The Aftershock

By Madhusre Das


A dismembered door stood in a sea of rubble. The walls that had once existed around its wooden frames were transformed into a pile of concrete, but somehow the door had survived—the solid wood intact, untouched by the force that had flattened homes, roads and trees into debris. Submerged between them, severed arms and legs peeked out like cigarette stubs. There was the occasional shoe and spectacles littered for effect and a pink chiffon weighed down by cement.

In the horizon, an old drunk danced through the rubble singing a sad Hindi number, his voice quivering with each teetering step.

“CUT! Who’s that? What’s going on?”

They almost had it and now this —Tanmay couldn’t believe their bad luck. “Get him out now!” he barked on a loudspeaker.

The old man erupted in an agonizing scream, collapsing at the door. The door that symbolized the guilt of those who had escaped unscathed in the 1993 earthquake of Killari.

The assistant director hurried to the door. As everyone watched with bated breath, she bent down to check on the old man lying face down.

“I-I think he’s dead!”

Tanmay

Tanmay sat in the car, feeling the weight of his disappointment. The gruelling ten-hour journey from Mumbai to Killari in Maharashtra had left him feeling tired and irritable. His back was still weak from the slip disc he had suffered two years ago and he regretted not stopping on the way. But any delays would only serve to put them over budget, and his producer, Manu, had already cut their funds down to the bare minimum. As he stared out the window, watching the barren fields pass in a blur, he felt overwhelmed by the weight of expectations on his shoulders.

Tanmay’s thoughts turned to his film career, which wasn’t much to begin with. He had always dreamed of making films that would captivate people but, so far, he had only managed a few forgettable ones. This could be his last chance to prove himself. He knew that Manu was already beginning to lose faith in him. Manu had warned him about overshooting budgets when Tanmay suggested they shoot the final scene in Killari where the two lead characters meet their ends in the 1993 earthquake.

“To place their deaths among the ten-thousand who died that night…just makes the story so much more believable”, Tanmay had said passionately. But recreating a natural disaster was expensive business.

When Manu suggested a studio set-up to cut costs, Tanmay had argued, “But nothing reeks superficiality like art directed sets—it lacks realism. Either we do the real deal or you can find some kid to fake an earthquake with homemade shake-tables”.

Sure, Manu had no artistic vision but losing his director would cost him the film itself. They had already cut deals for the premier and the box-office predictions looked impressive on paper. Manu agreed to sign off on the additional budget if Tanmay would direct two ad films for free. They were both in bad taste but Tanmay relented, “Anything for you Manu”. Between the feature and the ads, Tanmay was stretched thin and it began to reflect on his work.

Tanmay had put everything on the line for the film. He had spent years toiling at the story, paying dialogue writers out of his own pocket, slowly depleting his savings. And just when the stars had aligned despite all odds, all he wanted was to be done with it. Secretly he had hoped that Manu would refuse that final request and he would walk out, blaming his failure on him. At least then Tanmay would remain ‘a new voice with potential’, like the magazine had written. As the car pulled into the village of Killari, he took a deep breath and couldn’t help but feel like he was way in over his head.

..

Manu

When Manu and his assistant, Saswat, arrived in Killari two days ahead of the rest of the crew, they were in for a shock. Despite the sarpanch, Dr Jagannath Potdar, promising the best accommodation and food for the crew of fourteen, the ground realities were far from expectations. The twenty-bed dorm room, which had previously been a government rehabilitation centre for orphans of the earthquake, had no electricity or running water. The beds were clearly meant for fifteen-year-olds, and the aluminium cupboards on either side of the room were covered in rust. There were no curtains on the windows but the cement floor looked freshly scrubbed and the sheets faintly smelled of detergent. It reminded him of an old army infirmary even though he had never stepped foot in one.

