Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Yeh hai Bombay meri jaan!!

Dilip D'Souza in the HT on 17th July.

Bandra, where I live, is considered Bombay’s ‘first’ suburb. When I get to the Bandra train station, it’s unnaturally, almost eerily quiet. Lots of people, but so quiet. Yet today, the eeriness itself seems entirely natural. That kind of day, kind of bomb-blighted day. Platforms are swept clear of the usual throngs of rush-hour, public address speakers blare monotonous announcements about blasts — no trains, please stay calm and cooperate with the authorities.

I walk down to the southern end of the platform, where it’s dark, and immediately find hands reaching up to me from the tracks two feet below. Long lines of men and women off the trains that have stopped south of here, walking home along the tracks through the rain, asking me to help them onto the platform. One man hauls himself up, then tells me in inimitable Bombay Hindi: “Bahut log marela!” (Many people dead!) The walk south along the tracks is wet and slippery. Plenty of obstacles that I can only sense in this dark. Snatches of never-before conversation — blast at Khar, no at Santa Cruz. None at Churchgate. Many dead, many dead. One train at Borivli, right?

Just short of Mahim, the station that’s a mile-and-a-half away, a train has stopped on the track I’m treading, long, dark and undamaged. A hundred yards on, another train, and the buzz I’m now beginning to hear — amid huge crowds on the footbridge above and on the side of the tracks in front — tells me that this is the one. The train with the blast.

Sure enough, the first-class compartment in the middle of the train looks like someone buckled down to work on it with a blunt can-opener. It’s just twisted metal now, but I flinch at merely looking at it. Suketu Mehta wrote once, and famously, of hands unfurling like petals from a packed Bombay train compartment, reaching out to whisk just that one more commuter on board. From this train — still and dark in Mahim — the metal of the train itself unfurls like grotesque petals.

I see no hands.

I’ve travelled in these very compartments, at this very rush hour, hundreds of times. I know how people hang from every inch. What happens to people pressed in like that when a bomb like that goes off in their midst?

Gawkers everywhere. Some squatting on the concrete wall beside the road, some attached — permanently? — to the fence beside the track; others like me just standing on the stones with filth every where. At the jagged hole in the train, no more than 10 or 15 yards away now, a huddle of men. Their demeanour suggests that they are bringing out a body. They don’t, but one suddenly breaks from the huddle and rushes at us gawkers with a long stick. Get going, go on, get out of here, what’re you looking at! What are we looking at, really?

Another huddler steps over and suggests that instead of standing around watching, we might go donate blood at nearby hospitals.

The rain is now a lashing torrent, the traffic on the road outside a confused mess trying to negotiate through the crowds. Sirens again in the distance.

Every time a bus comes through, a part of the crowd coalesces into a coordinated shouting whole, thumping on the side of the bus for it to stop, urging stranded women commuters — only the women, for now — in. Down the road, another band of men stop taxis and cars similarly; in one case, they actually roll a small white car backwards, pushing that hard. Some serious and heated negotiation with the driver later, a few women fold themselves into the back and it moves on. Shopkeeper watching this from the sidewalk tells me, the police should be here doing this, organising buses to take people home. Instead the public — one more of those Bombay words, ‘public’ — is doing it themselves.

Young man in front of me suddenly opens his umbrella, and a sharp point from its canopy catches me painfully on my lip. For a moment, I could swear that’s blood flowing off my chin; then I understand it’s just rain.

Blood on my mind tonight. Sirens in my ear.

Further still, there are lights and announcements from a brightly-lit tent on the other side of the road. When I cross, two young men press glasses of water into my hands. I drink one down gratefully, conscious that I’m hardly a man in need here. They tell me, how far do you have to go, friend? If home is a long distance away, stop and have a bite to eat first. Pointing at the tent. This is a youth group — the Sai Seva Mitra Mandal — from a slum pocket along this stretch of road, whose sign I have passed for years without a second thought. Here they are in this driving rain, not two hours after this ghastly tragedy unfolded, organised with water, food, tables and a tent, all for fellow citizens left with no choice but to walk the long miles home.

People talk a lot about the spirit of Bombay. At this spot, I see it, I feel it, I drink it down, here with this young man scanning my unscarred face anxiously. I’m OK, I tell him, minor lump in my throat. Thank you so much.

Much slogging through the rain later, I am at the hospital. Three ambulances scream ahead of me, then the gates close and several cops are on guard out side, with a larger circle of people outside them. I push through and ask one uniform, can I go in and donate blood? Polite yet firm, he tells me, not now, please stand over there, we’ll come get you if we need blood, for now please don’t make things more difficult.

I hear him. Two reporters tell me, 22 bodies here, number can go up! Woman steps up and addresses the crowd, they’re taking blood at Holy Family Hospital nearby, why don’t you all go over there? Five or six men peel away from the crowd — unaccountably, I’m reminded again of petals — and walk on with her and me. She says, “I’m from a family of doctors, I went and told those cops I could be of help to any women victims who need to be changed or something. But they wouldn’t let me in. At least I can give blood.” Rickshaw driver offers to take us to the hospital. Two of the men pile in, then beckon to the woman. “Won’t you come along,” she says to me in a frantic whisper. “I can’t go in there alone!” She doesn’t know me from Adam, this woman. But before I can reply, the driver senses her unease and says, “Come along sister, nothing to worry about; look, you sit in front with me!” We pile in and we’re off. “I know you,” says the woman, turning to me. “Aren’t our sons in the same class at school?” (She does know me from Adam). The driver tells us all, “I brought four bodies in this rickshaw.” At Holy Family, he refuses any money. After ferrying bodies, and in this time, I suppose money means little.

The lot of us, dripping water on the hospital’s spotless floors, stride up to the blood bank. There’s time to get the names: Binaifer the woman, Shoukat the driver, Tabrez, Maaz, Anil, Nawaz and Ravi. We have, ladies and gentlemen, sound the trumpets, a Hindu, a Christian, four Muslims, a Parsi and an agnostic (me). All here to give blood for faceless fellow humans. (Not my blood, eventually, because I donated just two months ago). It really shouldn’t, but it touches me somewhere deep. There’s a sudden small commotion in the corridor. Man in bloodied shorts on a stretcher, wheeled swiftly into the ICU by plastic-aproned nurses.

Outside as I walk home, the rain eases. The memories don’t.