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"My Mother Gone!"

October 30, 2005

Three distinct periods at Ram Manohar Lohia hospital on Saturday evening.

First, chaos. Then calm. Then chaos again, but muted. And through it all, Sanjay Jain searched for his mother, missing from Paharganj.

When I got to Lohia at about 7.30 pm, it was even more a scene of confusion and bewilderment and sorrow than Lady Hardinge hospital, where I had come from, had been. I spoke to a young man who was carrying a girl, perhaps 3 and unconscious and bandaged and bleeding. Then some ambulances and rickshaws screeched in, bringing more wounded people. Then, like a ship slicing through a storm, the BJP politician Vijay Goel emerged from the hospital with a small army of hangers-on, walked across the drive and stopped to speak to the press.

With him was Sanjay Jain, dapper and 29. After Goel had said what he wanted to about the tragedy, he asked the cameras to broadcast that this young man was searching for his mother. Then he turned to Sanjay and said, "You've already searched at RML and Lady Hardinge, now go to Safdarjung hospital! Why are you wasting your time here? Go find your mother!"

Goel moved on, and the little knot of people, press included, disbanded, and I was left standing with Sanjay. "She was with a neighbour and the neighbour's baby daughter," he told me of his mother, Suman. "They went shopping. The neighbour is in here, injured, but they won't let me approach her to ask if she knows what happened to my mother. Will you come in with me? Maybe that will help."

Then, inexplicably in English, "My mother gone!" I don't know what it is or why, but sure enough, when he and I walked in a few seconds later, nobody stopped us and we found ourselves next to the neighbour, Shuchi Mishra, terribly injured on a stretcher, being wheeled to another part of the hospital. Sanjay and I tried to ask her about his mother, but before she could say anything, she was unconscious.

As we walked out, he filled me in. "She doesn't know, but her daughter's body is in the mortuary," he said, "with her face blown off. But I can't find my mother. The doctors here told me they have no body of a 58 or 60-year-old woman."

My two friends and I offered to take him to Safdarjung. We careened through the brightly-lit city, traffic flowing so you wouldn't believe this monstrosity had happened, piled out at Safdarjung and immediately ran into a police officer who shook his head almost as we began asking. "Nobody from Paharganj here," he said. "Only the victims from Sarojini Nagar." But seeing the desperation in Sanjay's eyes, he offered: "Well, you can check the list of people brought here if you like. Up on that wall."

We pored over the list. Strangely, it was stuck on the wall right below a printed notice for an "Annual Conference and Cadaveric Workshop", October 14-16. It announced 51 injured and named; 36 dead but unnamed. Just as I finished and started a second scan, just to be sure, Sanjay spoke at my elbow. "She's not there."

Trying to decide what to do next -- check AIIMS which the same cop says also has only Sarojini Nagar victims? Try some other smaller hospitals? -- Sanjay gets a call from his relatives at RML. Then he turns to me: "They've asked me to come back there to see if I can identify one unclaimed body as my mother."

Careening back, and between more calls, he fills me in again. "I saw this ody earlier. But they said it was of a 35-year-old woman, the face was blown off too, and it wasn't in the sari my mother went out in." But he thinks the face being blown off is a sign of sorts, for the baby's face was also ruined and he has the idea, I don't know from where, that his mother was carrying Shuchi's baby when the three of them were out shopping. As the calls come in, I can hear him telling his relatives, "Take a look at the knees! She had an operation on them!"

Back at RML, Sanjay's sister Kajal -- a slender and quietly sobbing woman in blue -- has just arrived, and the other relatives feel she, the only woman among them, should identify the body. But they fear she is not strong enough to do it, so they begin pleading with the hospital staff -- "we think that unclaimed body is her mother, but she can't come in, please let us take something from her clothes to show her outside, please sir, please!"

Just as the man relents, the second period I mentioned is upon us. Suddenly, we are pushed back by a line of cops and a thick yellow rope. Back, back, they shout; and a few greatly official cars stream in, cops with guns tumble out, more cars stream in, more cops with guns tumble out, the assembled press corps goes into a frenzy, and the home minister is here. He walks swiftly into the hospital, and for the next 45 minutes while he is in there, everything else is at a standstill. Calm like you wouldn't believe this monstrosity had happened.

In particular, Sanjay and Kajal and relatives are on hold. Nobody will listen to them or their entreaties. Forty-five minutes of this, all so that the press, frenzied again, can hear some inconsequential words from the home minister when he finally emerges.

But he leaves, and it's 11 pm, and the now familiar chaos resumes. Subdued somewhat, because the flow of injured is now a trickle. Sanjay and Kajal resume their entreaties. Finally Kajal says she will go to the mortuary, and a small group walks over there. Nearly midnight by now.

The brother and sister brace themselves and disappear inside.

Five minutes later, they emerge. From how Kajal is sobbing, from how Sanjay has his hand around her to keep her from sinking, I know.

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Death Ends Fun:

Dilip D'Souza

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