Manu had been warned about a delinquent farmer who was often found lying in a drunken stupor on the steps at the entrance. Harmless as a fly, Dr Potdar had said, leave him be. The land on which the dorm was constructed had originally belonged to the farmer—a thriving sunflower field once. But after the earthquake, the government had seized it without notice or compensation driving the poor farmer to the edge of his own property where he now lived in a tin shed. His whole family was entombed in the 1993 earthquake and the only reason he was spared was a bottle of country liquor that had kept him out drinking all night. Sometimes he walked in the dark, wailing old sad songs, secretly hoping the ground would give way under him.

It wasn’t that Manu was untouched by the stories he’d heard about the earthquake—he simply had his hands full. He had already made arrangements for extra provisions for the crew. Crates of the freshest produce, the likes of which this village hadn’t seen for years, were ordered. There were toilet paper rolls, tubes of Odomos, soaps, towels, and even vials of antivenom in the medical kit like Dr Potdar had advised. Brand new bulbs were hung from the ceiling and a portable generator was stationed outside to power them.

Making a film was a lot like trying to herd a group of cats. No one stays in line and everyone has a mind of their own. Just when you think you have everything under control, something goes off script like no running water and everything falls apart.

But Manu was what his friends called, a fixer-upper. Union troubles, absconding talent, difficult actors—nothing was beyond Manu’s powers, not even the budget extension that had threatened to derail the film. In Manu’s world, there was always a way. Like how he’d found a way to convince the people of Killari that the film would benefit them. The sarpanch had been wary of their project from the start, “You people from big cities know nothing of our lives”.

But think of the business we’ll bring in, Manu had said to Dr Potdar. “There’s rent money, payments for permits, not to mention the daily wages for at least a dozen people. It’ll be more than what Killari earns in six months. All we need is one week.” In reality, the stay, food, and the wages came up lesser than the usual catering budget for a week back in Mumbai. Manu even made a namesake donation to the civic development fund, a meagre ten thousand rupees. “For your troubles”, he said to Dr Potdar. But trouble did follow in the guise of water shortage.

Manu sat down with Dr Potdar under a large acacia tree. The respect the old sarpanch commanded was evident in the way people crowded around him, urging the children to be quiet and bringing them tea. Tara, his daughter, joined them as well. She was to be Manu’s coordinator and, he suspected, the panchayat’s insider as well.

“Tell me, you know Sunny Deol? And Bobby? Juhi? Madhuri?” Tara asked.

Manu nodded.

“Then why didn’t you take one of them?” Tara went on.

Manu disliked her already—what did she know about filmmaking. He deftly changed the subject, “Dr Ji…we have a problem. There’s no water”. Dr Potdar nodded knowingly, “There never is…”

“What about the village then? Where do you get your water?” Manu asked.

Dr Potdar recited the phone number of a supplier who brought in a tank for the village once a week. “I’m sure you can afford a fresh one every day”, he added.

“Why not just make bore wells? Wouldn’t that be simpler?” Manu persisted.

The current settlement of Killari was rebuilt five kilometres from its original place, Dr Potdar began. Though the area was prone to droughts, the old Killari enjoyed certain luxuries like piped water. But the same couldn’t be said for the new Killari. After the earthquake, donations poured in and money began to exchange hands quickly. Soon the rehabilitation construction turned into a profit-making scheme for contractors and builders. The fifteen bore wells that were installed overnight, ran dry in five years. The groundwater level had been conveniently overlooked. But it was too late. By then Killari had disappeared from the country’s collective memory and all their grievances fell on deaf ears.

Tara

There were two vehicles—one Tata Ace carrying film equipment, and a large vanity van with the cast and crew that rolled in. Tara was waiting at the steps of the dorm with the cook, Malti, who had been hired at one-thousand rupees a day. She could have charged three times the amount if only she’d asked. What was pocket change in Mumbai was a small fortune in Killari.

