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Braveheart bus driver looks back on 26/11

December 26, 2008

Text and photograph: Savera Someshwar

Date: Thursday, November 27

Time: Somewhere between 10.30 pm and 11 pm

Location: Outside the Taj Mahal hotel, south Mumbai [Images]

Santosh Chakne heard bullets being fired for the first time in his life. Then, a bright flash of light and the loud 'crump' of a grenade. Terrified, Santosh jumped out of the bus where he was sitting and ran to the far end of the Gateway of India, where a statue of Swami Vivekananda serenely surveyed the scene. He hid among the trees that grew behind the statue and prayed, harder and more fervently than he had ever done in his life. He prayed he would survive this mad, dangerous night. Meanwhile, the bullets continued to whine, the grenades continued to burst.

  

Date: Thursday, November 27

Time: 8.50 am

Location: Marol Bus Depot, Andheri, north Mumbai

Perched on his high driver's seat, Santosh Chakne prepared for his first round of the day. He inserted the key into the ignition and curled his hand around the gear shift as the public transport bus rumbled to life.

The Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport employee was driving the bus along route number 334, which goes from Marol to Ghatkopar station in central Mumbai and back -- a route that should be completed in an hour and a half, but takes Santosh three because of the Mumbai's slow moving morning traffic.

When he finally finished his round reached the depot at noon, he was told he had been given special duty and had to go to the airport.

Date: Thursday, November 27

Time: Somewhere between 10.30 pm and 11 pm

Location: Outside the Taj Mahal hotel [Images]

"The commando just wouldn't move from the bus," says 28-year-old Chakne. "His colleagues were inside, battling the terrorists. He had been given the task of guarding the equipment and ammunition, which was in the bus."

The BEST bus was parked close to the Taj Mahal hotel. "For two days and two nights, until the battle was over and the terrorists were dead, he didn't leave the bus. He didn't sleep."

The commandos -- there were 12 or 13 of them in Chakne's bus; the rest of the space was taken up by their equipment -- would keep coming back to reload their ammunition before rushing back to the fight.

"Each time," says Santosh, "they would give us a quick update, of someone they glimpsed, someone they shot at, someone who was shot at� But they didn't waste a second. They would pull out what they needed and race back." He thought they were incredibly brave.

Date: Thursday, November 27

Time: Somewhere between 7 and 8 pm

Location: Navy parking lot near Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, Sahar, north Mumbai.

Santosh had been waiting in his bus for over five hours; the commandoes had still not arrived.

He knew what had happened in the other end of the city, of the two five-star hotels that were under attack. At the depot, he had been told he would have to take some commandos to the Taj.

And that, he thought, was where his duty would end; he would back home in his bed at night. So he sipped his tea and bit into the snacks that were given to him. And waited.

As did the drivers of the other 13-odd BEST buses who were also on 'special duty.'

They were used to it. Whenever there was a rally or a big political event, they would be asked to ferry the cops to and fro. Not too difficult, really. And it was a change from the daily routine.

Date: Thursday, November 27

Time: Somewhere between 10.30 pm and 11 pm

Location: Outside the Taj Mahal hotel

Hidden, crouching in the darkness, Santosh pulled out his cell phone and called his family. They were angry that he was not home yet. "Leave the bus," said his mother sternly. "Just come back home. There is no need to put your life at risk." They believed that, when your time was up, no one could prevent death; but they thought he was being unnecessarily stupid.

Santosh tried to explain he could not abandon his bus; he had to stay as long as the bus was there. Besides, he didn't expect the fight to stretch out for too long � he thought everything would be wrapped up in two-three hours and he would be on his way home.

The grenades continued to burst; it sounded like there was one every five minutes he said. Peppered in between were the sounds of bullet shots. Smoke billowed from the Taj. Windows shattered.

Year: 1996
Location: Shrigonda village, Ahmednagar district, five hours away from Mumbai

Santosh had dropped out of school four years ago, after completing his 10th standard at the New English School, Chandgaon. He was just not interested in studies. His family did not try and force him to go back to school, but they just could not understand why he would not do something constructive with his time. They wanted him to take up a job or at least start working in the fields. For four years, Santosh had sat at home.

Next year, Santosh promised himself, yet again, as he asked his parents for money. Next year, I will go to Mumbai and get a job.

Date: Friday, November 28

Time: 9 am

Location: Outside the Taj Mahal hotel

It was now more than a day since Santosh had been home. He had not had a bath. Luckily, food and water were available.

He had been calling his family -- short, sporadic calls� His cell phone battery was low and he wanted to conserve it as much as possible. Later, one of the television camera crews that had camped there allowed him to recharge his cell phone at their Outdoor Broadcast van. It made him feel a bit better. He could still be in touch with his loved ones.

He wondered why no driver had been sent to relieve him. Later, he learnt no driver had agreed to come. They were frightened for their lives.

