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.

4 Comments so far

  1. Aji (unregistered) on July 15th, 2006 @ 2:39 pm

    Dear Friends,
    It was one on most Tragic days for all of us.
    Each of Metros needs more Technological Expertise to Counter Terrorism.Let us all Indians Stand United Fighting It.


  2. Kashmiri Pandits (unregistered) on July 15th, 2006 @ 6:30 pm

    An Open Letter to the Prime Minister

    Dear Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh,

    It is with a heavy heart that I am penning this letter. When you took over as Prime Minister two years ago, most Indians rejoiced. At last, India had come of age and we had a professional heading the Government, instead of a mere politician. Today our hopes lie in tatters. Of all the absurd policies that you are pursuing, the worst is your policy towards Pakistan.
    It is the first principle of foreign policy that it should be in the national interests of the country. Our Pakistan policy flouts this basic principle. It is the duty of the Government to ensure that the life and property of its citizens is protected, that people go about their daily affairs without fear, that a citizen who leaves his home in the morning is reasonably sure that he would return to his family in the evening, and that any person or organization that prevents all this is speedily brought to book.
    This is no longer the case. Today, whether a person goes to Kashmir for a holiday or visits a temple in Varanasi for worship, or boards a train in Mumbai, he is nervous and apprehensive. He is not sure whether he is going to be alive and well or whether he would be killed or maimed for life. Today, when you visit any place, it is converted into a fortress, because the security agencies are not sure of anyone. We seem to be living in a country under siege. What have we done to deserve this?
    All this is happening due to the evil designs and machinations of our neighbour. Whether Pakistan is targeting India only because of the Machiavellian principle that a State should try to weaken its neighbours, or because it is wreaking revenge for what we did in Bangladesh, or because Pakistan wants Kashmir is irrelevant. Pakistan has declared an open war on India and we are doing nothing about it.
    Why we are doing nothing is for the most illogical reasons. We are doing nothing because the USA tells us not to retaliate. We are doing nothing because “poor” Musharraf who means well has no control over the ISI, which is running a parallel Government in Pakistan. We are doing nothing because if we go to war with Pakistan, it will lead to a nuclear conflagration. We are doing nothing because you wish to immortalize your name in the history books as the apostle of peace.
    Any objective bystander with the most elementary brains will tell you that none of these factors is really significant or valid. The US is notorious for looking after what it sees as its own global strategic interests and a strong India is what it most definitely does not want. Musharraf has shown time and again that he is wily, unscrupulous and fully in command. There is no need to go to war with Pakistan. There are other options. Finally, what will it avail if you are nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and India disintegrates?
    The events of the past one year have shown a steadily increasing level of violence. It is not Kashmir valley alone that is being targeted. There is a definite strategy to change the ethnic composition of the Jammu region and an attempt to drive a communal cleavage in Ladakh. Organized attacks are being mounted with lot of competence, skill and precision at strategic targets across India. There are active Pak-sponsored terrorist cells all over the country. The objective is to terrorize India into submission, keep the populace in a state of fear and trepidation, extract maximum concessions from India on the negotiating table and to weaken and disintegrate the country.
    The sensible response to the situation would comprise of the following initiatives:

     Peace talks with Pakistan should be immediately suspended. All world powers should be notified that India has suffered enough and our patience has been exhausted. We will no longer depend on big power intervention to keep Pakistan on leash, but take matters into our own hands.
     Our Kashmir policy must change. We should stop pandering to the whims of the Hurriyat. We should stop mollycoddling the militants. The armed forces should be given a free hand to comb the interior areas and kill all the terrorists who have infiltrated into the State. We should follow the policy of hot pursuit. We should have a limited operation to destroy the training infrastructure in POK. We should hold summary trials and ensure that the guilty are speedily and adequately punished.
     There should be a policy of limited but effective reprisal against Pakistan, so that it is forced to pay an inordinately high price for every incident of violence it perpetrates. A nod to the wise!
     The policy of appeasement of Muslims should stop. All access to international sources of funding should be effectively plugged. The working of madrassas should be probed. These should either be modernized or banned. All organizations suspected of complicity with Pakistan should be banned and not allowed to sprout again under some other name.
     Above all, the image of India should be given a face over. It should emerge as a strong, vibrant and self-reliant country, fully capable of looking after its security interests and protecting its territory and people against any foreign or internal enemies.

    Mr. Prime Minister, if you are able to safeguard your country and fulfil your oath to the Constitution, we the people of India will give you the coveted prize of our love, affection and respect. This would be a more glittering prize any day.

    With warm regards,

    Yours sincerely,

  3. Sachin (unregistered) on July 16th, 2006 @ 3:46 am

    An Open Letter:

    It is high time we as citizens of india do something about terrorism. We need to flush out all the anti-social elements living amongst us and capture all their weapons. Search their homes and rid our country of RDX. All suspicious activities should be reported to police. People who are caught having weapons and bombs should be given a warning and all the weapons and bombs ahould be confisticated by the police. Security cameras should be installed at important places throughout the country. Bomb sniffers should be installed at the entrance of all major railway stations and airports. The private sector can help the government with funds to install them.

    Security for our citizens should be on the priority list of any political party that comes to power in India.

    Do spread the word around and as citizens of india we can affectively counter terrorism.

    Best wishes,


  4. arZan (unregistered) on July 16th, 2006 @ 5:20 am


    As always a wonderful article.

    Thanks for sharing your views.

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