Tara counted four women—bug-eyed and sleep deprived, they were dressed in oversized t-shirts and denims. Chic like the women in the magazines she hid under her mattress. No customary hi or hello, there were far more pressing matters like the direction to the toilet. The dorm had only one outhouse for all fourteen people and within minutes a long queue formed outside the tin shed. Water was piped from a tanker behind, giving people a sense of running water. A few at the back of the line broke out into the sugarcane field. Tara rushed to warn them about snakes but the words got caught in her throat.

Malti brought out cups of hot tea and Marie biscuits but it was cold drinks that they wanted. “Who has chai in this heat?” someone moaned. Everyone, Tara wanted to say. But she’d rather be liked than be right, and so she nodded in agreement.

As everyone settled into the dorm, they quickly found things to complain about. “This place is a dump!” someone griped picking at the rust on the cupboard. “They don’t even have wi-fi here”, another said. One even suggested they take turns to enjoy the air-conditioning in the vanity van, prompting a heated debate over who gets to use it and in what order.

Before long, the dormitory was a chaotic mess, with everyone bickering over petty issues. “Where the hell is Manu?” one of them muttered. Yes, where was Manu, Tara wondered with some annoyance.

Manu arrived with Tanmay. He must have been waiting on the main road. Neither noticed Tara as they made for the dorm, engrossed in a heated argument.

Tanmay was anywhere between thirty and fifty, with oily black shoulder-length hair. He was like an exotic specimen whose every bearing, movement and expression was so far removed from Tara’s world that it confused her. He saw beauty in the most unexpected places, like cracks on cement walls or the way light catches a piece of trash on the street. He would ask people for their opinions and when they were vague and disparate, he’d say, “What does Manu think?” which begged the question—why didn’t he ask Manu in the first place. Tara wasn’t alone in her confusion.

She overheard the actors grumbling about Tanmay’s lack of direction, “It’s like he makes things up as he goes”. Even though he was a quiet person, his temper could fly off at the slightest departure from realism, like when he sent the make-up artist in tears to the vanity van for using too much eye-shadow on the actor. “Would a woman on the run be so vain as to do her eyes?” Tanmay screamed after her.

But every once in a while, the diva-like veneer cracked and pure genius leaked out. On their first night in Killari, Tanmay sat everyone down in a circle. He passed around small paper cups of whiskey and took out a large folio of photographs. It had taken him months to collect them—scouring libraries and government offices, rummaging through newspapers and magazines from twenty years ago. They were going to play a little game where he’d hold up pictures and people would have to guess the year from when those were taken.

The first was a picture of a family cramped under a tin shed in a field, the evening light throwing long shadows over their sharp features.

1993, someone said.

Wrong. It was taken in December, 1992, Tanmay corrected him.

Almost a year before the 1993 earthquake, the locals from across the Latur district complained of low rumblings, like mini blasts that would go off randomly. People built makeshift sheds in the field to spend the night. But the team of geologists who investigated the region at the time, found no existing fault lines and declared an earthquake unlikely. At the behest of the panchayat, people returned to their stone huts in June 1993.

The next was an image of the devastation left behind by what people called the ‘black day’.

The answer was a unanimous 1993.

Correct, Tanmay said.

On September 30, 1993, the final day of Ganesh Chaturthi, a 6.4 magnitude earthquake ripped through Maharashtra’s Latur-Osmanabad region at 3.56 am. The ground shook for forty-seconds, killing over ten thousand people. And Killari which was the epicentre was reduced to rubble. The photo was taken two days later, on the afternoon of Gandhi Jayanti at a sugarcane field that was converted into a mass grave. Rows of bodies covered in pristine white sheets awaited burial. The afternoon sun cast an eerie sharpness, separating the darkness of the living from the whiteness of the dead.

Mudit, the cinematographer held the photo up to the light. He looked at it from different angles. “Guys, this light is just…Perfect! Hard shadows, gritty contrasts…it’s white-hot reality!” he said enthusiastically.

