Organizing ‘what’ and leading ‘whom’ in ‘empty spaces’?

Empty spaces

My house ‘is’ a typical Newari house in a typical Newari settlement in Bhaktapur. Wow! This line would have been a perfect opener for an essay on a topic ‘My house’ in the school days. But now I am quite concerned about everything I say or imagine about my house. For instance, I am ‘truly madly deeply’ confused about ‘is’ or ‘was’ status of my house. In fact, what determines the ‘is’ versus ‘was’ status of anything has become just little more interesting now in the aftermath of the earthquake. If I look at the space where my neighbour’s house once stood, I would say ‘It was there! Yes, the house was there just yesterday!’. Now, there is nothing but rubbles, left-behind clothes, broken earthen utensils, pieces of copies and books, and unattended dolls of the kids. But, my house still stands nearby and yet, it doesn’t stand as before. So, I am still doing a ‘research’ on what status I can confer to my house. My findings so far conclude that it is in this slow and steady race of gaining the status of ‘was’ from ‘is’. That is the best explanation I can give. Hence, I prefer to keep it this way until my ‘participant observation’ of the research ‘The falling house’ concludes something solid. However, I am open to comments in any forms. For now, I just throw in some pages of my ‘earthquake notes’. I begin this write up with more or less the same version of my opener which is far from any assertions or any propositions derived from a research.

My house ‘is or was’ a typical Newari house in a typical Newari settlement in Bhaktapur. Made up of woods, mud and bricks, and gallons of sweats of my ancestors, it stands 5 storeys tall. I don’t remember when it was built. It must be some 50 or more years ago because even my father doesn’t remember much about it. The only thing I remember is that about 10 years ago, we had a major renovation that allowed us to have a bigger roof which offered us a majestic view of the mountains, sun rise and sunset. I loved watching sunsets from the roof of my house. Also, many generations of beautiful flowers blossomed there. My mom often asked me to water them. But I don’t remember when I watered the plants there for the last time. At times, I also practiced my flute lessons there. It used to be cool there, playing some melodies and listening to the birds singing theirs, and the rising sun as a solitary audience. In the evenings, it used to fun teasing the kids on the adjoining roofs, and most of the times, chasing them away. Mom used to bring my ‘khaja’ there though I always requested her that I would come downstairs for it. With ‘khaja’ and a cup of coffee, I celebrated my solitude watching the hills and mountains. It was a heaven then.

Now after the earthquake, my mom doesn’t tolerate me going to the roof. In fact, she is still not happy that I decided to accommodate myself in the ground floor of our house. She thinks our house is too risky. So, after days of discusssions and confusions, we decided to rent a room at a neighbor’s newly built ‘concrete’ house. I stayed in the room for few days because my mom won’t allow me in our house. But one day I shifted to the ground floor of our house. I brought my bed, table and some books from my room which is in the third floor of our house. We also managed a make-shift kitchen in the ground floor. We were gradually settling down.

But time and again, I climb the wooden stairs to check stuffs upstairs. And in that process, I would often end up in the roof. When my mom sees me there, she won’t stop shouting at me until I climb down. Now I do not climb to the roof to watch the sunsets. Neither do I need to water the plants because they have died long before. Nor can I imagine playing flute there. Nor are there any kids on the adjoining roofs. Yet, I can not stop myself from being there just to feel what it used to be like before. I definitely miss being there. But I know its quite risky there. As I climb the wooden stairs, I feel the floor shake. I am afraid, of course! I know a small aftershock can do much damage. Yet, something pulls me. It’s more than the physical space at the roof that attracts me. It’s the memories associated with me being there.

What I see from my roof now is the collapsed houses of my neighbors and the tarpaulin-covered walls of the houses waiting for their fate. At least three houses adjoining our house collapsed during the earthquake. My neighbor’s house which shares a common wall with our house is in the verge of collapse. Fearing the worst case scenario that the house might collapse and hurt pedestrians, my neighbor decided to take it down. That means our own house awaits it fate. It’s just the matter of time. Hence, my mom has insisted on bringing everything to the room that we have rented. Therefore, my house might be vacant in few days or months, but it will always carry a scar left behind by an irreparable destruction of spaces that molded so contentedly in our memories that every time we pass through those empty spaces, absence of some familiar forms eludes the lost minds to believe on the phoenix story with a hope that those spaces will be retained soon. But houses do not rise so often, unless in our memories. Might be we have better things replacing those empty spaces in our memories.

I felt a shock thousands of miles away

I was thousand miles away on that ‘black’ day when a number of houses in my neighborhood collapsed and left my house fragile. I was attending a conference in Cyprus when the facebook pages were overloaded with statuses related to the disaster in my home country. The first status I encountered seemed more like a prank than an update: ‘Dharahara is gone’. Familiar with some similar pranks in the past, I thought it was just another one until images of destructions of roads, temples, and the Dharahara were rampant in the pages. I sat down helpless in a chair in that conference hall: confused and worried, and unsure what I was supposed to do. The only thing I could do then was to leave the conference hall. Outside, everything was normal. The sun was bright and a street musician was playing some familiar tunes little far away. Yet, I was caught by a storm that was thousands of miles away from me.

