When I was asked to pack bags immediately & leave for Kolkata to cover the AMRI fire, I knew it was going to be one challenging task. I however wasn’t prepared for a lot I experienced.
We rushed immediately from the airport to the spot, first being SSKM hospital. I give it to the West Bengal govt, even after after such a macabre tragedy there was NO chaos, no hyper mobs. Yet there were few bodies that were being brought. Mamata Bannerjee had ensured that within minutes all bodies were handed over to the relatives with centralised post-mortems & respectful hand over. There was a notice board that showed pictures of a dead person, if unclaimed by anybody.
Even the Kolkata journalists were a nice lot, eager to help & we all hung around as we had heard 1 more body was expected. By then my colleague IK had alerted me I should remain put, not leave the premises as there was a likelihood of the 7 directors being brought for medical test. My Delhi off had some other plans, of pursuing funerals & cremations -Something I’m personally I believe isn’t a right thing to do. I feel it is a direct intrusion. While already the families & relatives are grappling with this kind of loss, the death of their dear one due to complete negligence, after which, imagine the media hounding them at cremations & funerals. It is but natural that tempers will run high.
In the meantime, i met a police officer, S Chakravorty who seemed approachable & kind enough to help. Guess being an outsider may have made him want to ‘impress’ me. He seemed forthcoming with details. And usually so, the rural, simple folks are less aggressive than the thorough-bred city persons. So if at all I had to follow a family or funeral I’d rather do that of a more simple, rural family. And there began the scanning of the list of victims, with their family contacts. With so many media channels, the good part is NOTHING any more remains a secret. Numbers were available at an instant…
And like in a flash of a second one more body was brought for post-mortem. The body of a cancer stricken patient, Ms. GuhaThakurata who was rescued from the fire, but she did not survive. Her family’s pictures & comments I had seen on that day’s TOI front page…they were articulate & approachable…just what the media wants. They were also pretty ok for letting me cover the funeral…it was a relief…yet it didn’t seem right…meanwhile the police officer tipped me about a sad case. Paritosh Das, a young boy who had come down from Tripura to be by his brother’s side & had been going from 1 hospital to another, from 1 police station to another in search of Santosh. Who till then was untracable. SC told me he made Paritosh talk to the local media, especially, because if anyone were to see the photo of Santosh then they could inform the police.
While we reporters took a short breather of small talk, the cop’s tip-off kept eating me from inside. A kid from Mahua channel had some number & asked me to speak with that man, who was an Anandmargi. I didn’t care what Marg he followed, now i only wanted to speak to Paritosh. I felt this was THE one story that could be big. A gut feel that if worked would be superb. I made contact with the AnandMargi man and he asked me to go to AMRI hosp immediately, else the bro’ & his relative would be leaving soon.
And as luck would have it, I reached AMRI hospital & was told the two had left. There I was put across to another leading channel reporter. He had some other number & asked me to give it a shot. It turned out to be Paritosh’s num -Santosh Das’s brother. Unbelieavble. The pressure hadn’t still ceased. Paritosh & Dulal spoke a totally different dialect from normal Bengali spoken in Kolkata. So KR the VJ too had some difficulty getting details after speaking to the duo. We vaguely understood that they would headed to Tripura Bhavan. Interestingly in Kolkatta, there are Bhavans (like in Delhi) for all the 7 sisters of NE.
Finally IR guided the driver to Nightingale Hosp & we saw Tripura Bhavan. Every minute thereafter was KILLING, believe me. It felt like few hours, actually. When Pairtosh & his bro-in-law walked in, my heart sank way down. Poor is to believe…they were soooo simple & poor it is inexplicable. What hope can they have?
I pulled them over to speak of their journey & trauma. It was simply SAD. They had the voter’s I-Card of Santosh Das, his hospital admission card, his treatment paper xeros…yet NO clue. Santosh had met with an accident, he was admitted for MRI, treatment in Tripura, but since the hospitals back home have NO facilities, the Das family had to move him to AMRI hospital, Kolkata. What needs to be highlighted is that they had to sell their land for Santosh’s treatment. This is the reality of most of India. Poverty making them helpless & dependent on others. In this case, the doctors who instructed them to go to AMRI hospital. After my story was aired, I had many asking me, “How did this poor family admit this man to AMRI..why??” one needs to understand the political, economic-social-other compulsions to know the why. When you’re poor & uneducated, a doctor is equated with GOD. The blind faith is unlimited. So the Das’s story began with AMRI.
