July the 13th was the mid-week day when it was raining, ideally I’d have loved to loll in bed, relax, let the day spill over at its pace. Instead I was at work, just after a nice break-Goa in the rains. I really wanted another holiday to get over this. But work had beckoned. Since things were moving smoothly i thought of meeting a source over coffee. He was to tell me about some political developments & a lot of internal Cong-NCP gossip…which I loved the most.
I liked the idea of stepping out in that weather and a hot cup of chaai or coffee. Passed many a signal, checked with sources & friends if all was ok.
A few minutes later & in the middle of the road my cellphone rang. I checked the name & it was our building’s in-house tailor. My first thoughts were, “now whom has he fought with. He had taken the number of the construction contractor in the morning, I’m not getting into any controversies….” And his first words were.
“Tai please check. There is some big explosion at Panchratna building. Do you know our building also trembled, don’t worry, aai-baba are safe. You check the people have gone beserk, send your team, I’m told it’s a bomb blast.” I called my friend, my deputy who I was to meet, she had also heard, she said, “Wait Neeta I’m checking.” And I told her of my conversation with the tailor. In few minutes Delhi office had called, saying, “Neeta move it fast there is a serial blast attack on Mumbai.”
I got out of the car, sent it for my deputy, crossed the road & took a taxi to Mahalaxmi station. Every second was vital. Co-ordinating for reporters, their deployment, shuttling between calls from office, deputy & team, while the head office wanted lives, phonos. Sometimes we have to choose… skip lives (willingly) or simply coordinate, which is more important.
The local train has its huge downers, there are call drops for sure at Lower Parel, Mahalaxmi, Charni road & that’s where I was headed. I admit at no time did I call home & inquire are they ok. The tailor had informed & I was confident. Because he is on the ground floor, while we live on the 2nd floor. My aai-baba too were sure I’d be at the spot.
As I got off the train giving a phono, I climbed the foot over bridge, dodging scores of men. I was avoiding mass of humanity while being milimetres away from falling on the tracks -another phobia. As i climbed atop the FOB, I saw 2 frail girls surrounded by a crowds. My defense mechanisms came to fore. A crowd had gathered around & a constable was yelling trying to shove them away. “Baju, chala gardi karu naka,. Chala, hata…” I saw one was sobbing. I stopped took them aside & asked the cause, whether anyone close was at the blast site, why was she crying. The one crying told me, “My father is injured & I don’t which hospital he has been sent to…papa & she was uncontrollable.” I admit I tried to smartly switch on my BB recorder but then my conscience prevented me. It was work, first victim relative…but first I needed to get her help.
I told her I’m a journalist & will take her to the police to help her find her father. Meanwhile there were countless calls from work, deputy who hadn’t got the unit till then. Concerned friends & relatives whose calls i either missed or cut. In interim my cell wasn’t accessible to countless. In all this I was being asked by office to stay on lives. It was crazy to say the least.
Finally after a few bystanders heard the girl’s sobs & seeing my perseverance they assured me they will take her home. “Madam aap jaiye, chinta mat karo. We will take her to her house, we are all from diamond market. You go, it is late & she shouldn’t be staying out late. Waise bhi she doesn’t know which hospital her father is in.” Practical attitude & true too. It was getting to be night & the girl’s safety was important. I relented & they all left with the sea of humanity. Many ate while going, many shaking their heads, shouting into their cell phones, while most grim- “thank god, it could have been me.”
I brushed away these thoughts & looked below through the grills. 1000s & I’m NOT exaggerating 1000s were outside Saifee hospital. It was madness around me. Scores walking up the stairs, I was doing phono & a girl screaming into my ears, “madam walk fast, let me go, you are obstructing my path.” She looked irritated & pissed off at me the slow coach, while every human was glued to their cell phones. “Ye sambhal ne, boamb blast thayo,” another few saying “This Kasab should be hanged. Bastard is living off our taxes, MC, BC….kill him” I was descending the stairs of the FOB & saw another 10000….I stood still. What was happening? How can anybody get any help or rescued? Why are people waiting in such large numbers? I feared a backlash…you never know how fragile people’s emotions & patience in such drastic situations are. I hastened my pace to the diamond market…
By then I had disconnected 2 calls from my sister who has come down with her children from USA. Suddenly I recollected the daughter had sat up with me in 2006 when the serial blasts on Mumbai’s local trains had taken place. I had finished filing stories & returned home late at night. What memories of my dear city, Bombay, this girl will be carrying!