There were more photos of the raw devastation left by the earthquake. The art department took a particular interest in the mutilated body parts that peeked out of the rubble. They discussed skin textures and hand gestures. It all felt incredibly surreal to Tara as though she was being removed from her own history. Someone unpacked a bodiless arm from a trunk, replete with fingers and bangles on the wrist. It was grotesque—the skin coarse and wrinkled, the elbow twisted abnormally and a missing thumb with the bloodied base. Fascinating as it all was, Tara had had enough for the day. It was time to go home.

….

Mudit

The film was a simple story about an inter-caste romance. They had filmed across the country, from Punjab to Agra to Mumbai and now in Killari, as the lovers fled from the girl’s devout family who vowed to exact revenge on the boy for tarnishing their daughter’s honour. Just when peace seemed impossible, the couple found refuge in the quiet village of Killari where they were married. But the famous 1993 earthquake would deal them the final blow, uniting them forever in death. Even though the story was nothing out of the ordinary, Mudit had agreed to take the job because he had tired of ad films that were a poor excuse for art. He was yet to manage a feature in his twenty-year-old career and Tanmay’s film had seemed like a good starting point.

But the whole production had a ragtag look about it from the start. As the working days became longer—the inevitable result of an underfinanced film—crew members would occasionally walk off the job. Tanmay assumed the role of co-producer and cajoled people into staying, with the help of Saswat who was both assistant producer and production manager. Manu who spent sleepless nights obsessing over the money Tanmay was wasting, came to the shoot every day to check on his investments.

On the third day, as the crew began filming the wedding ceremony in Killari’s old temple, the locals gathered around in a crowd. Every once in a while, someone pushed the makeshift trolley track and they would have to retake the entire scene from the top. It was nearly dusk but a suffocating heat clamped down on them.

Tanmay was losing his cool, hollering “Action! Cut!” from the top of his lungs, sending the villagers into a giggling fit. The art department, the make-up artist and the assistant managers created a body barrier, pushing people away from the frame and Tara deftly cornered the women and children to the far side. Still, over fifty people were cramped into the small courtyard of the temple and by the time someone spotted a young boy fiddling with the electrical cords behind the gaffer—it was too late. The lights went out with a boom and the portable generator whirred down to a menacing rattle. The villagers panicked, rushing to the narrow exit. Everything began to fall apart—the equipment teetered on rickety tripods and the bamboo scaffolding to hold the overhead lights crashed on the small ceremonial fire at the centre of the courtyard.

Almost every member of the cast and crew suffered some sort of injury. Tanmay had a bruised arm from the boom stand that fell over him. Manu and the make-up artist Seema almost got trampled by the crowd. The gaffer slipped on his own cords and twisted his lower back. Saswat who had been standing close to the ceremonial fire burned his face. And the pandit officiating the ceremony, who was indeed the local priest, narrowly missed death as a large bamboo toppled next to him. He squealed like a baby calling out for his mother.

Mudit kept the camera rolling through it all. It didn’t matter that the lights had changed and there were traces of filming equipment in his frame because there was no faking the fear that ran through the villagers’ faces. The fading evening light would mirror the time of the earthquake in the early hours of the morning. The scaffolding falling was a masterstroke of luck. The whole courtyard shook with the impact, sending embers flying in the air. It was cinematic gold. They only managed a few usable takes for the wedding ceremony but the rest was more than he could ask for. No amount of propping or setting equals the real deal.

…..

Tanmay

The whole incident at the temple put everyone on edge. The next day, Ranji, the gaffer, had intentionally picked a fight with Mudit. The assistant director, Riya, had absconded for an entire evening and when Tanmay had asked her whereabouts, she said that he was a brain drainer and just walked off. But nothing spurred the fire more than water. There was a perpetual shortage of drinking water as well as water for the sole restroom that they were all forced to share. The final nail in the coffin was dealt by the utter and complete water crisis that Tanmay woke up to on their fifth day in Killari.

