28/04/2015 4:15 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Nepal Earthquake: How A Pune Couple's Honeymoon Turned Nightmarish, And How They Escaped

Courtesy Arti Jairaj

Arti Jairaj got married to Prabhat Handoo in December, but they didn’t go for their honeymoon until last week. The 35-year-old, who lives with her husband in Pune and works as a crochet artist, and her husband, an IT consultant, was initially planning to go to Bhutan and wanted to wait for the right time of the year to visit. However, when the couple — both electronic music enthusiasts — heard about the Universal Religion Music festival, slated to take place near Kathmandu, Nepal, from April 24 to 27, they immediately changed their plans and decided to honeymoon in Nepal till May 5.

She landed in Kathmandu on Thursday, April 23. The couple were accompanied by Payal and Poorti, Jairaj’s younger sister and cousin respectively, since they were also interested in attending the festival, which was to take place from Friday to Sunday at a venue 30 km from Kathmandu airport. This 3-day event was to feature electronic dance music (EDM) artistes from all over the world.

(L-R) Prabhat Handoo and Arti Jairaj, who got married in December 2014

The first piece of bad news (of many more to come) greeted them early on Thursday morning when they found out that the festival had been cancelled due to lack of permissions. Disappointed, the four of them nevertheless continued hanging out in Kathmandu’s Thamel area, a locality that is known for its restaurants and nightlife, hoping that there would be an alternative. Sure enough, by late evening, the organisers announced that a mini-version of the festival would be held at a nearby resort, with free bus rides starting from a popular local bar-café called Funky Buddha.

On Saturday morning, as they were preparing to travel to the new resort, the car that was dropping them to the pick-up point seemed to be low on air pressure in its tyres. As the driver started to fix that, Jairaj decided to relax in the hotel’s verandah and enjoy the morning air.

That was when the earthquake, which has now killed over 4,000 people (and counting), first struck the Kathmandu Valley.

“You know when you dust off a carpet, how the motion travels across it like a wave? That’s how the ground felt right then,” she said. They ran from their hotel, a multi-storeyed building, to one that was right next door since it was single-storeyed, but the first wave had ended by then. The ground they had been standing on mere seconds ago had a crack in it; the restaurant they'd just finished having breakfast in was partially destroyed. “The owner of the hotel then told us to get to an open place so that there would be minimal chances of things falling on us,” she said.

A wall that collapsed at their hotel's restaurant, where they had been having breakfast just 5-7 minutes before the quake occurred

Not far from the venue, they took refuge under a big gazebo near Thamel market, which was covered with a metal sheet. At a height of a few feet from the ground and without many tall structures around that could potentially fall on them, they felt safer there, even as the earth around them rumbled. “About 30-40 people were there with us, all looking really scared since we kept experiencing aftershocks,” she said. “We saw an old, dilapidated building crumble bit by bit with each aftershock before it collapsed completely.”

After spending some time there, the two decided that it was time to start finding a way to get out. The tremors had stopped for 20 minutes by then. They decided to go to Funky Buddha, hoping that it would have turned into a point of evacuation by then and ran into their friends, Mumbai-based couple Tara Kaushal and Sahil Mane, who were also supposed to attend the now-surely-cancelled music festival with them. “We had all our camping gear with us so we decided that the best option now would be to find an open space where absolutely nothing would fall on us,” said Jairaj.

As the six of them tried to figure out their next step, they saw plenty of people on the streets walking around aimlessly, stunned by what had happened. Ambulances whizzed past and army response teams were at work, cordoning off buildings that looked like they were on the verge of collapsing. Eventually, they came across a large, open lawn (belonging to the ‘Social Welfare Society Office’, says Jairaj) where they could pitch their tent and settle down. By now, it was evening and the enormity of the tragedy had begun to sink in and nearly 200 people — many of them tourists — were also taking refuge in that lawn. “At this point, we were calmer since we had food and water on us,” she said. “Also, we were happy to be somewhere where there was nothing that could fall on us. Short of the ground beneath us opening up, it was a safe area to be in.”

