Saturday, 15 July, 2006
7:15 PM, CBD Belapur
I’ve had more than my fill of death and grief in the last few days. The suffering has not been personal, more of a passive nature, but still.
First there were the serial bomb blasts on Tuesday, 11th July 2006 (eight bombs in the space of 11 minutes in first class compartments of Western Railway – Mumbai suburban trains).
I witnessed the ensuing mayhem of choked roads and dazed commuters in a shock that this could be happening, as I stood at Andheri station waiting for a friend and worrying about my father who was traveling that line around the same time.
We later realized that he had missed the first (Khar) bomb by the space of one train. He got down at Bandra, two minutes before it happened.
It’s terrible to think of how many families lost a dear one and the grief that follows the loss. Close to 200 dead (official toll). Most of them key earning members of the family. Grief compounded by a sudden threat to the survival of the family.
A sad commentary on the episode, was the way in which television and radio stations made a mockery of it, glamourizing the pain, wording it – ‘the spirit of Mumbai’ and ‘the resilience of its people’, who ‘carry on to work the next day regardless’.
People work not because they’re not worried about their safety, but because they need to earn their bread and survive in this commercial city.
Television stations, instead of posting people at hospitals and putting up casualty lists to ease the minds of the public, were busy milking the sensational value, showing clips of blast sites, and politicians voicing cynical phrases: ‘spirit of Mumbai’, ‘will not bow to terrorism’…
As a member of the public, anxious for news of a loved one, the last thing I want to hear is what a fool thinks, the first is whether my dear one was on that train or not!
But nobody, news crews, or police, or the administration had the sense to put up a list or a hotline for assistance. What a lapse of reason!
The spirit of Mumbai, if anything, is epitomized by people who rushed to the aid of victims. People like a certain businessman, who rushed and brought wads of money, distributing over 2 lacs of it to victims for buying life-care medicines prescribed by doctors for an emergency operation (Doctors operate in an emergency but you still have to source the medicines, and at a time like that, there is always a shortage of money).
Two days later, on 13th morning, I phoned a friend of mine after reaching office. For two months, we’ve been travel companions on the way home and gradually became friends. She’d left office on 12th noon and I presumed it was because of a mouth ulcer that was hurting her.
I was shocked as she sobbed and told me she lost her father yesterday. It was a health complication and totally unexpected. I couldn’t get my mind to focus on work all day, as I was feeling for her. After work visited her home and saw first-hand, the grief of losing a dear one. It pained me to see the grief in her eyes, always does when you care about someone. It felt strangely better though, just being with her for a little while.
And it still wasn’t over.
Next day when I went to office and was settling in for the day, I got a call from my father, telling me that a close family friend, Santan Rodrigues had died in the morning.
It was a shock. Santan’s son had phone up and informed Dad, but we had an incoherent picture.
Dad immediately set out from home and I took leave and set out from office. I could make it faster to their Borivli-West residence from my office in Andheri-East. But it took Dad longer to get there by Taxi from the distant suburb of Navi Mumbai where we stay.
I can clearly see the moment I stepped into their seventh floor flat in numbed silence.
First I saw a group of men standing in the centre. I saw footwear at the door, so I slipped out of mine. Then my eyes fell on a white shroud lying on the floor and for a moment I was numb. And then I raised them to see Patricia, Santan’s wife standing beside the body, her son at her side. I rushed t her and hugged her, not knowing what to say as her head rested on my chest for a moment, sobbing all the while. Reached out and comforted the son who was right besides her also crying. Then she braced herself as Santan’s sister read out the final prayer, all the while sobbing herself. In barely 2 minutes after I entered all this happened, and 3 men in blue uniforms (hospital staff perhaps) started to lift the body. They motioned to me as I was the only other man closest to where the body lay. And we lifted it by the six handles (3 on each side) sewn on to the heavy canvas cloth on which it lay enshrouded.
