Actually, it was on the day before the quake devastated Kutch, Gujarat's largest and driest district, that Mansukhbhai Rathod died. His nephew Vijay Haribhai Hothi, our 28-year-old driver who told us about Mansukhbhai, has actually forgotten that little detail. The only relative he lost to the quake, he said when we first met, was this uncle. "Only when I started to tell you how we cremated him," Vijay said in some wonder at how his memory has tricked him, "only then did I remember he had died before!"
Such was the impact of the quake.
Mansukhbhai died on the evening of January 25, 2001, in Rajkot. By the time Vijay's younger brother Ajay and some other relatives brought him to Bhuj, it was nearly midnight. They decided to wait till morning to cremate him. At about 8:30 that morning, they reached the cremation ground that stretches along a dry river bed, laid the body on the sand, and began gathering wood for the pyre.
8:45, seared into a million Kutchi minds, arrived with a sound that people describe to us variously as fighter jets taking off, a bomb, and thunder louder than they had ever known. At the cremation ground, the mourners heard it too, then a cliff above the river bed collapsed. Large boulders sheared off, one coming to rest just a foot or two from where Mansukhbhai lay. (Vijay points it out to us).
The sand they stood on was shifting with ominous vigour. Ajay shouted that it was about to swallow them up and turned to run. But behind and above them, the Shiva temple on the riverbank was wobbling on its robust pillars. Running that way was not an option.
"We thought," Vijay says to me in all seriousness, "that my uncle's ghost had risen."
Later that morning, they finished the cremation. But if they finally understood that it wasn't Mansukhbhai's ghost on the loose, but just -- yes, just -- an earthquake, the quake itself haunts their thoughts and lives. And the lives of thousands of families like theirs. And hundreds of villages sprinkled across Kutch. And the city of Bhuj, largest in Kutch and home to gracious old palaces and homes, sprawling in state like some dishevelled, tormented, tragic queen.
And like me, if you're willing to see metaphor in every direction, there are a couple of good ones in Bhuj.
First, the clock on the Jainacharya Ajaramarji School is stuck at a minute past 8:45. Since the quake, of course. Time stands still and all that.
Second, dust -- from the piles of rubble that are everywhere -- coats everything, gets in your hair, hangs light-brown in the air. Like a ghost might.
Like maybe Mansukhbhai, rest his soul, does.
So there on the dry riverbed -- staring at a massive boulder that nearly smashed an already-dead Mansukhbhai, remembering the fantastic destruction I've seen here -- I can't help an involuntary shudder.