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Priyanka Kher

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Christchurch: When Nature Changes Your City

Posted: 09/06/2012 7:00 am

I clearly remember where I was when I first heard about it.

It was typical February evening in Delhi, cold and dark. My husband Baroon and I were on our way to my parents' house for dinner. He was driving. Shuffling through channels, I was trying to find a good song on the radio. My cell phone rang and the illuminated screen signaled that it was my mom.

"On our way. Be there in 10."

Assuming she wanted to know how far we were, I didn't give her a chance to speak. That's not why she'd called. She asked me if I had seen the news that day. I hadn't. She carried on talking on the other end. In response, all I could do was shake my head and mumble monosyllables.

"Really?" "Ok." "Shit." "Bye."

"What's wrong?" I could feel the anxiety in Baroon's voice.

"Earthquake in Christchurch."

"Another one?"

"Big one."

Christchurch in New Zealand was my home for six years. I didn't choose the city though. Rather, it got chosen for me. At 23, as a trailing spouse, I took a long 18-hour flight from Delhi via Singapore to finally get there. Minutes before the plane was about to land, I recall peeking out of the window to catch a glimpse of the city that I was going to live in. There was none.

All I could see was layers of green in various shades dotted with miniscule white specks, which on closer inspection turned out to be sheep. In the years to come, that became my favorite first memory of Christchurch. It was repeated often on different occasions -- to other newcomers in the city, wives of friends who'd recently moved there, family in India and sometimes jokingly or in trying to wind up a Kiwi friend.

Looking back, I am sure I grew to love the city as much as I did because I had no expectations from it when I first came. I had no idea about what it was going to be like. Because I was young and somewhat ignorant (which thinking now, actually amounts to being the same thing), I hadn't crammed my head with a mental picture of what to expect, how to behave or how to react.

I didn't come searching for anything. I just let Christchurch happen to me over time. In revealing itself to me slowly, it left an impression on me that eventually became a part of my soul.

When we moved back to India in December of 2008, I didn't cry at the airport. In my head, I wasn't leaving forever. A part of me sincerely believed that I was going to come back. I was going to live there again and everything was going to be just as it was.

Once at my parents' house, I was on the phone instantly, dialing numbers, one after the other, trying frantically to get through someone. Anyone. We still had lots of very close friends living there -- friends who had been family to us for years. Signals were muffled and when I did get through, all I could do was leave messages on voicemails.

"The epicenter for this one was closer to the city than the one last September." My mom filled us in with what she had seen on the telly. "There's been lots of damage, many people killed" she added.

I felt heavy in the head.

"Can we talk about something else?" I interrupted her mid-sentence. Maybe if we didn't talk about it, it would go away.

Running away however, wasn't easy. Information started flowing in the next day from all quarters. Status updates, photos, videos on YouTube. It was gratifying to find out that everyone we knew was safe. There had been lucky escapes and minor injuries. Everyone had a story to tell. Where they were, how scary it was. How someone they knew had lost something.

A week later, I sat alone in my room, staring at the screen of my laptop. After much deliberation, I had finally decided to go through the pictures. I knew I had to.

Amidst knots in my stomach and water lined cheeks, I saw the photos one by one. Streets that I had walked on over a thousand times, now cracked and split, the top-less Cathedral building in the square, my old office with it's caved in parking, remnants of what used to be the business district. Rubble. Smoke. Sunken cars and broken down signs. Volunteers in Orange jackets. Petrified, shocked expressions.

It was almost as if someone had snatched the picture of Christchurch that I brought back with me, thrown it on the floor, smashed it to pieces and walked all over it.

What remained was only a shadow of what used to be.

Eighteen months have passed since then. The after shocks have remained but I've been told that they are not as frequent or as intense.

The stories are more positive now. As is the nature of time and human spirit, things have moved on. Offices re-opened, houses and roads have been re-built. The scars are on their way to being healed up. The city is picking up its pieces, slowly but surely.

I found out through a friend recently that authorities have turned the disaster around. They are planning to use it as an opportunity to build a more modern, technologically advanced and well-planned city.

All this is great to know. It really is.

I've often felt that all the people who were there when it happened and ever since, have been able to come to terms with it a lot better. Because they had no choice. It was in their face, right in front of their eyes and they couldn't hide from it. Denial wasn't an option.

In having to deal with it, they found closure and acceptance. They found the ability to fight.

I, on my end, have been a like a stubborn kid refusing to let go off a favorite toy. Holding on to the memories of what it was. My friend's words from six months ago still haunt me.

'If you come to Christchurch now, you won't be able to recognize it. It's not the city you left behind,' he'd said.

In hindsight, the whole idea of living there again was just that -- an idea in my head. It wasn't going to happen. But I do think of visiting someday. The day I gather enough strength, the day I feel I can hold myself together.

I don't know when that will be.

However, there's one thing I do know. When I go, I'll try and go with a blank page in my head. In the hope that Christchurch will fill itself in again, just like it did the first time.

It's the least that I can wish for.

 

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