They had suspected someone was siphoning water from their personal tanker during the night. But on that day, the whole tanker had disappeared. The word was that the village had taken a particular dislike to their filming after what happened at the temple. Your presence is a bad omen, the priest declared. Even the old man who delivered the water tanker every day stopped picking up Manu’s calls. It seemed the village had turned on them.  

“I told you we should’ve done it in a studio”, Manu said.

Tara suggested they talk to her father, “If there’s anyone here on your side, it would be him”.

As the three walked through the village square, they crossed a group of children rolling cycle tyres with sticks and screaming “Akshun-Cut!” dispelling each word with the same forceful burst like Tanmay did.

Dr Potdar quietly listened to Manu and Tara explain the business of the tanker. He nodded his head from time to time but kept his head down, never once meeting their eyes. 

“You’ve put me in a difficult spot Manu”, finally Dr Potdar spoke. “I will call the supplier and I will talk to the people so you can carry on. But you must make peace first. You must make a donation to the panchayat—a sizeable one this time. And you will need to buy the poor supplier a new tank.”

“But father, it wasn’t their fault what happened at the temple”, Tara interjected. “Be quiet child. This village has been through enough. You should’ve been more careful”, and with that Dr Potdar got up, signalling the conversation was over. 

On their way back, Tanmay wanted to stop at the gully where they would be filming the next day. Mudit met them at the entrance of a small one-room house. The old couple who lived there had blocked the doorway—stalling work.

“No. We won’t allow it. You can’t remove our door”, they shook their head vehemently.

Manu tried to explain in his broken Marathi that they would reinstall their aluminium door. He even offered to leave the better solid wood door once they were done filming. Think of it as a gift, he said. Still they refused.

“Can’t we just use their aluminium door?” Tara asked.

“The old Killari had houses with wooden doors. So no, it cannot be aluminium”, Tanmay said, sounding annoyed.

When Tara tried to explain this to the old couple, the woman finally erupted, “Are you on their side or ours?”

Before Tara could respond, Manu stopped her, “Let your father talk to them. Come”. As they made their way out of the village square, Tanmay felt the long disapproving looks bore holes into his back. People walked out of their homes which resembled lifeless barracks. Even though it had been twenty years, they still lived like refugees with cattle and livestock packed into the same tiny room.

It was hardly by choice. During the rehabilitation, speed had been the ultimate objective. Foregoing the necessary planning, the government completed housing in six months, earning praise from the media. However, there was no provision for some of the most basic things—like the chullah they used to cook or the livestock everyone owned. While some constructed additional tin sheds, most couldn’t afford it and were forced to share their living quarters with hens and cows. Tanmay knew nothing of their reality and assumed the worst—how horrible, have they no sense of hygiene.

……

The People of Killari

Carl Sagan had said that the nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth and the iron in our blood were made in the interiors of a collapsing star. We are all made of star stuff.

We might belong to different castes and geographies but that doesn’t make us any less equal. Then why did the people of Killari feel as though they were second-class citizens in their own homes.

Dr Jagannath Potdar called a meeting in the small community hall that evening. There was a sense of dissent in the air. People broke into groups discussing the director’s antics, the water shortage and the scarcity of fresh produce on account of the outsiders.

Dr Potdar was a kind and reasonable man. Born and educated in Pune, he had come to work as a young surgeon at Killari’s Public Health Centre. He was attuned to the way business was conducted in bigger cities. So, when the production of the film began to create unrest, he was not surprised.

“I know you are angry. I also know who all are behind the missing tanker but that is not important. What is important is that we don’t lose the money that fate has favoured us with. Let us cooperate one last time”, Dr Potdar said.

But the people objected in anger.

“We could have died at the temple!”

“Do you not care for our lives?”

“These outsiders are bad news!”

Dr Potdar tried to calm everyone down, “I understand, but we must prepare for the drought that is already upon us. The producer has agreed to make a donation to our cause”. The last part seemed to get everyone’s attention.