Overnight they were asked to cough up money, which they couldn’t so Santosh’s operation got postponed. As a result, the family sold the plot of land, ensured that the money reached AMRI hospital & then Santosh’s surgery took place. This happened on the 8th & sadly on 9th the hospital caught fire. Paritosh remembers everything till the time the smoke engulfed him & the hospital. After that it has been one jigsaw puzzle for him…a turbulent journey running from pillar to post in relentless pursuit of his brother. Santosh was the sole bread earner, a daily wage labourer on whose income the family survived. Paritosh & other siblings could as a result study at least till class ten. And then to help the older brother the others too became daily wage labourers.
I asked Paritosh how did he pick up Hindi & that he could speak so fluently. He told me where he stays in Tripura, it is close to the border & he interacts a lot with the BSF officers & chatting with them he picked up Hindi as a language. I have immense admiration for this kid. Relentless pursuit in search of his brother, a simpleton who has a strong gut feel & enterprising-learning new language, talking to all- & some faith that has kept him going. A boy who has sacrificed his food, sleep to just see the dead body of his brother & take him back to where he belongs-their family.
He told me the next day they were to meet a Tripura minister & would go wherever he’d send them. It happened to be a Sunday. Like all cities, everything comes to a standstill in Kolkata too. Yet i again i was Tripura Bhavan. I met the Tripuar minister, who told me he was in touch with the police & WB govt. Pairtosh & Dulal, the bro-in-law were asked to go to Lal Bazar Police, the HQ. We accompanied them. Initially the police behaved like Paritosh was an untouchable, I am NOT exaggerating. That’s how police world over behave. We were seen like plague-the VJ KR & me because we were media. They actually shooed us away like we’d spread disease or something. However what the cops failed to realise had it NOT been for my team & me, the cops would NEVER have allowed Pairtosh inside. They nearly drove him away, I asked the VJ to shoot it, then when they heard Paritosh & me, they took Paritosh inside the HQ…we waited…Was joined by IR & RB my colleagues. We ate some orange, saw trams, talked of the Chinese colony there, the stories of that area, writer’s building, etc. the other team went on for their story & we were left again to ourselves. And I told KR that I have a strong feeling the police have whisked Paritosh away from our radar.
And all this time Paritosh’s cell was off, 1 irritating habit of Dulal actually. Diligent man keeps the cell off whenver they are with officials, as I saw for 2 days. Finally he informed us he had gone to LakeThana -a police station. So immediately IR went with his unit, as it was closer, he asked us to follow. In few minutes IR called & said its back to AMRI hospital. By then I had lost faith in the police. This was bloody third day. They seemed to have NO record of Santosh & they had kept Paritosh on the move. What was their idea? Met with the police who finally allowed me to talk to Paritosh on camera, while he sat inside the police van. He was NO accused, but he was being restricted. It was truly heart wrenching. By then Paritosh told me he had only 3-5% hopes of finding his brother. All this while he kept asking me, “Aisa bhi ho sakta hai, kisine ghalti se mere bhai ki body leke gaye ho?” And if that was the case what would we do? I had NO answers to his question.
On the first day itself I had told my boss we should make this a campaign. For over 48 hours Santosh’s body was NOT found. Paritosh was in search of his brother & had NOT even eaten for 2 days. The whole idea was to get the authorities to work. They said ok, fine “send everything you have, shots etc & let’s see how we can play it out…” the first day coverage did no justice to Paritosh’s efforts. Second day the channel picked up the pulse. I’m glad. It was handled sensitively.
Meanwhile other colleague joined and we left Paritosh with the police as he wasn’t allowed to get out of the van. He had got a case study of a brave survivor & we felt slightly relieved. It was a pleasant evening & by night it was a question how to take Santosh’s story forward.
I was woken up by relentless calls from both Paritosh & Dulal, who wanted an assurance I would be coming to see them, help them. I was like yes, I will come but what had happened so early? Paritosh was close to tears, he said they both had visited 19 hospitals till late at night with those cops. And still NO trace of Santosh. This was one of the most frustrating stories I’d ever done. How can the authorities not trace a person despite all efforts? I promised them to see them by 10.30am. I was to leave late-evening on that day, but it was a commitment to this poor boy…something we as a channel had to do.
