GANDHINAGAR, India — Frightened by a soothsayer's forecast, Indians by the hundreds of thousands slept out under the stars Saturday, worried that yet another earthquake would catch them and kill them in their homes.
The quake that struck Jan. 26, which was among the most lethal in India's history, claimed at least 16,403 lives in the west of the country, left an estimated 600,000 homeless and caused more than $4.5 billion in property loss.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday February 9, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
India quake--The name of a Virginia city was misspelled in a Sunday story about the aftermath of the Jan. 26 earthquake in India. It's Culpeper.
But there also has been an invisible sort of damage for countless Indians: mental trauma and gnawing fear of what could happen next.
Sidi Valodara, an errand runner in a government office, was one of thousands in recent days in Gandhinagar, the capital of Gujarat state, who moved their families outdoors, where they sleep under a gauzy cotton awning.
"I've heard about these predictions of another quake, and I am very scared," said Valodara, 46. "I am not going back inside."
Police arrested Ambalal Patel, the amateur Hindu astrologer whose star-reading has caused such anxiety, and charged him with violating Section 505 of the Indian Penal Code, which makes it a crime to spread a rumor that causes panic. If convicted, Patel could spend three years in prison.
"This man has created a lot of agony," Endala Radhakrishna, the senior police superintendent in Gandhinagar, charged. "Lakhs [hundreds of thousands] of people are sleeping outside because of his predictions.
"The law doesn't accept the stars or any other sort of superstitions he may have," Radhakrishna said.
Patel, freed after paying the equivalent of $110 in bail, denied any wrongdoing, appeared bewildered by the controversy and is clearly frightened of what people might do to him if his forecast proves incorrect.
In the larger picture, though, the reaction to the astrologer's prediction was proof of what Radhakrishna called the "fear psychosis" that has gripped millions since the earthquake.
There are prevalent, and apparently groundless, rumors in some parts of Gujarat of volcanic eruptions, the Times of India reported Saturday. On some days, according to government geologists, the number of aftershocks registered has been between 100 and 150, further fueling public alarm.
"People are very scared, very affected. In psychology, we call this a traumatizing experience," said Kamayani Mathur, professor of clinical psychology at Gujarat University in Ahmadabad. "The government needs to open many counseling centers where they can counsel the masses. And that is what nobody is doing now."
Fear of another quake has become so endemic, Mathur said, that in many Gujarati towns and villages, children have learned a new game. They run down the street shouting "It's coming! It's coming!" then watch and laugh as people flee their homes.
In Ahmadabad, where an estimated 1,500 people were killed eight days earlier by collapsing apartment houses and other buildings, merchants by the hundreds pulled down their steel shutters Saturday on the chance that Patel had read the heavens correctly.
In the morning, streets that normally teem with traffic were virtually empty in the city of 4 million, Gujarat's largest. Some factories, including a plant that makes pump parts for a Culpepper, Va., company, were forced to close for the day because workers refused to show up. Many people left the city for their native villages, believing that they would be safer.
Others camped out in parks and other open stretches of ground, building bonfires to ward off the chill at night, when temperatures can drop to about 50 degrees, and intoning Hindu hymns and prayers. The more well-to-do had the option of sleeping in their cars.
Authorities did what they could to dispel the fear, but their soothing words seemed to have little effect. "Earthquakes cannot be predicted, and such predictions have no scientific value," N. P. Chaudhuri, deputy director of the Geological Survey of India, said in a newspaper interview published Saturday.
"He may be right, but we are scared," was the wary comment of Valodara.
Like hundreds of families in the Sector 17 neighborhood of Gandhinagar, Valodara and his wife, Babbu, 42, lugged their beds outside and now cook their meals over campfires.
On a dusty lot in front of their brick and concrete house, the couple have been joined by two sons, their wives and two grandchildren. In his modest two-room home, Valodara, a government employee, can point to large cracks in the ceiling and beneath a window caused by the quake. Three people were killed in Gandhinagar, a city of 200,000.
"Everybody is so frightened," said Manoj Solanki, 30, a neighbor who brought his bed next to the Valodaras'. "Until today, people would enter their houses a few times during the day, but since this morning everybody is so scared, they haven't gone near them."
Patel's cachet has become enormous because, on Dec. 30, in the Gujarati-language daily Sandesh, the self-taught astrologer foretold an earthquake in west-central India on Jan. 10, 12, 17, 23 or 25.