Yet anyone visiting one of the 21 villages in central India erased by Thursday's earthquake, in which more than 30,000 people are feared dead, would have been quickly disabused of the idea that somehow, through philosophy or cruel experience, Indians are not really rattled by death. Doubters should have been in the main square of Sastur village yesterday, with its cracked-domed mosque and its massive neem trees, and heard the women sobbing and keening and gagging, crazy with grief and revulsion, as they squatted beside their relatives' muddy, mangled corpses.
Most disaster reporting tends to focus on the personal story of miraculous survivals: the newborn babies saved from their cribs in the Mexico City quake when a multi-storeyed hospital pancaked down on them; or the brave girl caught in a watery pit in the Colombian mudslide. It is a way of humanising the tragedy and maintaining the comforting illusion that, against all the odds, an individual can survive. We like to think that, caught in a similar calamity, we might be among the lucky ones.
In the Indian earthquake, survival stories have been few. Official estimates say that more than 18,000 homes were destroyed in about 50 villages. There were only 4,800 injured: the figure is low because so few people escaped. In the village of Holi, only 60 of the 4,000 residents survived. The Indian Express newspaper reported: 'As many as 21 villages vanished from the map in a matter of 40 seconds.'
All the bodies I saw hauled from the rubble had been crushed. They were slung in blankets and tossed in the back of a bullock cart with huge muddy wheels. If the dead were Hindu, the carts went to the bonfires whose smoke greased the air. If they were Muslims, the cart was directed to one of a dozen mass graves. The bullocks' horns were gaily painted as though the carts had been used in a carnival before this macabre undertaking.
In most of the worst-hit villages of eastern Maharashtra, the army rescue teams did not arrive until late Friday, a full 36 hours after the shock. In many villages, such as Sastur, Khilari, Holi and Talani, hardly any homes were left standing. All but a handful of people perished. Entire families of 15 members were buried, and there was nobody with the equipment and skill to dig out survivors in the crucial hours after the quake. The first volunteers to arrive were often teenage scouts from neighbouring villages, barefoot and with no tools. They clawed at the debris with their hands; some fled at the sight of the first battered corpse.
By Indian standards, most of the earthquake victims were affluent. They lived not in thatched shacks, but in stone two-storey homes, with portraits of Hindu warriors painted on the doors. Many owned televisions. But when the first violent quake struck at 3:56am, the mixture of mud and lime cementing the walls simply disintegrated, bringing down tons of mud and stones the size of cannonballs on the sleeping victims. Many villagers had been celebrating a festival devoted to the elephant-headed Hindu god, Ganesh, who is supposed to bring good luck. For some, the god did; those revellers still partying beside the Ganesh shrine in Sastur were among the few survivors.
The damage was concentrated in an area only 12 miles in radius. The jolt itself was not so powerful, but the affected villages straddle a big geological fault line known as the Kurduvadi rift. More than 1,000 tremors were recorded last year in Khilari, one of the worst-hit villages, and the government had contingency plans to resettle its residents.
Until one sees the devastated villages, there are no signs that a strong earthquake has occurred. Roads are uncracked, trees are firmly rooted, and some villages away from the fault zone are unaffected. It looks as though the earthquake moved on a great pogostick, landing on some villages and smashing them into mounds of rubble, and leaving others perfectly intact.
By Friday afternoon, long army convoys began to snake into the devastated areas, carrying bulldozers, medical teams, tents and 25,000 soldiers equipped with picks and shovels. A late thunderstorm hampered rescue operations, and officials said the chances of finding people alive in the oozing rubble were getting slimmer every minute. More fierce rains were expected over the weekend. The thundershowers were so severe they even doused the huge funeral bonfires in villages where up to 30 Hindu dead at a time were being cremated.
The tragedy was so overwhelming that it has stilled the sectarian hatred which, over the past two years, has been simmering between Hindus and Muslims. Volunteers from Hindu extremist groups were in Sastur clearing away fallen beams from a house. One youth in khaki shorts said: 'It doesn't matter to me whether this house belongs to a Hindu or a Muslim. Whoever it is, they need our help.'
Earlier this year, members of this same militant Hindu group were attacking Muslims in Bombay with swords and firebombs.
Yesterday another, milder quake occurred. Registering six on the Richter scale, its epicentre was 60 miles from Thursday's tremors. Nevertheless, the shockwaves helped to persuade many survivors of the first quake not to return to their villages. They are camping in open country.
S B Chavan, the Home Minister, who toured several villages, said: 'A psychosis has gripped the people in the earthquake area. People rush out at the slightest tremor.'
The Indian government says it needs pounds 22m to cover rescue costs. It has alloted more than pounds 1m for emergency relief and has promised to feed and lodge refugees for at least a month. France, Japan, Australia, the United States and Britain have offered help, and in the UK Oxfam has launched an appeal to raise pounds 200,000.
Dr Manmohan Singh, the Minister of Finance, described the quake as 'the worst tragedy since independence'. In a country that has seen as much tragedy as India, those words were not spoken lightly.