MSAS Seminar: Thirty seconds at Quetta: Time and disaster on the North-West Frontier, 1935

Chair: Kate Sullivan de Estrada

Speaker: Dan Haines (UCL)

One May morning in 1935 the garrison town of Quetta, on India’s North-Western Frontier, was sleeping. At 03:03 a.m., an earthquake shook the city. Perhaps 30,000 people were killed, and as many again evacuated over the next two weeks. Central to public debate on the earthquake was the figure of time: the idea that the earthquake had arrived suddenly and destroyed the city in less than a minute. This paper asks why that idea arose and why it endured. It argues that the figure of time was central to government narratives because it presented the earthquake as a sudden ‘natural’ disaster. But anti-colonial nationalists and others also talked about the earthquake as unexpected and terribly swift. Drawing on historical methodology and concepts from interdisciplinary disaster risk reduction studies, the paper argues that earthquake narratives deeper questions about the relationship between people and the natural environment in late-colonial India.

Dan is an environmental historian of South Asia, focusing mostly on India and Pakistan. He currently works on the politics and culture of natural hazards and is writing a book about the 1935 earthquake at Quetta, Balochistan. He previously wrote about the Indus River system – whether damming it (his first book, Building the Empire, Building the Nation) or sharing its waters between India and Pakistan (his second book, Rivers Divided). He recently finished a two-year secondment to the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. He once did science to a glacier by hitting it with an ice pick.