I made several attempts to contact my family and friends. But everything seemed blown away by the storm. Without hearing anything from my family, I was getting more and more worried. I wanted to be back in home as soon as possible. Again, there were rumors that the only international airport might have been damaged too. Some members of the organizers of the conference spotted me and by then, they were all aware of the situation back here. They asked if I was fine, and if my family was OK? I had no answer for either of the questions. I just requested them if I could catch a plane in a day or two. Inside the conference hall, people were discussing how they could bring ‘peace’ in the world while I was fighting my own war against the distance and the time. I knew I won’t be able to get a flight any sooner than a couple of days.

That day, I spent almost all my time trying to contact my family, relatives and friends.

Three days later, I finally got a flight back to Kathmandu. It must have been the most-awaited flight of my life. I wished the plane could take me to my home straight away. In Dubai transit, I had to wait for 10 hours more than the prescheduled transit hours. We were told that flights to Kathmandu have been delayed by hours. During that long wait, I was in company of a number of other Nepalese who were waiting there to board the same flight. We had different stories, but one common concern: family in the earthquake-hit country. Some were returning to attend the funerals of their family members who died in the earthquake. Many were on their holiday breaks from the jobs, and their holiday mood was just ruined by the earthquake.

When the plane took off from the Dubai airport, another news heightened our impatience. The news was about the the heavy air traffic in the Kathmandu airport packed by the flights of international missions bringing the relief materials. So, we were prepared to have a prolonged flight duration. Well, I was less concerned about it. I just needed to land there sooner or later. On my adjoining seat was a foreigner who had come for some relief mission. He seemed interested in conversing with me. But I was getting so impatient about reaching home that I hardly seemed to notice. As we entered the sky above the Kathmandu valley, the damage brought by the earthquake became more apparent. A rainbow of blue, black, orange and yellow tents seemed to have dispersed all over the valley floor. Rain seemed an inseparable company too.

An awakening!

It was a big relief meeting my family and finding them safe. They were staying with neighbors in a temporary tent in an open space. It was almost dark then. Still, I went to inspect damages incurred by the earthquake in my house. On the way, I saw a number of collapsed buildings. The electricity was down and there were cables scattered all over the streets. The telephone network was down too. When I reached my home, the cracks on the outer face made up of the bricks and mud clearly suggested the intensity of damages both inside and outside. As I entered the building, there were cracks almost everywhere. I couldn’t climb up to the roof.

I came to my house next day. The inner structures of the building suffered more damage than outside. A neighbor’s house suffered a similar fate. A number of other houses in the neighborhood had already collapsed. Some of them had started to bring down the remaining structures and search for their belongings. I joined a group of men who were helping a family in searching their belongings in the rubbles. The same activity continued over a week. My engagement in such activities led me to a number of questions that made me reflect over many thoughts. I could feel the presence of a silent empathy among all the people who came together to help a family in need. Also, I was pondering over what led to people to organize themselves and act collectively in such scenario. No one was leading the act, nor did anyone seem to instruct others. Sometimes, I just feel that we have a leader inside every one of us. We just need an awakening.

The earthquake has been an awakening for many sleeping souls. Never before had I felt so much responsible for my family. While I was quite occupied in voluntary works outside, I was often stuck between my responsibilities within home and urgencies to extend help outside. Within our family, we had a major decision to make on whether to accommodate ourselves in the ground floor of our house or to find rooms outside in ‘safe’ places. According to my mom, our house is not safe at all. So, we needed to find ‘safe’ places outside. But the contestations over which place is safe and which is not remained largely unattended. Our discussions often ended with a decision to accommodate ourselves in the ground floor and a rented room in a neighbor’s house for some time unless we find a better alternative. It must been have been almost a month after the earthquake by then. Perhaps it was time to move on. And, amidst the frequent aftershocks, we wanted to believe that things were gradually being normal.

When I said ‘Things were gradually getting normal……’, I later realized that it was too early to make that statement. I had not really understood what was going on in my family and other families in my neighborhood. For instance, I had taken my mom’s fear as a normal reaction to the quake. Only later did I realize that my mom was going through some serious psychological impacts of the disaster. Even during minor aftershocks, mom started to panic. Even while having dinner, her eyes remained glued to the water pouch that we had hung on the ceiling that acted as an indicator of a tremor. I started to realize, might be I was too insensitive while arguing against my mom’s insistence on renting a room or a flat in safe place. My mom and sister were in home when the major quakes hit. I was not in home in both occasions. I haven’t yet felt what they have gone through. Also, my mom was getting older. She had been suffering with this joint pain for long. I could not realize that she won’t be able to run as fast as me when she has to during a quake. I repented on my ignorance about my mom’s concerns. There might be many other concerns of my mom or of my dad or my sister that I remained so ignorant about. This earthquake was an awakening for me. Might be I was misled by other concerns that overshadowed the concerns of my family. Was I running too fast that I just missed everything around me?

