Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The 5:54 Borivali fast

A panipuriwaala carrying a wicker basket disembarked at Mahim Junction on platform 2 moments before the 5:54 Borivali fast hurtled by a few feet away on platform 3. He worked between the two platforms, under a metal pillar that held up the roof. He made his way through the crowd and sat at his designated place. The Borivali-bound train came through. People on the edge of the platform took a step back, out of reach of travellers leaning out of the stuffed train. The force of the wind accompanying it pushed some back, and pulled some closer. A few cars behind the engine, near the center, was a compartment packed with people better dressed than those in most others, but as sweaty. Their next stop was Bandra, and before it came the Mithi Creek, which would bring a foul smell and a cool breeze. The inhabitants of compartment 528A could not have known of the incident at Bandra, and beyond it at Khar, as their car passed by little more than half the platform's length and would have, within a couple of seconds, traversed the rest too. They would have barely noticed faces on the platform at that speed, and among them the panipuriwaala, when there was a white flash.

The explosion blew the roof off the train as well as platform 3, and killed the panipuriwaala instantly. The compartment's left side was reduced to serated metal tatters, and at that instant a mangled door flew into the crowd. It rained glass, shingle, puris, spectacle frames, clothes, shoes, toes, legs, fingers, hands, bodies, heads. The green metal walls that seperated the doorways from the seating area tore away from the ceiling and bent backward in an instant. Chair frames, harder than flesh and bone, had their legs broken, and the chairs themselves leaned back, facing the source of their trouble. The compartment's right side was intact but blown outward, like an inflated tetrapak, and there was carnage there too. And the confusion. The train had not yet stopped, and with one side of the car destroyed, commuters jumped off in the opposite direction, on to the track by platform 4, where a train ploughed into them. 15 alone went this way, bodypickers said.

The intern from KEM hospital was on his motorbike with a friend in Matunga, heading toward Bandra, when he heard an explosion at 6:30. It was at the station, three kilometers away. He raced back to the hospital and wore his scrubs, and took his first breather at 3am the next morning, when he walked alone in the courtyard and stared past the fence at nothing in particular and then sat on a green stretcher with a touch of red on top. Outside the hospital were chalkboards with names of the admitted and the dead. A man speaking on a phone said, "We've looked everywhere." The woman beside him was shattered. By the hospital entrance a woman howled and buried her face in her husband's lap, and family gathered around them in vain. His eyes had glazed and he looked straight ahead without expression while patting her robotically. Behind his wife was another woman, sniffling. People stood in groups, saying nothing, too tired to break silences. They either waited, or they knew. Every now and then people would stride in purposefully, their calm countenances constructed solely on hope, and they would leave lost and defeated when yet another hospital told them that the person they sought to find was not there. Sometimes they would return, with renewed vigor, and leave broken again. A period of relative silence was shattered by the desperate wail of two poor women who emerged from the hospital hitting their head with their hands, and they left the premises with the urgency one leaves behind bad dreams. But they must not have gone far because their cries could be heard faintly for an hour afterwards.

The courtyard at KEM was filled with metal stretchers and wheelchairs touched with blood. A group of tired body transporters sat on these stretchers and joked with each other. At one point, one said, every bed in the courtyard had a body on it. There were forty or fifty lying about, piled up and on their side under two spotlights in the empty yard. By our approximation, he said, 45 people are dead, though the doctors have yet to declare it. He knew there was an emergency when taxis brought in three maimed people in quick succession. His shift had gone from being a regular eight-hour one into a nightmare. Just then, as he began describing where he was when the explosion happened, a woman's scream erupted from a hospital ward, and it went on, with a break of a second or two, for over a minute.

This is where they went: behind the main KEM entrance, if you take a long walk down a dark side path, is the morgue. Outside it, some were murmuring into their cell phones. Some were huddled together, wondering what to do next. Those who went into it held their nose and breath in anticipation of the stench. Those who came out held theirs for too long, wanting to never ever smell the smell again. Policemen held white plastic bags filled with identification. At the end of an endless sterile corridor was a large, thick door. Everytime it opened a gust of cold air swept down the hallway, bringing with it a smell that stopped you breathing. A group of men standing outside peered in with a kerchief held to the face, waiting for their turn to be called in. Inside, naked bodies were on the floor and on a platform. One's head had sunk in, a blow had smashed the bone structure beneath his face. It resembled a punctured football. Around another was a pool of blood, his brain spilled out from beneath a flap of skin above the ear. Another, a man with a moustache, had half-open eyes and a cut leg, and a slash across his chest that exposed the heart. Beside him was a body with no head. In another world, someone in the room said, "No, it's not him, he was wearing brown socks," or, "No, he had a ring." Where were they when it happened? Were they standing or sitting? Was their last conscious expression the one they wore here, on this morbid floor? How did this man call in people professionally to identify the corpses around him? Did he ever break?

Trains began to come and go at Mahim Junction at 4:30. Travellers looked tired and upset. Small bits of the damaged roof continued to fall. The debris was in a pile on platform 3. Among it were twisted metal spectacles without the glass lens. Workers sat around, their work not yet done, sipping tea and finally finding time to talk. One claimed he had found three headless bodies, and even more in the city's suburban stations. In a few minutes they restarted work. A policeman summoned a ragpicker to sort two piles of cloth. One was what people had donated. The other belonged to the people in compartment 528A. A wallet fell out when he picked up the second pile. He dropped the pile and opened the wallet. There was nothing inside. He flung it away forcefully, and it plopped on Tulsi Pipe Road, the road that runs beside the tracks. Picking up the pile again, he stepped into a moist puddle of blood at the station entrance and was on his way.

Elsewhere in the station there were tired firefighters from Byculla. The first call came in at 6:30, six minutes after the blast. But news had spread quickly, and the roads were jammed. We got stuck, he shook his head and said. The railway police were filing FIRs. They had arrived soon after the blasts. Now they dozed in their chairs in cramped offices.

In the distance the 5:54 Borivali fast flashed a yellow light. The train's drivers had spent the night at the station, and now, bolstered by piping tea, made their way to it. They climbed aboard and started the engine. The sound of that particular train was fascinating. People turned to look at it, more alert, shaking off the effects of the last 12 hours. On every platform there were people waking up in a new way as the sky turned blue.

Update (July 15, 10:12pm): Looking through DNA right now, I came across an article mentioning a panipuriwaala who was at Mahim Station, and on his way to elsewhere, when the incident took place. His legs were amputated. I wondered if I had got it wrong by saying a panipuriwaala had died. If I have, my apologies to readers. But people who worked at the station did tell me that the person who died worked at Mahim Junction.


J. Alfred Prufrock said...


Too close to the bone.


Anonymous said...



uday said...

hope u never get to do a post like this ever again.

Anonymous said...

your writing is a gift. love the blog.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

As Uday said...Numb is all you feel.

Sidhusaaheb said...

I wonder how the ones who orchestrated the blasts would react, if they were to read this.

I think terrorists are able to carry on their demonic work only because they are not exposed to the carnage that they leave behind.

neha vish said...


Anonymous said...


U've outdone yourself with this brilliant piece.

thanks for a very enjoyable reading experience.

Anonymous said...

Distant mainstream news is fine for the facts, but your grieved writing is essential to me. Panicky interviews with breathless victims is sensationalism, and not the same as a stunned wrter recounting.

Also, very glad to know you're okay.

Swapna said...

That's just sad.

Very powerful writing.

Anonymous said...

this was perhaps the finest piece on the blasts i have read so far.