In the meantime the news that the Mumbai’s blasts were serial in nature began to sink inside my brain, walking to the spot i stood still for a second. One of the blasts has exploded right behind my house! This piece of news reached across the globe & there were calls, smsz & frantic queries, later saw many emails -all unanswered till midnight & beyond. I am genuinely sorry, I really had NO time to address them. I reached the spot & by then I was drenched. It was back to Reporting news live, my reality.
Many people laughed at media & have been since that day. Especially when the diamond traders see us. But believe me many families were scared to bits, they were frightened as memories of 26/11 began to haunt them. They were all glued to TV channels to see & listen to information or news. People were clueless about their loved ones.
The diamond market was still open? The people had stayed on late, they were helping each other, and i don’t know why many were simply hanging around…Then few rushed to tell me, some had even lost their diamonds. Well, that’s the first thing I heard from some of them as they saw me with a boom mike. Some among them were present to speak to the media, committee members of the Diamond merchant’s assn.
The blast reporting was pathetic, honestly. We were trampled upon, pushed, shoved in all places. I don’t even want to recollect, to be honest. And the next jolt was a bunch of police who just literally picked us & threw us aside. “Hata chala baju,” & we media were all over the ground. The commissioner of police Aroop Patnaik had arrived. My feet were covered with slush & mud. I am sorry that did irk me. I realised I didn’t want to be pushed. Asked my junior to take over. The whole bureau was on its feet, right from the office attendant to driver. Each chipping in for the other. One who had come at 8.00am for lives had gone home to Thane & returned without me even asking him to do so… this makes a helluva of difference in team spirit. In addition, he is very tall, so he can tower over others to put the boom mike in front of the authorities, unlike me.
As I saw the ambulances rush past us, the sounds of sirens, frenzy of people, I glanced sternly at the location. I knew every nook & corner of my backyard. Opera House, the Diamond Merchants’ Association Chowk. The innumerable illegal encroachments, structural changes, the hawkers who make lakhs a month, but who also pay thousands as hafta every week. This is known to be ‘khau gully-is actually a time bomb.’ True to its name, the ‘eating lane/food lane.’
One must see these lanes after the day’s business is over. Its atrocious. DISGUSTING. Piles of garbage, sewage water flowing, heaps of food wrappers, papers, kachra, left overs of food, rotted food samples, stench, stink, galore. We residents around this place have stopped plying on this road since long. This lane connects the Jagannath Shankersheth Road (Girgaum road) to the Maharishi Karve Road, where the Roxy building, Panchratna is. The blast occurred in the middle of the road, the connecting lane between these 2 main roads. A wagon R had come & stopped which actually cut the impact of the blast, else many more would have died.The picture here has been sent by a resident from his cellphone to me. The impact is visible.
On any given day, thousands of men stand there molesting you with their vision, not a milimetre space to walk on. We residents, since 1984, the time when the Diamond market began had STOPPED using it. Walking late at night is absolutely out of question, because a hotel Regent Palace, too came up, at around the same time as the diamond market. Shady stories, which have turned out to be true, even police asked us residents to avoid it. This lane was always a good short cut when we’d walk from Charni road station to our house, which is approx 12 minutes easy walking.
That freedom of a short-cut we lost in 1984. Since then the city Bombay not only changed to Mumbai….with her re-naming, changed her destiny. In 1992 the whole city underwent overhaul change, the post-Babri Masjid demolition riots. Till then the life around the station was alive n kickin, as they’d say. People hung around the stations. The riots impacted our areas big time. Then again in 1993, thanks to the bomb blasts, my city was completely anew, rather strange. Since then, travelling late at night is one issue, moreover walking from Charni road station to our lane, altogether another issue. We have all stopped the latter, former I’m still used to.
In fact changes are random & unplanned. All connected to the whole picture. Post blasts, one fine day we suddenly saw a police chowky in this lane. 5 metres away from the blast spot, hardly a relief, to be really honest. It was sold one fine day by these very stupid diamond merchants, to, well another food stall -Jumbo vada paav stall. I mean this is how serious citizens are about security. This is how the diamond merchants’ association cares for its area or market? It is ridiculous, honestly. All hands-in-glove.
