Days after I arrived in Kachchh, a severe cyclone hit the area. The disaster required me to embrace uncertanties in my own reporting, but also opened my eyes to unexpected and diverse stories.
Within a few short days of arriving in Bhuj in Gujarat, India, to begin my reporting project, I learned that a category “Extremely Severe” cyclone was bound to hit the city center. In anticipation of Cyclonic Storm Biparjoy (meaning “catastrophe” in Bengali), I repacked my suitcase that I had emptied just a day prior, and canceled all the interviews and trips into the field that I had scheduled in the next week. The government mobilized disaster response forces, issued warnings about blackouts and floods, and evacuated residents in fishing communities along the coastline.
What I had anticipated as a hectic first week in the field became eerily quiet—without internet or cell service, I had little to do but listen to intermittent meteorological alerts and watch as the air gradually became more heavy and gray. I sat around the TV with workers and guests in the hostel’s dining bhunga (hut), watching news coverage of the cyclone as debris and rain whipped against the windows. I sheltered in my room for the next four days and waited for the cyclone to pass over.
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I did not come into Kachchh expecting to write a story about the environment. Growing up in Pennsylvania, which had been always relatively unscathed by the more direct effects of climate change, it was easy—despite my best efforts—to relegate environmental disasters to the back burner of my mind. I quickly learned, however, that the story I wanted to write was not necessarily the one that wanted to be told. The cyclone framed each conversation I had: every “Hello, how are you?” was immediately followed up with “How are you recovering from the cyclone? Do you have electricity?”
It felt silly at points to ask these women about embroidery or community politics in the immediate wake of an environmental catastrophe that left them without power or running water—but the more time I spent with the women of Kachchh, it became evident that the story of their changing lives was inseparable from the story of environmental change.
An environmental disaster the scale of Biparjoy had not hit Kachchh in over two decades—the last one killed over 10,000 people, largely due to governmental negligence. Three years later, a 7.6 magnitude earthquake hit the city center. Villages were flattened, roads and bridges crumbled, heritage sites and temples were destroyed. Physically isolated, most people outside the city were left without food, water, and relief for weeks. Over 20,000 people were killed.
In less than two minutes, the fabric of Kachchh was permanently altered. In the wake of the disaster, the city and the community had to literally rebuild from the ground up. Even in casual conversations with people I met during my time in Kachchh, it was clear that the 2001 earthquake was still a profound element in their collective memory and identity: there was the now-distant pre-earthquake reality, and the current post-earthquake reality.
A woman I met who goes by Hakimaben has lived in a small town outside of Nakhatrana for most of her life, and has witnessed its many transformations, big and small.“What didn’t change after the earthquake?” she says. She tells me that in the rebuilding process, time seemed to fold in on itself, and days quickly turned into weeks. Helping one another recover was the primary concern. There was always a culture of collectivity within each community—families and neighbors always looked after each other—but after the earthquake, the scope of “community” had to be redefined.
Hakimaben says that urban women arrived to their village by car a few months later, something that had never happened before. “We thought they were government intelligence at first,” she says. It took a long time for them to earn each other's trust, but soon these women came together, rural and urban, to begin brainstorming ways to rebuild, to solve new problems, and to address old problems in new ways.
Some other changes they saw were exciting (“ask me about my phone!” Hakimaben says when there is a brief lull in our conversation), some strange and unexpected (a new wedding tradition where the groom arrives by private helicopter). Other women I spoke to told me how they used community radio stations to disseminate disaster relief information and to unite people through song, how they paid for each other's food and health expenses, how they built educational institutions, and how they continually protected each other.
Even though women found strength in their collectivity, it by no means was an easy task. To this day, disasters like the 2001 earthquake remain a source of pain and struggle (“No one should have to endure that,” one woman tells me). Nevertheless, it was lasting proof of what women could accomplish in solidarity with one another.
Change and disruption are felt in different ways: sometimes literally earth shattering, and sometimes just subtly felt instead of seen. Coming to Kachchh in the middle of an environmental disaster required me to embrace uncertainty and change in my own journey as a reporter, but it also allowed me to engage with the complexities of the women’s stories outside the sometimes restrictive, flattening journalistic lens. The women were sometimes optimistic about change, sometimes ambivalent, but rarely showed contempt. Witnessing this change firsthand (or at least a very small part of it), underscored their resilience.