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Home > News > Columnists > Dilip D'Souza

Death We Are Used To


March 14, 2003

Twelve people so far. Dead in Mulund because some coward planted a bomb in an overhead rack of a suburban train. I never met any of them, or at least I don't think I did. But when I hear news like this, I remember so many other deaths, other needless and anonymous tragedies.

Nearly ten years ago, two leaped out of anonymity to touch me. I had not met those two either, but in death, they touched me. Today, I read about Mulund. Today, I remember them.

Irfan was the 14 year old son of Samiullah, a bakery employee in Dharavi [Mumbai and Asia's largest slum]. Everyone called him Raju, including Samiullah and his wife. In October 1992, Raju came to Bombay from their Uttar Pradesh village to join his father. While he searched for a job, Raju began working at the bakery, running little errands and doing odd tasks.

On January 11, 1993, at the very height of the riots in Bombay, a gang of thugs destroyed the bakery. Raju was returning home alone late that night. A group of sword-carrying youths surrounded him in a corner of Dharavi. They hacked him into little Raju pieces.

The Maharashtra government announced compensation of Rs 200,000 for families of riot dead, like Raju. Samiullah spent months trying to get his money from the government. Officials had jerked him around practically since the day Raju died. Chasing various certificates and papers minor bureaucrats told him he needed, he had visited the coroner's office three times; paid at least one bribe; made a trip to his village in UP because an official told him he would need the sarpanch to certify that Raju was actually Samiullah's son; travelled from his home in Dharavi to the collector's office -- from where the money was being handed out -- about two dozen times, and more.

Someone I knew asked me to help Samiullah get his money. So I made six or seven trips to the collector's office with him, gnashing my teeth each time at the callous way officials treated Samiullah, the contempt with which they spoke to him. At one point, we were actually sitting across a desk from one of them. Samiullah's cheque lay right there on the desk between us, inches from his hands, ready in every respect to be handed over to him.

But the man refused to give it to Samiullah. "We will post it to your village in UP," he said. "Just go there and collect it. Take a train tonight, OK?"

And he had this bit of helpful advice: "If they don't bring the cheque to your house, go to the collector's office and demand it." For in UP, said this smug officer, and unlike here in Bombay, "Government officers really create a lot of trouble."

I could take no more. I asked to see the local collector who ordered this desk-jockey to hand the cheque to Samiullah immediately.

Despite months of torment, despite bouts of depression, Samiullah had a generally "life must go on" air when I met him. The running around had done that. He joked with me about the red tape he was enmeshed in, offered to buy me coffee, a Fanta. Probably because he seemed so blase -- for want of a better word -- Raju remained just another riot victim to me.

But that changed once I met Samiullah's wife. That's when Raju's death really came to life; that's when it touched me. She clasped my hands, wept and thanked me for my small effort to help. Only, it wasn't gratitude I saw in her eyes. It was a well of anguish for a child lost, for the statistic her only son had become in the tragedy of a city gone mad.

Faced with her grief, what could I say?

On October 29, 1993, something the police called a 'crude bomb' exploded in a train that had stopped at Matunga station. It spewed nails and ball bearings all over the compartment, injuring about a dozen people. One of the dozen injured in the hail of metal was a Gujarat playwright called Bhadrakant Zaveri. I did not know him though he was a friend of a friend of mine. Two hours after the explosion, my friend called to ask if I would go to the hospital and help with all that had to be done.

I went. Bhadrakant had lost a lot of blood and was in a coma. When I reached, doctors were operating on him in a frantic effort to save his life. A few of us stood around helplessly, not saying much, waiting to hear the news. Bhadrakant died later that night. I hadn't even seen him.

There at the hospital, his companion Bharati was a picture of composure and strength. I remember clearly how struck I was by that. But I also remember thinking: what did composure matter in the face of what had happened to Bhadrakant? Just as Raju's mother had done six months earlier, but for even less reason, Bharati clasped my hands and thanked me. And I saw much the same anguish in her eyes.

Again, a futile death had come alive. Again, I didn't know and hadn't even seen the dead person. Again, I was unable to say anything.

Not that it's an insightful observation to make, but sometimes it seems there has been an unending sequence of deaths like these over the last several years. Deaths linked only by futility. All as a result of the endless cycle of riots and bombs that looms over us all.

There was the time some years ago when somebody noticed smoke in the women's compartment of a suburban train. 'Bomb!' the whole lot thought, and the women began leaping off in panic. A train going in the other direction mowed down 22 of them. There was the blast in Ghatkopar last December that left two dead, followed by one that 'only' injured 30 in Vile Parle in January. There was all that happened in Gujarat last year, beginning with another ghastly tragedy in a train. Senseless deaths, all.

Yet that's such an easy phrase. 'Senseless deaths.' Call them that, think you've made a firm statement against them: but doing so doesn't lessen the tragedy of a Bhadrakant, or 22 frightened women run over by a train, or a Raju turned to bits. What place does 'senseless' have in the grotesque merry-go-round of violence we suffer and are getting used to? Where does Bharati's composure and strength fit? How is Raju's mother's grief for her son a part of it all? What about the grasping meanness of a man who would post a broken father's cheque to UP instead of handing it across a table to him?

Incidentally, that cheque was for Rs 30,000. The rest of the announced Rs 200,000 was to be in the form of Post Office Savings Bonds, payable at maturity in five years. How would Samiullah get his bonds, I asked the now-sullen official as we walked down the stairs from the collector's office.

"I'll post them to UP," he said.

Dilip D'Souza


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