“Two lakhs! Imagine what that money can do for us—new bore wells, repairs to the school, new shed for cattle.” Gaining more confidence, he carried on, “And when the film comes out, Killari will once again re-enter the national headlines. Maybe then the government will stop ignoring our grievances. The compensation for your land, approvals for civic projects—everything that we have been fighting for the last twenty years. All this for just one more day of shoot”. Yes, the doctor was right, the people decided.

The next morning everyone gathered in the gully where the crew was removing the aluminium door from the old couple’s home. This time they didn’t resist.

Tanmay and his assistant, Riya, held up a picture of the old Killari—houses made of stone and mud with solid wood doors. The art department installed the wooden door, the surface of which was carefully aged by superficial scratches. A fabric that replicated the visual texture of the house in the picture was stapled along the exterior. A thatched roof was laid over the asbestos sheet. The village watched the concrete house transform into a figment from their past.

As Tanmay meticulously worked through each shot, more and more people crowded around to catch a glimpse of the house. People began to grow restless. To the young who had only heard of the old Killari, it was like black magic; to the old, it was a cold reminder of everything they’d lost. As the crew packed up to move to the next location, Tara breathed a sigh of relief. She climbed in with Tanmay in the back of the Tata Ace.

“Couldn’t you possibly let the two characters live out their lives? Do they have to die in the film?” Tara wondered aloud.

“Yes. Tragedies just make for better stories”, Tanmay replied, distracted on his phone. 

It was late afternoon and light was fading over the vast horizon of rubble that once dotted the skyline of old Killari. Even after twenty years, the abandoned stone houses still lay crumbled, and broken corridors from the old school stood between the debris in haunting silence.

The crew had cleared a section of the wild grass and vines that had taken over the rubble to eliminate the passage of time. The same solid wood door was placed in the frame with stones carefully arranged in orchestrated chaos. Prosthetic limbs were propped between the debris as Tanmay and Mudit debated the most natural-looking positions with the art department. 

The villagers had followed on foot behind them. They stood in a long line, an audience to their own past. There were farmers who had returned early, shopkeepers and vegetable sellers, administrative workers who had taken the afternoon off and school teachers carrying satchels of homework. There were children and young people who weren’t yet born in 1993, men and women who were orphaned in the earthquake and old people who lost their future generations. The police were also there at Manu’s request.

Tanmay sat on a chair, holding a loudspeaker in his hand, barking orders to a frazzled crew.

“Move that stone to the left!”

“Let’s try one from another angle.”

“Cut! That cloud is blocking the light.”

It was past the twentieth take and still the director seemed displeased. The police, bored and restless, started walking up and down the long stretch of the audience, brandishing their lathis.

“Is the police really necessary?” Dr Potdar asked Manu.

“They are just here to keep everyone in line”, Manu said curtly.

“You mean keep us in line? This is our home. You seem to forget that too easily.”

…….

The Door

Does the re-enactment of reality make it less real?

The mind is like a split-screen. On the left, the present and on the right, a constant rolling reel of memories. When the poor old drunk saw the dismembered door, standing on the mound of rubble that was once his home, the split between past and present dissolved. Memories from that fateful morning addled his mind and overwhelmed his weathered heart. He had returned home to find a door just like the one that stood before him now. His terrifying scream punctured the sunset’s last silvery glow. It was as much from heartbreak as it was from a kidney ravaged by country liquor.

The police hurried to investigate the death but something in the people of Killari had snapped. In a moment of irrational fear (or was it anger?) hundreds burst forth screaming murder. The ground shook and the trees, still hung with autumn’s dead leaves, made a strange rattling sound. Shrubs whose shrivelled roots snaked around broken concrete came dislodged. Assumptions were made in split seconds and sticks and stones were flung without remorse. The place that had been quiet for twenty years woke up to fresh tremors.

Image source: Maharashtra Times


Madhusre Das is a freelance writer. She has previously worked as an Associate Creative Director at an advertising agency in Mumbai. Read more of her works at MADTROTTER.

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