The moment I woke up that morning, the first thing that came to my mind was, today is 13th. I tossed and turned on my bed, thinking, “But it’s not Friday the 13th. It’s Wednesday the 13th. So, it’s okay”. Since childhood, my father and I share a small joke about Friday the 13th. Whenever that day comes, we call up in the morning and ask each other to be safe. I smiled at my own stupidity and got up groggily to get ready for just another day at office.
The day was rolling on like any other normal day. But there was some uneasy feeling throughout. I did not eat anything. Anything at all. The entire day. I was feeling nauseous and giddy. At 3pm, my friend (and now colleague), Neehar, left for Bandra because of some office work. She asked me to leave office early and accompany her, but I had some important work to finish, so I stayed put. On any other normal day, I leave office at 5.30pm and take a slow train from Lower Parel station till my house at Borivali. But on that day, 13th July 2011, I had some other plans. My friend Sneha’s mom had asked me to come home for dinner, and I was hungry like a pig after my self-declared fast the entire day. I called up Sneha to ask her when she is leaving.
She works at Andheri and leaves office at 6.30pm, so she asked me to leave my office late that day, so that we both reach Borivali station at the same time around 7.15-7.30pm. I was anyway feeling fever-ish and I did not want to wait outside Borivali station for her. So I just fooled around at office to pass time. At 6.25pm I started leaving office, when my magazine’s Associate Editor asked me, “Are you okay?”. She told me that I looked extremely famished and tired, and that I am running fever.
She stays at Wadala and on her way she crosses Dadar. So when she asked me if she can drop me somewhere, I promptly replied, “Yeah Dadar would be great. I will catch a Borivali Fast from there.” So, we left office around 6.30pm and reached Dadar by 6.45pm. I clearly remember how she stopped her car at Kabootar Khana and asked the cops where should I get down, and from where would it be a shorter distance for me towards the station.
She dropped me at Kabootar Khana and waved me goodbye. I asked the cops in Marathi the way towards station, and then they explained me how I have to walk that bazaar stretch, and take the first right to reach Dadar station. My mouth was dry and I was very disturbed that day, for a lot of reasons. I was walking slowly, as the giddiness in my head persisted. I even stopped in front of a few vendors to buy some household stuff, because in Dadar you get all these things at reasonable rates. But then I checked my wallet, and saw I don’t have any change, so I continued walking. I did a mental note to come back here and buy these things soon.
When I reached station, it was packed with thousands and thousands of people, like everyday. People were running in all directions possible. I got into a fast train and got a place to sit. That too in the men’s compartment. ‘The train is unusually empty today’, I thought to myself. I took out my earphones and plugged them in, to listen to some blasting music.
It took me a while to realize that I am speeding towards Churchgate, which is the complete opposite direction of Borivali. I knew something is not happening right. I was getting weird lunges in my stomach. I got down when the train stopped, and tried calling one of my friend who stays at Mumbai Central. His phone was not reachable. For once, I thought it was the darn network. I thought I should get out of the station, but then I did not. I had no idea that by then, the blasts at Zaveri Bazar and Opera House had already taken place.
I came back to Dadar, and took a Bhayandar Fast, thinking to myself, ‘It won’t stop between Andheri and Borivali. I just want to reach home fast‘. Within minutes of leaving Dadar, and before I could reach Bandra, I got this weird text from Neehar, which read, “Oi blasts happening around the city. Don’t go anywhere crowded” I looked around, and found myself squeezed between over-sized, bickering aunties, who were elbowing and eyeing each other nastily. I honestly thought it’s some rumour or hoax. I mean we read these in newspapers, right? It does not happen to US, right? That’s what I thought.
I sent her a text back, “Where?! I am still in the train. And it is extremely crowded.” She replied saying, “At Zaveri Bazar. Not in trains but. Go home fast.” By then, people around me had already started getting frantic calls and messages from their well wishers. I was balancing my heavy Puma backpack in one hand, mobile phone on the other, and was trying hard to skillfully elbow the Mira Road and Dahisar people out of my way, so that I can get down of the train at Borivali. They HATE Borivali people, FYI. But then again, that’s another story. Long one.
When I was almost nearing Borivali, the announcer said, that the train is reaching Platform No.3, which meant the complete opposite platform, which in turn meant I had to reach the complete opposite door! I sighed and pushed those sweaty women out of my way. They kept yelling, “We won’t move. Go from THERE.” I turned but could not find any ‘there’ around me. So I did what I had to. PUSH. Women in labour do not need to push, as much you need to do in a Mumbai local train. Trust me on that. There was this scared looking woman right near me who also needed to get down at Borivali. I saw her mobile blinking. It read “Pappaji Calling”. She was informing her pappa that she is fine, but I had no time to chuckle and enjoy the family drama. ‘I have also not spoken to my Dad yet, you don’t need to either’, I nastily thought. I somehow reached the other side of the door in the nick of time and jumped out.