The point is walking on your streets is always good, especially for a journalist or social scientist or observer. We need to observe the various changes –geographical, city’s horizon, physical, social, dynamics, etc. When you see things closely a lot falls in place. People’s attitude, behaviours, everything. The larger picture is clearer to you, though it also makes you a skeptic. Even then, these small changes are what add to the whole issue-could blasts have been avoided here…at least?
Till 1992-93, the doodhwala bhaiyas, (milkmen), bakers, shopkeepers, workers, all would be up till midnight & beyond. Old time cafe’s, chaai stalls would be open. The streets were busy & lights from homes, shops would be seen till wee hours in the morning. Here was a bustling life, in the city’s oldest areas, like we have read in Charles Dickens’ dark books of London. Such was Bombay. After that in a flick of a second all disappeared.
Right behind the spot where this blast has occurred at opera House, was a butcher’s shop-strategically located. I think the city’s first if not the country’s first butchery loated adjacent to a Hindu temple. Both peacefully remained next to each other sharing a common wall. While we’d visit the Datta mandir, we’d see mutton & lamb pieces hanging. It was fascinating, believe me. This was one place in my city that reinstated hope -respect for eating meat, spiritualism, whatever you may call it. But the man, Mohammaedbhai was a Muslim. Guess that was his only mistake? His shop would surely have got attacked & Mohammadbhai’s life was at stake. He feared for his life in 1992 & eventually sold it. There vanished our only world famous in Girgaum’s true Indian landmark.
Today after the blast occurred behind this butcher-temple wall, that night these memories rushed back. The horizon of my locality had changed, and drastically. The demographics & social dynamics have undergone overhaul change. Its more non-Maharashtrian, nouveau rich, old shops & landmarks missing. Most of the diamond traders may have once lived here, but now have moved to far off western suburbs. Worse still among those who mostly died in these blasts, i’m again saying MOSTLY, are poor workers or assorters. The few diamond merchants hurt & dead i am tremendously sorry for, because such a violent death NOBODY deserves. It is sad…but the reason i’m highlighting the changes is with every violent attack the city’s demographics are changing, worse still the city’s social thread is weakening, ghettos are increasing & sadly we don’t have true intellectuals, writers, really interested people documenting it. I lament at this indifference or is it plain ignorance? but this is real history, which is not being documented. what will the next generations learn, know? or is it best they don’t?
And as a result of these dynamics, changing demographics i strongly feel we are seeing high level of indifference among our citizens. Get away from trouble, rush to a safe haven -home, or office. Others’ problems are theirs, NOT ours. We have to travel long distances, any emergency just leave pronto, we are compelled to return to work the next day…life is the same. This is NO resilience, pl cut the crap. This is the rushed, practical, escape route Mumbaikars have been forced to accept. Else they’d all get senile. Here, in Opera House area either they live in high expenses or spooky houses, though excellently connected. Else they sell these holes to get more money, travel more & bear the brunt. It is same shit.
Some diamondwalas recognised me coz one or 2 had video librearies there, …we have lived here for 3 generations…people are aware. They called out to give me information & leads.They all have cctv cameras. Panchratna has immense surveillance, what happened? who could it have been? I ask too many questions said my source, as he rushed to leave.
The first near-collision happened with Aroop Patnaik’s visit. We media forced him to talk. By then we heard there was chaos at all the hospitals. News teams were being turned away out of fear.Don’t ask, by then the abdomen downwards seemed like it was a different body part, while upper torso different. Before one could lament about the pain, reality struck hard, the ministers began coming to the blast sites. Yes, terror tourism, but of a VIP sort. Isn’t it a dichotomy? If the ministers don’t visit the blast we-people & media-are the first to criticise, they don’t care, if they do visit, yet they are criticised. Well, the PM & Cong High command Sonia Gandhi escaped this criticism they didn’t disrupt the cordon at the sites. They simply visited the hospitals.
However, believe me, it as one of the worst times for blasts to take place. The rains were playing havoc. It had been pouring the whole day, some places there was water-logging, traffic snarls, slow trains. Besides juggling units, our cameras failed, they had got wet. We had to manage, somehow. That’s when we heard of the PM, SG were to visit next day. We were drenched & numb by then. You become numb to all sensations…or may be i’m hardened after over 22 years. Yes, seeing brains splintered, blood spilling all of it nearly on a daily basis in various encounters & shoot outs, it’s normal life like a doctor. I don’t have to go to a war zone, seen of it enough on Mumbai’s streets.. and it is now tiring. Just as we were winding up i was told wait the Home Minister is coming…NOT RR Patil but P Chidambaram…while the news of a presser by CM was also announced.
