Memories of pain untold
As journalists, we always arrive at terror strike spots after the event.
I remember sitting down to lunch with a friend at a restaurant in South Bombay on March 12, 1993 and, before we were through the soup, the floor shook even as there was a sound of a big blast to our left.
A lot of roads had been dug up to lay some water pipes and we thought it was the result of more dynamiting. But, moments later, the same thing happened and the sound this time was to the right.
“This is something unusual,” I told my friend. “We must rush.”
I was working for a wire service at the time and instinctively I followed the sound to arrive at the Air India building a few metres away. I will never forget the pain I saw in the eyes of the charred victims, even as they were alive and lay helplessly on the road opposite, skin completely blackened, waiting for help.
I knew enough not to touch anything – we were there even before the cops arrived with their dog squad. That was before the advent of 24×7 television so there was a semblance of order and discipline as we set about reporting – but then the real bad news began. A series of reports about blasts all across Bombay began to come in and the body count at the J J Hospital morgue began to mount.
I was asked to keep away from the actual blast sites because my news editor was worried there would be a repeat of an earlier unfortunate incident from my reporting on the riots two months earlier. I was caught bang in the middle of flying soda water bottles in central Bombay – and as flying shards from one came close to my face, I raised my hand to ward them off. I suffered a deep cut on the inside of my wrist, it took a long time to stanch the blood flow, (I still carry a scar) and that gave all my colleagues a big fright.
So I was kept counting bodies in various morgues – and that was as traumatic an assignment as any.
I arrived after the event again at the Gateway of India where a car bomb had gone off on August 25, 2003. This time there was a profusion of television cameras and crews, I could not get too close. But still the sight of the blood and shattered glass and metal from afar was as terrible.
One of the July 11, 2006 train blasts happened close to my office – I was not reporting but still curiosity took me to the railway station though I could not and did not venture too close.
Wednesday’s blast was different. I had been planning for weeks to visit a bookstore in the crowded locality of Dadar to lay hands on some Hindi and Marathi titles. One thing or the other intervened but by 615 pm, when I found myself free of any further work for the day, I decided to drop by the bookstore on my way home.
I thought the sudden traffic jam that came from no where as I approached the school near which the blast took place was because of the rains. But determinedly I pressed on – until a cop, who was diverting all the cars, tapped on my window and said, “Where do you think you are going? There has been a sfot (explosion) just a little ahead. I advise you to do a u-turn and return from where you came.”
Of course, my reporter’s instinct kicked in. I got out and started to ask him for details, even as he spoke to me as though I was a child, “You need to get home and safely indoors.” Then he leaned into my car window to tell my driver to take me home.
“I am asking you because I am a journalist!” I exclaimed, outraged. “This is my job, just like it is yours. So what kind of blast is this?”
His attitude changed instantly. “It could be a cylinder or it could be something else. Its happened in a car,” he said. There was something in his voice that told me it was not a cylinder burst.
“Then it could be a car bomb?” I asked him.
“Could be. I have no confirmation of the facts,” he said.
“If its not a cylinder burst in a car you know better than to tell me that,” I snapped. “This could then be a terrorist attack.”
“Yeh aap bol rahi hain,” he said. “Yeh baat maine aap se nahin kahee.” (I did not say that, you did.)
It was all the confirmation I needed (though, as it turned out later the bomb was not placed in a car, just near one). I rushed to call my colleagues at work but found the cell networks jammed. So I asked my driver to turn round and get as far away from the area as possible to a less congested site until I got through to someone.
Assuring myself that my colleagues had already heard and that younger reporters were at work, I quietly returned home. Half an hour after I had let myself in, I wondered why I hadn’t rushed to the blast site as I had done each time in the past, despite being there within minutes and closer than any other reporter could have been at the time.
I was thinking about that all night until I had the answer.
I realised that, after a lifetime of disaster coverage and at least two decades of first-hand reporting on bomb blasts, I could not stand the sight of bleeding people and dead bodies any more. Personally, there was no story there for me any longer; just a feeling of the utter devastation that survivors and relatives of the victims might then be undergoing. Having lost a cousin, once removed, to the 2006 train blasts and conversant with that family’s devastation, I just did not have the heart to turn more people’s grief into just another piece of fine reportage. I could not have borne to see pain again in the eyes of the survivors, even if they were just strangers.
May be I am getting too old for all this and its really getting to be too much, I thought.
And this time, like any other common person, I felt enough was enough.