I got a call from my boss in between those ‘pushes’ by the way. She was frantic and she was trying to say something. I thought she is worried because I had fever, and just wanted to know if I am fine. I had no idea that time that I had escaped death by a few minutes. I couldn’t hear what she said, but I told her, “Ya ya, I am feeling much better now”, and hung up.
From the time I got down from the train till I got out of Borivali station, I understood the seriousness of the situation. A few people who were running helter-skelter around me, informed me about the three blasts. ‘The last blast took place at Dadar around 7pm’ she said in a scared tone, and ran away. I came out of Borivali station and saw it was pouring outside. Pouring like there is no tomorrow. There were policemen all around. They kept beating up the vendors and asked them to pack up and vacate the place fast. There were so many police vans and jeeps rushing past me, and then one policeman told me that it is ‘high alert’ all around the city, and that I should go back home immediately. I updated my FB status from my phone, but it never got updated. Yet.
The thing had still not registered. I looked up, at the dark dark sky and kept standing where I was. ‘Shit, was it just a matter of 5-10 minutes?’, I thought. I had an umbrella inside my bag, which he had given me before leaving for Pune. I did not even gather the courage or the need to take it out and protect myself. I was drenched from head to toe. I just kept looking up and thanking God. They say your entire life flashes past you in such a situation. Mine did not really ‘flash past’, but introspection happened. A lot of it. I was standing, rooted at the same spot for half and hour. People around me were getting into autos and zooming past.
I did not feel like talking to anyone. I just kept dialing my Dad’s number. I only wanted to talk to him. But the network was jammed. I couldn’t call anyone. Nobody could call me. In between that, a few people could luckily get through me, and the only thing I could yell and tell them was that ‘I’m fine’. Why did all the things go wrong throughout the day?
- I leave office at 5.30pm each and everyday. Why did I leave at 6.30pm today?
- I ALWAYS take a train from Lower Parel. Why did my boss give me lift today and drop me till Dadar, Kabootar Khana?
- Why did I get into the wrong train at the wrong time and rushed towards town, where the other two blasts took place?
- What if she drove a little slower/ got caught at a traffic signal? Or, if I walked slower than what I did?
- What if I actually stopped, took my own sweet time and bought all those household stuff from Dadar?
I felt a chill run down my spine. My clothes were dripping. My kajal had smudged. My phone was dead after sucking in so much water. I tried calling Sneha. Couldn’t get through. Finally, she called me from some random stranger’s phone and we coordinated and met outside the station. She greeted me with a ‘be^&*$#od’ and I had never been happier hearing such abuses before. I hugged her tightly. A kind stranger gave us a ride back home.
The moment I reached her place, we started watching the news channels. Texts and calls started pouring in from friends and relatives. I wanted to cry but I was still in a lot shock. Yet another blast in the city. Are the Mumbaaikars really bothered? What can actually change their ‘Aisi kya badi baat ho gayi’ attitude? What exactly IS this ‘spirit of Mumbai’? Whatever it is, I pray to God that I never turn into a true Mumbaikaar EVER, good or bad.
After the, ‘this-is-my-new-life’ feeling sunk in a bit, I asked Sneha, “What am I doing here? I am a journalist. I should be reporting from the blast site, right?” She nodded and muttered ‘Yes’. A familiar face was reporting on CNN-IBN. She is an alumnus of my college and during my internship stint with the news channel, I had worked closely with her. She was reporting live from the Dadar blast site. I felt a tinge of pride and disappointment, all at the same time.
Introspection Number 1 – What am I really doing with my career? This, what am doing now, is NOT what I want to do. (My two years of journalism education was making my blood boil.)
Introspection Number 2 – I never wanted to stay in this city in the first place. Why am I struggling so much, if I don’t want to? Or, do I?
Introspection Number 3 – I really know what I want from life now, don’t I? (The voices inside my head croaked and said a meek ‘yes’‘)
Introspection Number 4 – Stop running away from ‘things’ that matter. Chuck it completely or stick to it forever.
I could finally talk to my Dad past midnight. He is the only person with whom I spoke properly. When I finally hit the bed, my tired body gave in. Running away from this city is easy. But staying here and doing what you don’t want and getting paid in a certain kind of snack, is worse. Life would be happier if I was doing what I should. What I want. And then maybe, the snacks also wouldn’t matter much. I could savour them with salt and pepper.
It rained all night. Today when I came to office in the morning, braving the flooded roads and the crowded locals, I saw how fast the city has moved on. They were still bickering with each other for a seat. They were still asking me where I would get down. They were still punching hard on their blackberries and making nasty faces.
When I reached office, the first thing my boss told everyone is, “I dropped her right THERE yesterday. Phew!”, and then she looked at me and said, “Got saved by five minutes, didn’t you?’
Five minutes or ten, I don’t know exactly. But I know this for sure that, very few things in life compel you to sit down and think. Dig out stuff which you never wanted to face. Question yourself, again and again. Guess it happens only when you get saved by inches. By… a minute here. A minute there.