I had resumed my work much earlier. Every time I felt an aftershock at my workplace, even a minor one, I grew more concerns about my family, my home. I started getting worried if my mom is alright. Did she move out of the house on time? Even till date, a small tremor, or a feeling that aftershocks might occur, haunts me. The fear is not limited to the loss of a house. The fear is more of a loss of our attachments with the house, our memories of moments with our family in the house. We often forget that a house grows with us. Might be it gets older too.

I know I have delved far beyond what the topic demands. In fact, I was too late in realizing that this write-up had a specific question. But, I have fewer concerns about any kind of question in this particular period of time. What ‘progress’ means for me, or what ‘leadership’ means to whom? In fact, I have started to believe that these ‘concepts’ have different meanings for different people and in different occasions they manifest contextual understandings.

For my mom, and for our family, we are fixing a kitchen in our ground floor from scratches. It’s about fixing that gas line, it’s about fixing that sink, and it’s about getting good drinking water for the family. For my parents, it’s about maintaining ties with the neighbors who have moved away far from our house. In fact, many people have been compelled to move away from their original places and pushed away to unfamiliar places. With change in the locations, there are emotional impacts, psychological impacts, and immeasurable loss of intimacy with both people and place. What does it mean to ‘organize ourselves’ or ‘progress’ in such cases?

Few days ago I met a friend who had a very compelling story to share. He has a small kid whom I had met in few occasions. He shared that his kid was having a difficult time adjusting to new place and people.

Recently, I had visited Bungamati where some friends were helping the local people to build temporary shelters in an open field. I spent some time listening their stories of how they escaped the disaster. They are still frightened of the uncertainities that lie ahead.

I joined a group of friends to perform in a music program for children in one of the relief camps in Kathmandu. The music program and other activities provided a liminal space for the children to forget the trauma. But when the music stops and we stop dancing, we are back in the real world beyond that liminal space. How can we keep the music alive beyond those liminal spaces?

In these contexts, how can we ‘organize’ ourselves? How do we define ‘leadership’ ? For me, its about beginning from self. First, I need to organize myself. I need to listen to myself. I need to listen to my family, to people around. I need to have that patience to hear their stories and to walk in their shoes. Therefore, I listened to my mom. And, never before I did feel my mom’s pain in such depth. So, if organizing ‘ourselves’ mean listening to the people sharing their stories, their sufferings, I am on for it. But not just for the sake of listening. Listen to them as if you are listening to your mother sharing her pain. Help someone as if you are helping your mother set up a kitchen for your first meal after the earthquake. Listen to your neighbors, help them console their 3-year-old grandson to make him understand why they have shifted to a ‘new house’.

And what does ‘leadership’ mean? I don’t know, frankly enough! For me, there is a leader in every one of us. We didn’t need any leader to guide us when we were helping a family in our neighborhood searching for their belongings in their collapsed house. Why can’t a ‘purpose’ and ‘common experiences’ guide us? Our willingness to help others and share our efforts for someone’s happiness might be more encouraging than any kind of so-called ‘leaders’ in the world. Moreover, who do we need to lead? May be, sometimes, it’s our own ignorance that seeks a birth of a leader within ourselves. May be, organizing ourselves and leading ourselves might mean to create beautiful structures in those empty spaces left behind by our past.

1 Like

So much empty spaces!

I enjoyed the long-form writing, introducing the reader to so many details of post-quake social life in Nepal. Some of them I know from experience myself. Including the discovery of being insensitive towards people whose minds suffer from present and future aftershocks …

So leadership is the activity of filling empty spaces with beautiful structure? I like that definition. So in more prosaic form, it’s seeing the opportunity to do something good, and doing it? And yes, there are ample opportunities within ourselves, and nobody can be a leader who has not gathered experience in working there. Here I agree. But then, there are also ample opportunities in the external world, also beyond the family and neighborhood. As much as I’d love leaderless movements (which are movements with everyone being a leader) to be able to take these on, as little I’ve seen this happening … . For more reflections on this topic, there is my recent acticle on movement  building (and the discussion starting from there).



Thanks for your comments! I do definitely do not mean to reject the existence of leadership outside the home or neighbourhood. I am just little concerned that the term ‘leadership’ has now been used more in the later context and the existence and the potential of leadership within ourselves, family and neighbourhood have been overshadowed. Also, thanks for the link! It is helpful!


Thanks @Prabin_Shrestha, understood. I was simply more concerned over the last days with missing ways of to organize well on larger scales, but I share your concern about the disregard for local leadership. Yes, whatever good can be done locally, should be. Less dependencies, less fuzz, less complexities. I guess our current priorities are nicely complementing each other :slight_smile:

Thanks again for the article!