One Man’s Return to Nepal: Mourning 17 Relatives

The remains of the house of the family of Bishnu Man Pradhan, after the April 25 earthquake. (Photo by Anuz Thapa for Voices of NY)

The remains of the house of the family of Bishnu Man Pradhan, after the April 25 earthquake. (Photo by Anuz Thapa for Voices of NY)

When Bishnu Man Pradhan returned to New York after nearly four months in Nepal and reached his home in Jackson Heights, Queens, his 3-year-old son hugged him tightly and said, “Daddy, I missed you.”

“I couldn’t control myself and broke down in tears,” said Pradhan, who had been separated from his son, Bishlex, for more than two months.

“I always thought my son was closer to his mother than he was to me. But in that instant I realized how badly he had been missing me,” said Pradhan. “I can’t express in words what I felt when he embraced me.”

A permanent U.S. resident, Pradhan, 37, had left immediately for Nepal following the April 25 earthquake that devastated his country. For Pradhan, the tragedy was overwhelming: He lost 17 members of his family in Kathmandu. Pradhan’s wife Shruti, and Bishlex, accompanied him to Nepal, but returned within a month. For Pradhan, there was much work to be done.

A Hindu celebration interrupted

On the morning of April 25, Pradhan’s 62-year-old mother was preparing for “Saptaha Puja” in her three-and-a-half storied home in Chamati, a small locality in the city of Kathmandu. This week-long Hindu celebration of a deity is usually performed in a large group with family members and neighbors ­– although on this first day of the puja, no neighbors were present.

The temporary structure built for the Saptaha Puja held at the Pradhan family home in Kathmandu on April 25, the day of the earthquake. (Photo courtesy of Vishnu Man Pradhan)

The temporary structure built for the Saptaha Puja held at the Pradhan family home in Kathmandu on April 25, the day of the earthquake. (Photo courtesy of Bishnu Man Pradhan)

All the close family members were invited on that day to attend the puja and most relatives had already arrived.

The puja was scheduled to start officially at 11:57 a.m., the time that the family’s priest had suggested was the most auspicious to begin. But at 11:56 a.m. local time, a strong earthquake of 7.8 magnitude struck, instantly claiming the lives of 17 of Pradhan’s family members.

The house, built 12 years ago, completely collapsed like a pack of cards. Twenty-one other people also attending the puja were rescued from the rubble with injuries.

Bishnu lost his closest ones: his mother, brother, elder sister, mother’s parents, mother’s three sisters, his father’s sister, his younger sister’s 4-year-old daughter. In addition to these 10, another seven more distant relatives perished as the house fell on them.

After the disaster struck, news of the quake traveled fast. Like all the Nepalese abroad, Pradhan, who has lived in New York for seven years, was panicked. After hours of trying to get in touch with his family in Nepal, he got to speak to his father-in-law.

Bishnu Man Pradhan's family home in Kathmandu prior to the earthquake (Photo courtesy of Bishnu Man Pradhan)

Bishnu Man Pradhan’s family home in Kathmandu prior to the earthquake (Photo courtesy of Bishnu Man Pradhan)

He wasn’t prepared for the news from his father-in-law, “We are sorry, your mother is no more. Your house has collapsed in the earthquake.”

“My mother wanted me to join them for the puja but I didn’t go because I was planning to go for Dashain (the main festival of Hindus which falls in the month of September-October and is celebrated for a period of 10 days). Plus, the other reason was, Shruti had just started her new job here,” recalled Pradhan.

Days in Nepal

Pradhan rushed to Nepal with Shruti and Bishlex.

They reached Nepal on April 29. “I was in complete shock to see the damage it had done to the house we built. I was numb,” said Pradhan.

His father, sister-in-law and younger sister were waiting for him to lead the funeral rites for his deceased mother. As the only surviving son, that task fell to him.

“I never thought I would not see my mother alive.” He added, “She was planning for that puja for quite a long while… She was so eager to meet Bishlex, but I couldn’t fulfill her wish.”

Bishlex was born in the U.S. in 2012 and had never been to Nepal prior to that. The only means of communication with his grandmother had been through Skype and phone.

Now, while in Nepal, Bishlex was faced with separation from his parents.

“Both of us left him with my parents and brother, people he barely knew, for days. There was no way we could have him stay with us during the rituals,” said Shruti.

In Hindu culture, a ritual of 13 days’ duration is performed in honor of the deceased.

It is a time when immediate family members of the deceased mourn together. They live either in a temple or in a house to offer prayers to the departed soul. The belief is they shouldn’t be touched by others outside the family.

This practice is called “Kriyaputri” in Nepal. All the male members have their heads shaved on the first day of mourning.

The bereaved family performing the Hindu ritual to honor the deceased on the 13th day following their death. (Photo courtesy of Bishnu Man Pradhan)

The bereaved family performing the Hindu ritual to honor the deceased on the 13th day following their death. (Photo courtesy of Bishnu Man Pradhan)

They eat only once a day, generally rice. They aren’t allowed to use salt or spices on their food. Cooking and eating vegetables and meat is not allowed in this period. This is the reason why their son, Bishlex, couldn’t stay with his parents during their mourning days.

