Terror on Twelfth

Suvajit Mustafi
Thursday, 12 March 2020

Since its inception, humans have shown an affinity towards conflict. Land, religion or ideologies, there have been differences aplenty forming the basis for conflict. Sometimes the conflicts are intrapersonal. All of these have led to casualties in heaps. Through Terror on Twelfth, writer Suvajit Mustafi recounts his first encounter against a human-controlled deliberate disaster. 

March 12, 1993. When I returned from school that day, the word ‘terrorism’ hadn’t made its way to my vocabulary bank. In the next few hours, I learned a lot more. It had been only a few months since I learned the meaning of ‘communal riots’. My misleading last name would often teach me another lesson of hatred, and I will come back to that. I was seven. 

This particular day will remain with me forever and has haunted me long enough. Does it still? The scars of this Black Friday and I have learned to co-exist. 

What I recall the most – my Baba’s(father) face swollen, covered with a big bandage and the grey shirt swapped as a red Manchester United jersey. His hair, beard and body were brimming with glass particles of different grain size, which punctured many wounds on different parts of his body. Ma’s scream when she opened the door has made a permanent abode in my head. There are times when it plays in a loop, and I wake in the middle of the night rushing to my parent’s room to confirm if it indeed was a nightmare. 

The scream that day attracted a lot of attention, and soon the news spread: a bomb blast victim in our colony. This would turn our home into a place of significance. We felt short of seats, space and air in our drawing-room.

Baba was dismayed; his face narrated the obvious. He wanted to be left alone. The crowd was more than eager to hear the story from their disturbed friend. Many of them had watched the news of the chain bomb blasts in different locations of Mumbai (then Bombay) on bulletins. With not many options of live satellite television back then; here was an eyewitness of the incident, a spectator of the event, so many episodes of the untold story by the media could be just coming out.A shower of questions followed:  

‘Where and when did it happen?’ 

‘The Stock Exchange building,’ Baba replied. 

‘The first one?’ Somebody remarked. 

‘Around 1-45, right? It was the biggest one,' said another.  

‘No, no, Worli one was the biggest’, confirmed a lady this time. 

These were all acquired information from the spread of mouth. Back then, masses depended on the Doordarshan bulletins at 2 pm and 8 pm. 

'But why did you go to the Stock exchange? For share trading? That too in office hours?' This time one of his colleagues asked for an explanation. Baba frowned. He wasn't willing to answer that. But he spoke in a low and tired tone, 'to deposit a cheque in the Bank of Baroda.’

‘But do you have an account there?’ this time it was Ma. 

‘It was not mine. One of my colleagues from our Bandra office requested me to do so. So, during my lunch hours, I went there.’

Baba tried to mollify one of our neighbours, who was irritated by the violation of office discipline rather than showing compassion to his friend, who underwent a life-changing experience. Baba took out a piece of paper from his office bag. The piece of paper was soaked in blood. He gasped, “Thank God, I was about to send my attendant to drop this. I do not know what would have happened to him. Hundreds died there.”

*** 

At 1 pm, Baba left his office for the bank. One of his elderly colleagues accompanied him and took him to a wrong branch of the Bank of Baroda. Thus the 15-minute waste of time became life-defining.

At about quarter past one, he found the right branch, i.e. the branch in the Stock Exchange building and stood in the queue to deposit the cheque. It was a long queue of about fifty meters outside the building in the open air, in a hot and humid atmosphere. The Fort area of Mumbai is the commercial heart of the nation, hence despite all adverse weather conditions; the work was usual on Dalal Street, often called Mumbai’s Wall Street.  It was lunchtime; so, the street was overcrowded as usual. All the roadside fast food and tea stalls were filled with customers. Baba’s elderly colleague found a shade to relax nearby. 

A couple of minutes passed by, the heat and humidity were taking its toll on Baba. Feeling restless, he checked his watch: the longer hand was about to strike six, and he had reached near the entrance of the building.  

‘About to be 1-30,’ he must have sighed, and before he could think next, he felt an unexplainable boom. 

A muffled boom or it was a massive sound, thousand times of thunder, and he felt a sharp punch on his left cheek. The cheque, which he held in his hand, came out of his grip due to the impact. Bending, he tried to pick it up from the floor, when he found that, it was raining blood on the cheque. His face bled profusely.

The whole place had become dark with a shower of broken glasses and building materials; it seemed that the tall building was vibrating and would fall apart. Black thick smoke was coming out from the building, and as Baba looked around, he could barely see through the haze. When he could, he saw a sea of wounded people; many were lying unmoved, many could not move due to the severity of their injuries, and many were with comparatively smaller damage but entirely at a loss. Baffled of the situation people were running all around with their bleeding bodies, some making attempts with their severed limbs.

The ground floor bank had partially collapsed, and he could not imagine the state of the people inside. He still had not realised what had happened. Only sensing something more terrible was looming, he ran aimlessly. People were coming out of the building like an uncontrolled deluge, screaming. The street that dictates the nation's finances resembled the Kalinga battlefield after the war. Despite the abundance of barriers, he sprinted like an athlete without knowing the destination.  

