Corporal Punishment Natural & Other Disasters in India

By McGOWAN, Jo | Commonweal, February 9, 2001 | Go to article overview

Corporal Punishment Natural & Other Disasters in India


McGOWAN, Jo, Commonweal


Just minutes before the January 26 earthquake hit Gujarat, India--we live in Dehra Doon, north and east of that state--I was thinking about earthquakes. I had read a novel earlier that week in which one of the characters explained how she always made a point of sending her children off in the morning with a loving good-bye because you just never knew what might happen in the course of the day. She had been deeply affected by an account of a school in Italy that had collapsed in an earthquake, killing every single student inside. She could never shake the image of the parents who must have sent their babies off that morning as if it had been any other day.

On January 26, my son had slipped out of the house while I was busy making my daughter's lunch and I didn't say good-bye to him. It was half an hour before I realized it and the story from the novel came back to me immediately. "What if there were an earthquake?" I thought. An hour later, the bulletins from Gujerat flashed across the nation. One of the most poignant stories involved a class of thirty high-school juniors (my son's age) who had been called in for a special exam (January 26 is a national holiday in India, and children generally attend school only to participate in outdoor parades and patriotic displays); their building collapsed and all but four died.

My husband Ravi is one of India's experts on disaster relief and earthquake-safe housing. Within hours of the tragedy our living room had become a kind of command center. He was on the phone to friends in the United States to mobilize funds, speaking to the prime minister's office to determine the areas of greatest need, receiving reports from friends in the affected villages and towns, and meeting with his team to plan strategies for temporary shelters as well as long-term reconstruction and relief.

Until very recently, we had no television in our home. We finally gave in to the children's pleas only a few months ago. So the experience of having blow-by-blow, minute-to-minute accounts of such a nightmarish tragedy was quite new to me. By midafternoon on the second day I could no longer take it, but Ravi, desperate for more information, couldn't bear to turn it off. Just to clear my head a little, I went out for a walk.

A crowd had gathered at the police station which is at the top of our road. I approached nervously (a crowd outside a police station is never a good sign), but what I saw there was worse than anything I could have imagined. Indeed, it took me over a minute of staring to register what I was seeing, and even now I have difficulty believing I saw it. …

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