However, before PC’s visit I had to make a round to Zaveri Bazar, the 3rd spot for blasts. In fact this place has been targeted thrice since 1993. They say the ‘terrorist’ attacker never returns to the same spot once their act is over. The how is it that since 1993, Zaveri bazaar has been under attack? Is it likely that the 1st 2 times the attacks were genuine –coz 1993 was a lesson some extreme Muslims wanted to teach Bombay a lesson for the riots. 2nd time to send strong message…
Then a 3rd could be deliberate by the rival extreme right wing? Could it be it was instigated? I don’t have answers, but this has been eating my brains since the car meandered in that direction. All quiet, eerie. NOT even a black dog on the street… but all my sensibilities were shattered. Yucks. The stench, the bloody muck, amount of garbage threw me off balance..i nearly threw up. People died here! It was worse than Opera House. It was horrendous…to say the least.
And to top it, this too is a known khau gully? Disgusting. People live here, the uncleared public garbage cans, i’m not exaggerating the families of victims are glad NOT to have seen the blast site. I’m rattled & yet to recover from the sight of the surroundings…such appalling low levels of hygiene… and then next we see DCM Ajit Pawar had arrived. He spoke of rumours & in his roaring voice issued caution to stop rumour mongering & allowing authorities to do their work. VIP visits had begun.
By that time my knees had given way. My head being ducked, my neck was being pushed into another girl’s hair..she may have got ideas about me…sorry…and worse still pushy cameramen pushing themselves behind me…eeks…its sickening…
The next we heard was PC had come round the corner, my eyes kept going to my blackened feet. I was feeling sick. Suddenly fleet of cars, police of all sorts were there & barricades were put. PC graced the occasion & RR followed marching behind him…we were ofcourse jostled batons shoved into our stomachs. We, the media are a bigger threat na. Then IPS Naval Bajaj came & gently reminded us the next day was pr conf of the HM PC so get lost…politely…but we have our work, and we have our bosses.
PC & RR left, while CP Patnaik took the class of the police present. After he left for brief 10 seconds for the 1st time we journalists -1.40am, got time to breathe. And just then we had our journalistic gossip, bitching session. We also need to remain sane…where is the drama queen of Indian TV?? I asked?? Was told by other young female reporters including her juniors. “These blasts aren’t so imp enough..”” ohhh…PC, RR went…heard late night meeting… this was all at 1.00am.
Don’t ask, by then my whole unit, OB team was starved, including me. It was nearly 2.00am & we last ate something at lunch time! we pooled together some snacks we all had since morning- nice biscuits, 1 calzone, some farsan between 7 of us at 2.00am! All shops shut, hunger, thirst…worse still my bladder had crossed all limits of patience. Since over 5 hours i had got no clean, decent toilet to go & wee. The WORST thing that we women reporters have faced. Technology has advanced, but toilet reality hasn’t changed in India. A woman just won’t get a decent, hygienic toilet.
I rushed home at 2.30am. I realised much later, i had spent over 30 minutes in my bath busy scrubbing my toes & feet….that black was the colour. Yuicks…applied oil, re-scrubbed, used soap, body wash & felt what Sort of lady Mcbeth are my feet? except i had nothing but real muck to wash off. finally my feet looked decent to dry & sleep on a bed. I knew then, i needed massage…i wanted to sleep…but my head was splitting for holding bladder for over 5 hours. So many thoughts were disturbing, the body part thrown, scenes of mutilated bodies, the muck, the reasons for the blasts, the long day & night, the sounds of the rains…which i knew had washed away most of the evidence….mostly i knew, I had to disconnect…i had to keep away every thought…flush it out, Neeta..
Even as i returned to bed, i got calls, smsz, sent some replies in sleep mode..replied to cousins, friends who had taken effort to ask about my parents ….hit the bed & was dead. Next day was another day of blast coverage, came, went…began with PC’s press conf. 3rd day too drenched myself in rains…then it was body ache, fever. I needed a strong dose of recovery..Was clear the muscle ache was viral flu…my medicine was still 2 days away…On sunday, my friend booked a Matinee show at the multiplex. I unwound with ‘Zindagi na milegi dubara.’ Reeling under fever, i felt elated…my elevation was fiction & that still is….till then…another day another story, another reality in our lives…same shit..