It was a strange feeling, heavy and I thought to myself later on this was once a man, alive and breathing, now just a mass wrapped in cloth. It was the first time I have carried a dead man. We entered the lift, lay the body on a stretcher on the ground floor, and carried the stretcher to the ambulance in the building compound. Having not spoken a word to anyone until now, I learnt from the men that they were keeping it overnight in the hospital morgue.
As they shut the door on the ambulance and left, a group of visitors arrived and I went up the lift with them. They were her office colleagues and boss. Discovered what had happened as she narrated it to them. The rest of the day is a blur, with close friends arriving, the story being repeated and the sobbing and grief revisited.
It pained me to see the grief on Pat’s innocent face through she was taking it as bravely as she could. It was so sudden, so unexpected and you could see it in her eyes. I felt far more for her loss than for anything else. To lose your companion in life, to suddenly find yourself alone without someone you have loved and trusted and share an inseparable bond with. There is no greater grief.
She kept saying, ‘he never told me he had a health problem, kept saying he was alright…’
My heart sank every time I saw her sob.
There wasn’t much left for me to do after that as family members and close friends arrived, including Dad.
She voiced a desire that Santan get a fitting obituary in the press, her heart was bent on it, you could make out. So Dad made some calls, looked up information on Santan’s professional achievements, and left at 4:15 pm for his former office of The Free Press Journal at Nariman Point. He wrote a good obit which appeared in the next day’s FPJ. Pat was happy with it, that’s what matters. I left with Dad but went home to Navi Mumbai and booked a cab to take us to the funeral early next morning.
Dad made it early to Borivli the next (today – 15th) morning and got there before the body arrived from the morgue. Mom and I reached by cab much later at 8 am. By then Dad had arranged for the coffin to be laid out at the head of the drawing room where people could line up and circle alongside to pay their respects.
Santan lay dressed in a suit, with his fingers clasping a rosary, a peaceful expression on his face. That was the first time I saw his face in the last two days, in fact in a long time. It was also the first time I have seen the face of a dead person, directly I mean as opposed to the media. It’s a strange feeling, you might almost think, a person is asleep and want to jolt him out of his slumber.
Pat would repeatedly touch his forehead and wipe it with a handkerchief. The grief on her face keeps coming back to me. Mom sat down beside her to comfort her, and I reached out and squeezed her hand to express what little solidarity I could.
For some time it was just a blur of visitors arriving and floral wreaths and bouquets being placed.
After prayers being offered and the priest’s arrival, we moved the coffin to the ground floor, by the stairs.
Mike (Michael Pereira) led the way with the feet end, and two guys at the sides near him, and I was supporting the head end with another two guys on the sides close to me. It was heavy, especially as the foot end tended to be raised at certain points while descending each flight of stairs.
When we reached down, there was a large gathering watching. They had been asked to proceed downstairs before we moved the body of course. Just that I wasn’t expecting anybody to be there waiting for us, like yesterday, when I had helped move it down, there was nobody waiting.
Then we all followed the hearse to the IC Colony Church, where there was a short mass. The body was then taken out in the open. Pat kissed and bade Santan a tearful farewell. Then everyone paid their respects by symbolically putting a trowel of salt on the body.
After this the body was taken to the burial ground and lowered to the strains of ‘Farewell to Thee’, at which point Dad lost hold of himself and started sobbing and I got a bit teary eyed myself, but managed to hold back the tears. And with the covering of mud and the final condolences, it was all over.
Another memory that stays, apart from the Pat’s grief which constantly replays itself in front of my open eyes, is the way in which two classmates of the son stayed by his side like little angels. The smallest of the trio had his arm wrapped around him all the while, while he sobbed, and never let go. The boys stayed with him constantly before and after the burial. It’s nice to have friends like that, who stick by you when you need them the most.
We stayed with Pat, went back to her house and finally left at noon.
This has been a sad time, a terrible week in all, and these images will stay with me forever.
Pity, grief, loss, mourning! And a resolve bordering on a resignation to carry on.
There is just one thing I can take home from all this. In the end all that matters and stays back is the love and happiness you share and spread with the ones you care for the most.
All else is just dust in the wind.
God have mercy!