulate tomes of tips, rules, regulations, laws, clauses, and all such directives but somehow always fail to implement any of them in the face of a real challenge. Why discuss a natural disaster like an earthquake or a tsunami that unleash their terror characteristically unpredictably… take the civic authorities in any town who know that there will surely be defined months of monsoon and yet fail to ready their drains, sewers, and even roads for this annual attack! Very simply, advisors suck! Forget the advising and just move your butts and start doing something, dammit!

But we hardly ever wish to get up and get going. We are content with posting: ‘Which reminds us, are you quake/tsunami prepared?’

However, not all advisory instincts go wrong all the time. Some, like these three, do hit the nail effectively:

‘My earthquake kit consists of juice boxes and friendship. I’ll be OK, right?’

‘Love is like an earthquake: unpredictable, a little scary. But when the hard part is over you realize how lucky you truly are.’

‘Always stand under a doorway, when the house gets the shakes.’

Practical. Precise. Pulsating with truth. Punctuated with simplicity. This is all there is to the ideal recipe for the advice-monger. Follow it and get followed.

The Hysteric: I know the culprits. Lynch them all!

There is no escaping the hysteria-injected moments in any crisis… and earthquakes are not spared either. Take the one we are talking about – the Sikkim-Mangan one – and the social networks were buzzing with observations like:

‘Earthquake and petrol hikes, God and Government both shaking us up to get ready for 2012.’

‘I predict an earthquake up in heeeerrreeee……coz we throw bombs on it!!!!!’

‘There is a strong sentiment at the grassroots, in Sikkim at least, that dams and Hydel projects cause landslides. How will this quake b seen?’

‘Quake in Sikkim? Have the news channels headlined “Modi’s fast & RSS hand behind it” already?’

‘Second in 10 days Sikkim quake leaves Delhi shaken Indian.’

The hysterical ones do everything that should not be done… they go around flailing their arms in despair… the words they use for speaking and writing have a pale ashen appearance… they love it when others respond by doing exactly what they are doing… and they hate it when they are told that the crisis is over and all is well. Such psyches thrive on the pallor of emotions. Such people never end with this though.

They go out and announce culprits – and they are willing to include dams and hydel projects in their lynch schemes. Of-course, politicians and the civil servants are the easiest targets. Therefore, one sees the social networks over-flowing with murderous critiques of all people and things that can be associated with a crisis, however remote it may be. The hysterics, though, perform a vital role. They wake up slumbering bureaucrats, technocrats, local and national agencies, politicos, and even the common man… and impel action. The world cribs and curses these hysterics, but the rescue or whatever action is needed, is initiated.

The Punster: Hit it with wit

‘Delhi rocks!’

‘Was that an earthquake or did u just rock my world?’

‘Blast earthquake through your home speakers pre-order now for the experience.’

‘Oops! Earthquake…! Shake, rattle and roll…!’

The punsters emerge suddenly and bombard the scene with witticisms and punches that are as powerful as the wails of the hysterics. These punches have the added advantage of travelling far and wide faster than any other form of messaging.

I am sure you are all aware of the ‘open letter by the madrasan’… and those of you who aren’t, wake up to today! One of the first updates that I read after swaying with the tremors that travelled from Mangan in Sikkim to Delhi, was: ‘First bomb blast, then earthquake, and now this open letter by Madrasan. How much can Delhi take?’

No, the guys who resort to puns do not really make light of a serious and contentious issue. They simply resort to a choice of expression that many would want to duck just as ‘people ducked as earth quakes!’ If one reads about a ‘Bed hil gaya!’ one isn’t far from a wittier ‘That was a ‘Bed & break-Fast’ scheme!’ or a ‘There were 6.8 of them!’ As Manoj Kriplani admits: ‘A majority of us feel HILArious when something as serious as an Earthquake is happening!’… now would that be ‘Punnery wise, Pound Foolish?’

These punsters hit it with wit and are unstoppable. They hop from connecting topical issues and politics to even a natural disaster with ease. For instance, Karan tweets: ‘…seems as if Indian fuel prices & earthquakes are in an odd competition these days… none seem to wanna lag behind in making news!’ Maybe this tells us a lot about the intensity as well as the series of over twenty shocks that the area around Gangtok endured.

Puns are like little haikus with emotions meandering between the comic aspects that any situation cannot really avoid. They are quite healthy and generally respect human conditions. They tell, albeit with a pinch! For instance, this update has been quite popular on Facebook:

‘Be it earthquake, tsunami or any other natural disaster, the world can NOT come to an end in 2012… Bcoz last year, Rajnikanth bought a laptop with 3 years warranty!’ Another way to view. Any why not?

So, how do we really react?

React or respond – what I’ve observed is that there are as many ways to act as there are people. Some sleep away, some never notice, a few create a lot of ruckus, and a few get up and do something. Some talk, some write about, a few just ‘like’ all that they read and listen, and some pull all around them to come together and do something. Some pray, some dream, a few are pushed into taking action and the rest decide for self.

There are those who are concerned but only so much that it doesn’t affect their routine. We have this soul who tweeted: ‘Have to get up at 6 tomorrow… busy day tomorrow… good night folks and hoping casualties don’t rise in Sikkim quake.’

Then there is the proactive pessimist who tweeted even as the first tremors happened: ‘Deeply saddened by the wave of earthquake hit in Sikkim, condolences to the victims and their families.’

There is this category who is called an opportunist and I was surprised to read about this section in a tweet: ‘Sikkim quake effect: Prisoners in Jalpaiguri jail try to escape.’ Well, there is always some benefit that people look for even in the direst moments.

Final quake

Sikkim - earthquake

Sikkim - earthquake

Quakes are not the easiest of things to write about. They are easier to photograph as misery is personified in just a few clicks, they are easy for the stage artist and easy for the one who wields a paint brush – but they are certainly not easy to write about. Yes, they are not difficult to report, not difficult to gather statistics and link-up factually, not difficult to find out what was done or all that was left undone… yet, quakes are not easy to write about. Yes, quakes are easy to write about when your intention is to jerk out a couple of tears or pull out a few sighs or impose a revered silence… but they are not easy to write about when you want to use fun, pun, and a language that uses metaphors that are live and kicking. After all, it is the dead that you will be talking about at some point in the entire exercise. So yes, quakes aren’t easy to write about.

What I am trying to say is that a writer’s stance matters. Almost like what happened in the Gandhi-Tagore debate on the January 1934 Bihar earthquake:

Gandhi called the earthquake “a divine chastisement for the great sin we have committed and are still committing against those whom we describe as untouchables…” And Tagore disagreed: “I am compelled to utter a truism in asserting that physical catastrophes have their inevitable and exclusive origin in certain combinations of physical facts.” There are no correct and incorrect ways of interpreting a disaster… only those matter that make a mere picture jump out of a news reports and say: ‘See, I am real. Feel me. Feel the tremor that I really am. Accept me. Accept the fact that suffering is equally real and not something that has happened a few hundred or a few thousand miles away.’ If a written word makes readers accept this fact, the aim of writing is achieved as that person will not need to be prodded ever to get up and decide to do something.

It is almost like saying that you never really appreciate your towel until you step out of the shower and realize you don’t have one! Right? Puns hit, don’t they?


Arvind Passey
19 September 2011 


Image credits:
1. Quake map
2. Sikkim quake