Date: Sunday, December 4, 2004

Time: 5 pm

Location: Somewhere between Samta Nagar and Dahisar, north Mumbai

He had registered at the employment exchange near Churchgate station soon after he reached Mumbai. But it had taken years before he got this job as a BEST driver. Now, after two months of training at the Dindoshi bus depot, he was finally ready to brave the streets of Mumbai. He drove bus number 209 out of the depot at 4 pm, and after completing his rounds, bought it back at 10 pm. No one forgets their first route, he says.

Santosh had come to Mumbai in 1997, with just Rs 300 in his pocket. He had found a job as a cleaner with a truck driver, and spent a year travelling with him, learning the ropes. He did not earn anything, but the driver looked after his food and living expenses. Then, after a year, he was given his own truck to drive; he began to earn between Rs 7,000 to Rs 8,000 a month. He went all over India those days, he says. A BEST bus driver's job is much easier.

In 2003, he married Ashwini, a girl from his village. Later, he invested in a small house in Ghatkopar, central Mumbai. He is still paying the EMIs.

Date: Friday, November 28

Time: Late evening

Location: Outside the Taj Mahal hotel

He was tired of talking, discussing the same things again and again. He had not slept the previous night. The constant thump of the grenades, the shrapnel flying--a media person and an onlooker had been hurt. The air was acrid with smoke and fear.

His thoughts went back to the previous evening when the commandos had come out of the airport and filed quietly into the buses. How the convoy of buses had raced through the airport, exiting at the domestic terminus, passing Kalanagar, Dharavi and Sion Hospital, until they reached the Taj. The roads were comparatively empty, but he had not realised it as he concentrated on maintaining his place in the convoy.

By now, the terrorists were chucking grenades outside the hotel. Santosh was even more frightened. He was terrified he would be hit; he wondered what would happen to his family--his parents, wife, two little children and a brother who is still studying--if anything happened to him. Again, he prayed he would get out alive. Even now, he would not abandon his bus. 

Date: Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Time: Around 10 pm

Location: Saki Naka, north Mumbai

Santosh sat on the roof of his bus, soaked to the skin. Like thousands of other vehicles, his bus, number 398 which runs from Mulund in central Mumbai to Borivali in north Mumbai, was trapped in the deluge and the floods that lashed the metropolis that Terrible Tuesday.

Despite the heavy rains, the journey from Mulund had been fine. But when they reached Tunga village, the water levels started rising rapidly and they spotted stranded vehicles. A few minutes later, they reached Saki Naka. By now, the water had entered the bus and the seats were submerged.

Luckily, a double decker BEST bus was stranded nearby. While most of the passengers took refuge in the double decker, Santosh, the conductor on his bus and a couple of passengers clambered onto the roof of bus number 398.

He sat there the whole night, continuing to get drenched. The next day, the waters subsided but he could not leave. The rising waters had stalled the engine and the bus would not start. The rescue tow bus came only the next evening. He finally reached home that night, after depositing the bus at the depot. Till then, his family had no idea if he had survived the floods that had ravaged Mumbai.

Date: Sunday, December 30

Time: 1 am

Location: Navy Quarters, Colaba  

At the Navy Quarters, they had cooked them a warm meal. After three days, he had finally had a bath. A bed to sleep on -- two nights had passed since he closed his eyes. The bullets, the grenades, the billowing fire had not let him sleep. Yet, sleep was far way. He still could not believe the nightmare had finally ended.

At 5 am, he drove 'his' commandos to the airport, devoutly grateful that none of them had died.

Again, a long wait. The tiredness had now seeped into his bones.

Finally, at noon, the commandos boarded their plane. "I had to take the bus directly to the plane. Their planes are different. A ramp opens up and you can see the entire hold. At least four BEST buses can fit in there."

Still, 'duty' was not over. I had to get the Road Transport officer to sign the challan (a form that has to be filled each time a BEST bus goes out on special duty) and get diesel filled at the depot's pump. But I was so tired, I left the bus at the pump itself."

When Santosh finally reached his relieved family, all he wanted to do was eat, bathe and sleep. He woke up Sunday night, ate and went back to sleep again. On Monday, he reported for work.

A month later

Santosh does not consider himself a hero. Not too many people in the depot, nor his neighbours at home, know what he has done. "I just stayed with my bus," he says. "That's what we are supposed to do."

Yet, if called to do this kind of 'special duty' again, he says he won't say no. "Desh seva hai. Desh ke prathi kuch farz banta hai (This is service to the nation. We have a duty towards our country)."

He admits that, after November 26, he does not feel safe in Mumbai anymore. "It was not like this before," he says. Yet, he won't move away or change his job. "I'll work till I finish 10-12 years with the BEST and then I'll take the voluntary retirement scheme," he says. "I'll go back to my village."

He is looking forward to the medal he will get next year, after he completes five years of driving without an accident. He will also get a cash award of Rs 600.

He won't get, and does not expect an award for the three most nightmarish days of his life. "I've been given five days off," he smiles.

Image: Santosh Chakne (extreme left) with his colleagues

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