The mourning period starts from the day of the death, and the 13th day marks its end. On this day, the priest says prayers for the eternal peace of the departed souls. In the name of the deceased, basic necessities required for a person – bed, mattress, clothes, fruits, vegetables, rice – are donated to the priest.

For Pradhan and his wife and son, there were trials beyond coping with deaths in the family. Bishlex contracted some infections and had diarrhea, while Shruti got food poisoning and had to be hospitalized.

Like everyone else, they had been living outdoors, using tents. People all across Nepal were living in difficult conditions and many were tense and fearful. Relief and rescue efforts were being conducted on a great scale. But at the same time, the count of the number of people found trapped and dead under the rubble rose every day.

Considering the deteriorating situation, on June 2, 2015, Shruti and Bishlex flew back to New York.

While they were away Pradhan was fully occupied with the task of clearing the rubble. With the help of a few laborers, he had the rubble removed. This took him two-and-a-half months. After spending nearly a month living in a tent, he moved out to live with his uncle.

People clearing the rubble at Pradhan's family home in Kathmandu (Photo courtesy of Vishnu Man Pradhan)

People clearing the rubble at Pradhan’s family home in Kathmandu (Photo courtesy of Bishnu Man Pradhan)

He spent his days registering the deaths of his family members. Then he started searching for a residence for his surviving father, sister-in-law and her two daughters.

Meanwhile, back in New York, Bishlex was missing his father. He had some clues about the earthquake and had a sense that he had lost his grandmother.

Shruti had to return to her job at Monroe College in New Rochelle, so she had admitted Bishlex at a day care center nearby where the family lives – Christ Church and Child Care Center in Woodside, Queens.

Bishlex's drawings for his father (Photo by Anuz Thapa for Voices of NY)

Bishlex’s drawings for his father (Photo by Anuz Thapa for Voices of NY)

“Teachers at the day care said that Bishlex had told them how the earth shook in Nepal and that he had lost his grandma. He got everyone emotional sharing his stories there.” Shruti also shared an incident from the recent Father’s Day celebration at the center. “After he finished his performance, he didn’t get off the stage. He was looking for his father in the crowd to come up and take him down. It was difficult to convince him that day.”

She uttered, “From that day on, he would always bring drawings and his works so that he would show them to his father on his return from Nepal.” Pointing at the wall on her left, in their living room, she continued, “There they are, the paintings for his daddy.”

GoFundMe account created

On April 29, 2015, Pradhan’s long time friend Amy Wanggaard Hausmann created a GoFundMe account. “I wanted to help Bishnu in every possible way I can so I set up this account,” explained Amy.

Bishlex and his father on Pradhan's retune on August 14 (Photo by Anuz Thapa for Voices of NY)

Bishlex and his father on Pradhan’s retune on Aug. 14 (Photo by Anuz Thapa for Voices of NY)

She has known Pradhan for more than a decade and they share a great bond with each other. “Bishnu has always been a part of my family and his loss is irreparable,” she said via telephone.

The GoFundMe account had a target to raise $10,000 but it has already raised more than $15,000. “We will still let the account run because we want to have more,” she informed.

Road ahead

Pradhan returned to New York on Aug. 14.

Before the earthquake, his brother took care of his family in Nepal. But now, things have changed. Full responsibility has come onto his shoulders.

Now, in addition to his wife and son here in New York, Pradhan has to take care of his father, sister-in-law and her two daughters – a 5-year-old and an 11-year-old ­– in Nepal. Just before flying back, he rented an apartment for them in Kathmandu.

“I am trying to figure out how I am going to handle this situation,” he said in a low-toned voice.

Shruti and Bishlex (Photo by Anuz Thapa for Voices of NY)

Shruti and Bishlex (Photo by Anuz Thapa for Voices of NY)

Bishnu works as a travel agent for Travel House Nepal in Jackson Heights, which gave him leave to deal with the great personal tragedy with which he has had to cope.

During the past few months, he has received both financial and moral support from the Nepalese community in New York. Some of the members of Non-Resident Nepali Association (USA) have also made financial contributions to his family.

All the Nepalese here have been emotionally affected by the earthquake. They are supporting their friends and family members in Nepal right now. In the days immediately after the earthquake, they actively raised funds for victims of the earthquake. The money was sent to local and national organizations working for the survivors.

“I have always heard news about families being killed in natural disasters like landslides, floods. I never thought about what the bereaved family might go through. But now I can feel their grief,” he said.

According to the Nepal Disaster Risk Reduction Portal, the devastating earthquake and its aftershocks had claimed 8,712 lives and injured 22,220 by Aug. 28, 2015.

“This natural calamity affected everyone equally – rich or poor,” said Shruti. “I think it has showed us the way to move ahead together. This has brought everyone closer.”

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