17 years ago I was young and stupid. Things have changed now. I am not young any more. It was a Friday like it was yesterday and I was into my first job in advertising and in the afternoon, during the lunch break we discussed some rumours about bomb blasts in some parts of town. The client servicing director, a man with an impressive beard and spectacles, made more impressive by a paunch and a tie curved over it, confidently asserted, “Hyah! I just came back from a meeting in Fort and nothing!” The senior art director and I, encouraged by his words (less) and by the deadline (more) took a cab to Bohra Bazaar where the digital typesetting unit had its office.
Busy in our efforts to perfect the layout of the ad we were working on, we vaguely heard murmurs of bomb blasts at the Stock Exchange (ten minutes’ walk away) and the Air India building (ten minutes’ drive away) and heard the owner of the unit complaining that the phones had gone dead. Just after five in the evening, my colleague and I went out to get a snack. There was a crowd around a guy selling Gujarati newspapers. I understood the script enough to understand that there had been bomb blasts at several locations in the city. Many were dead. More were injured. We hurried back to the typesetting unit and shared the news. There was disbelief and shock, but everyone went back to work. We tried calling home without success. It was 1993 and there were no cell phones, internet or celebrities tweeting about how shocked they were and the never-say-die (even if you are dead) spirit of the city.
We decided to go home. My colleague stayed in far-off Dombivali and he requested that I travel with him by train. I used to stay at Dadar then, a short 10-minute train ride away. We reached VT Station to find it surprisingly empty. On a normal weekday, we would have had to jump, push and fight our way into a train that entered the station. Not today. We stood near the door. There was a strange hush in the compartment. People avoided each others’ gazes and looked around as if this was not a journey they took every evening but was something that had no destination, no purpose and absolutely no sense of adventure or routine associated with it. It was a fast train and the second stop was Dadar, one of the busiest stations on the suburban train line. I got off without effort. By the time I had reached there, I had a fair idea of what had happened while we were busy getting the design of one press advertisement right: There had been bomb blasts at Stock Exchange, Air India building, Worli Passport Office, Plaza Cinema, Shivaji Park, Sea Rock and Centaur Hotels and other places. The details were sketchy but the tension in the train station was real. In the sodium yellow light, the normally fish-market like crowded station looked like a graveyard with the spaces between platforms looking like long and deep graves hungry for coffins.
On an impulse I took a slow train going back towards VT and got off at the next station. There was deathly silence in the air as I walked through the old mill area of Parel. There were huddles of men who looked up as I passed by, their gazes of fear wrapped in masks of hostility. Soon, I was at KEM Hospital, trying to convince the watchman that I had come to donate blood for the victims, trying to avoid looking inside at the bodies that lay crammed in the spacious lobby. Finally, a tired looking intern in a white coat came to the watchman’s rescue, “We don’t have the manpower to spare for blood donors,” he said wearily and walked away without waiting for my reply.
The next morning I got off at Churchgate Railway Station on my way to office. As I made my way out of the station, I saw a long queue of people. Curious, I went to its head. They had put up makeshift hospital beds and partitions in the station premises and were having a blood donation camp. Just as I was about to turn back to join the queue a young girl in her twenties walked up to a doctor and enquired in a whisper, “I am having my periods. Do you think I can donate blood?”
That was when I finally broke down.