Believe me it feels shit. Feels news business is utilitarian-we use people. Well to a large extent we have to be. Despite being most detached, unemotional in life & practicing it with vigour with the innumerable stories I’ve handled, this was truly one tough test-of my ethics & commitment. I spoke to IR who also felt this story needed a closure –for Paritosh & for us as a channel. We needed to take them to the Secretariat. We would get them to meet WB CM Mamata Bannerjee & then we should leave. In a short while IR called again & asked me to rush ASAP to Tripura bhavan, pick up Dulal & Pairtosh & take them to Safari Park. CM Mamata was to attend a public event to pay tribute to the victims in the AMRI fire.
Yes. This was THE only chance of getting them to meet her. I called Dulal & Paritosh, they were waiting with bated breaths at the gate. On the way the Anand Margi friend of theirs also met us. He felt it was pointless as Mamata is CM why would she respond to us? No harm i persuaded him…All the media & channels were there. Yes, all saw Paritosh, spoke to him. I asked IR meanwhile to check on Mamata’s security…& tell me of her exit path. And IR seemed to have resigned to the fact it would be disappointing for me. “You try, I doubt she will wait.” Paritosh just needed to hear this! Phew. The trio had a look of dejection on their faces.
I’m NOT the kind to give up, I’m a chiktu. Mamata had NOT even said no, so i will give it a shot And she hadn’t even left the place. Suddenly I saw a flurry of activity & there was the Tigress-Mamata herself. Well-combed hair, not a trace of sweat, wore an ironed saree, quite a contrast to her usual image. I just called out aloud, “Didi…didi…pl wait.” She stopped abruptly, turned saw me with a mike & put her hands out to stop me. I simply told her “This is Paritosh whose brother is untraceable since 3 days…” Didi knew the case! She told me “Yes I know, but the police don’t have his records & it is complicated as they don’t know whether he is still dead or alive….”
She spoke briefly Paritosh & me. Hats off to the determined lady CM. She summoned the police, gave instructions On-the-spot & asked them to help Paritosh & by the end of the day give her the deatails. She asked me to take both of them to Bhavani Bhavan-CID premises. Wait! This was CM of WB who not only stopped & listened to me, but gave a patient ear to the poor Paritosh, not just promised, but intervened on the spot? Kudos lady.
The expression on Paritosh’s face spoke volumes! It looked like he at last saw some hope. When I was leaving the police called upon him. And it was time for me to say my byes to Dulal & Paritosh. I wished him the best and he asked, “You will stay in touch right? You are going back to Mumbai? Who will I turn to for help?”
I explained to him he needed no one NOT even me. The CM herself had intervened. I will always wish the best for this lad. We left because we had to send the shoot to Delhi. Already the Kolkata journalists had begun hounding the VJ, RB. He told me they all wanted the feed. I told him NOT till our channel ran it…then he was welcomed to do so…some reporters threatened him. He told me the other channels won’t give them transfers in future. I had a simple reason. This was competition apart. It was aperson I believed in, a person whose story I wanted to tell the nation…he trusted me to follow up & i owed him that. I made him believe & I’m grateful to the head of that state that unlike other politicians she renewed our faith.
We left Kolkata & through out the journey & even when we landed at Santacruz KR kept asking me, “Ma’m, what will happen to Paritosh? What if his fear comes true? What is his future?” The first call I received when I touched the exit gate was that of Mayanand…the Anand Margi. He called to me that Santosh’s body was traced. “The whole day we scanned all pictures & Santosh’s body has been wrongly claimed by some other family..It is late madam…we will see what happens tomorrow.” It was 11.45pm.
I’ve no words to say anything. I know this kind of tragedy shouldn’t befall anyone…it’s pathetic & heart wrenching….more & more I feel Life is cheap in India, but death is cheaper…sad but true…extremely unfair that Santosh’s family will never be able to see him on his death bed…they have been deprived of conducting his last rites…a guilt that will kill these poor…I am back to my life, my job, my role as journalist…but many questions as usual remain unanswered. I only hope I haven’t been utilitarian…