In general, people had begun to settle down by then, but periodic aftershocks kept stirring up panic. “There were many aftershocks that evening followed by another quake around midnight,” she said. “We all tried to sleep but kept waking up either because of a tremor, or imagining tremors, or someone getting a phone call.” It didn’t help that a rumour of an impending quake — measuring 13.4 on the Richter scale — was doing the rounds.

The next morning, they got up by about 10 am, picked up their belongings from the hotel, and set out to find a taxi that would take them to the airport. On the way there, they saw several buildings that had been cracked and badly damaged.

At Kathmandu airport’s international terminal, there was total chaos. The line to get in for Indian nationals, which Jairaj says looked like it had more than 3,000 people, was snaking all the way out to the entrance of the airport. “People had urinated and defecated near the boundary wall because they didn’t want to lose their places in the line,” she said.

The mood at the airport had, by this point, soured from terrified to angry. “The line wasn’t moving at all and people were really pissed off,” she said. Although the Nepali army officers and airport officials present were doing the best they could, according to Jairaj, irate passengers were getting restless by then. “There were people who had been in that line for nearly a day. Some were yelling and saying that we [India] were helping them so much with money and aid and yet they were treating us like this.”

They realised, after about an hour of this, that waiting in this line obediently would be pointless. Kaushal went ahead and approached a number of uniformed officials and told them that they were four women who were extremely unwell, one of whom was fainting. After a lot of pleading and bargaining, they were directed to the domestic terminal. A 10-minute walk away, it was here that the evacuations were actually taking place, with batches of passengers being transferred here from the international terminal, presumably to prevent a stampede.

During their time at the airport, aftershocks kept occurring, spreading fresh bouts of panic every now and then. “At the domestic terminal, one wall had a large crack on it; another towards the far side had collapsed,” she said. Meanwhile, the lines for men and women were separate, and Jairaj was scared then that she would separated from her husband at that point. “The men’s line wasn’t moving as fast,” she said. “I cried and begged [to Nepali army and airport officials] to let them join us.” Eventually, they agreed.

By 4 pm, the six of them were inside a massive Indian Air Force military cargo aircraft (a Boeing C-17), with enough room to fit “at least two tanks inside”. There were 270 people on that flight, which was headed to the Palam Air Force base in New Delhi. “There were some seats against the sides, which were given mostly to the injured, elderly or older women,” she said. “The rest sat on the floor strapped down with pattas that resembled seat-belts.”

Upon landing in Delhi, they were whisked off to the international terminal, where they saw representatives of various states waiting to receive them. They were taken to Maharashtra Sadan, given a free overnight stay, and then dropped to the airport on Monday morning for their flight home. By then, it was just the four of them — Payal and Poorti had opted to fly home on Sunday night itself.

Currently, Arti and Prabhat are salvaging what’s left of their honeymoon in Calangute, Goa, along with Mane and Kaushal, at a home owned by the latter. “We couldn’t face the thought of going back and having to deal with 50 people asking us to relive our trauma over and over just yet,” she said. “So we decided to extend this trip a little bit just so we could recuperate.”

It hasn’t been easy. The four have been having recurring nightmares involving tremors, death, and destruction. “Yesterday, I woke up in the middle of the night and ran to the door, convinced that another quake was happening,” she said.

As the four of them attempt to shake off what has just happened, the death toll in Nepal is growing at an alarming rate, with injuries, disease, and starvation exacerbating what is already the worst natural disaster the mountainous country has experienced in 80 years. Jairaj says she and her friends were “extremely lucky and thankful” to have made it out of there without a scratch. “We know people who are still stranded there, or took more than 2 entire days to get from Kathmandu airport to Delhi,” she said.

As rescue operations continue in Nepal — with India playing a prominent role — Jairaj lauded the professionalism shown by both Nepali and Indian defence forces as well as government officials during the crisis. What has, however, left a bad taste in her mouth was the behaviour displayed by Indian nationals at Kathmandu airport. “We were unruly, divisive, and extremely badly behaved compared to people from other countries, who I’m sure were just as eager to get home,” said Jairaj. describing how an out-of-control group of people were pushing against a wall that was already cracked and in danger of collapsing. “The officials were all doing their job the best they could. If they’d maintained some order, the evacuation could be taking place much faster than it already is.”

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