A ten-feet high wall stood as an obstacle. Baba was 35 then, and in a typical scenario, he could not have imagined crossing it. Still, he jumped and surpassing all his past records, grasped the top edge in his very first attempt. He dragged his body tothe top of the wall with great difficulty. Sitting on the wall, he looked back at the arena. It resembled 'Kurukshetra'; only Lord Krishna was unnoticed. In hindsight, it was an issue related to Lord Krishna’s another avatar, Lord Rama, that triggered all of it. He tried the impossible task to spot his colleague and failed.   

On the other hand, his colleague could spot Baba and realised he was injured. He tried to come towards Baba, but the uncontrolled movement of the crowd pushed him and losing his balance, he fell on the road. Frightened people were even running over him, and he was about to get stampede, but a young man came to his rescue. His later narrated his near-death experience with Baba.

“Help me”, cried a bulky middle-aged man stretching one of his hands towards Baba. My father looked at his bloodied face.  

“Would I be able to pull him?”, he thought, but the unnoticed Almighty might have aided him; as he dragged the stranger on the wall. To gain some support, the man tried to grasp Baba and both lost balance and fell on the other side.

Baba was unconscious for a few seconds.Later, he sensed that he was being carried on some people’s arms. They put him in a private car, which was on its way to the hospital. There was another victim; he was utterly shocked, yelling his heart out and banging his forehead. The car owner tried to console him by telling him that his injury is not critical and he would reach the hospital immediately and get the treatment. But it was of no use. 

Baba had regained his senses. He was cautious about the glass particles stuck on his face and didn’t even try to stop the bleeding lest the pieces would penetrate deeper into the skin. He warned the other man about the same that at least ended his banging on the forehead, but the yelling continued. 

Within ten minutes, they reached the hospital. The scene was quite intolerable; the small causality room had a heap of bodies and blood was flowing like a stream. The adjacent hall was full of victims like him, shouting and lamenting. It was a miniature of what he had watched at the bomb blast arena.

The hospitals weren’t prepared. India had never seen an attack of this scale. The official toll of Bombay bombings of 1993 was 257 fatalities.  

Only four to five nurses were present in this particular hospital, trying their best to arrange first aid for victims. 

“How is my injury?” Baba caught hold of one sister. 

“Not as severe in comparison to many. But the major wound is around your eye, so stitches are to be put cautiously. Please wait.”

More victims were being brought in, and the sight was unbearable. He decided to leave the place. He found a mirror over the washbasin and saw the reflection of his face. There were many pieces of glasses on his face, even one on the eyelid and a big one stuck behind his ear. He arranged some cotton, removed most of the glass particles and cleaned the face as much as he could. 

Catching hold of the same nurse, he asked, “How it is now? May I go now?” 

“Don't go; the doctor will come immediately; stitches are must".

He went in front of the mirror again; blood was still oozing out from the most significant injury, which was around his cheek. He took cotton and covered the wound, pressed the hand to prevent further bleeding and rushed out of the hospital. The nauseatic scenes there were making him sick. Severed limbs, masses of flesh, streams of blood and panicked screams would affect the stoniest of hearts. 

He hurried to reach his office, much worried about his colleague. But then he remembered that he was at a distance and he might not be injured. However, the uncertainty was making him more anxious, and he kept praying for his safety. 

His appearance ina blood-soaked shirt and cotton on wounded face attracted many curious people on the way. And almost at every step, he had to answer their endless questions. 

Reaching the office, the pain in the face had become unbearable. His face was already swollen. His lady colleagues immediately applied ice on the face, placing the cubes in the handkerchiefs. That provided him with great relief. He was taken to a dispensary for first aid, but they refused to attend him without informing the police. His boss decided to take him to Bandra to the company's dispensary. By then, the other colleague had reached the office.   

“It was like a huge boulder off my shoulder. And the gentleman almost wept. The relief that both of us experienced cannot be expressed in words,” Baba would later tell me. 

The car rushed towards Bandra, but as they reached Worli, they found police had blocked the road; another massive explosion had taken place there (the deadliest of all). They took a diversion; everywhere the streets were filled with traffic as well as the crowd. By now most of the Bombaites had come to know about the terrifying blasts, which started at Stock Exchange Building, then Air India Building, Worli and on and on. There were 12 in total. 

People came out of the offices, schools, and colleges; anticipating blasts, which might take place anywhere at any moment. Everybody was rushing for a safer place without knowing where it was. 

Baba remembered the experience of the communal riots in Bombay that had taken place just two months prior. He had to travel several times during the riots.There were troubles in some particularly sensitive areas, which he avoided; otherwise, the deserted roads remained safe. But the chain bomb blasts was a stark contrasted. The streets were crowded, and everything seemed unsafe. Parents were running to rescue their children; unescorted children were utterly terrified and cried for immediate help. 

Blue or white, it did not see an employee’s collar. Businessmen, travellers, everyone was horrified, panic-struck and were searching the unknown protected shelter. In every junction where the car stopped due to signal or otherwise, they heard further fresh news about the blasts, and soon the tally kept on increasing just like the scorecard of an ODI. 

Even back then, people had a lot of stories and theories on the world coming to an end. Years later, after the 2001 US attacks, Baba would recall, “World-coming-to-an-end stories trigger curiosity, but if it happens, I guess the experience of humans will be like the people of Bombay on that Black Friday or the New Yorkers on 911.” Taking a pause, he added, “And I have no doubt that humans will drag it to the end.”

It took more than two hours to reach Bandra from VT (now CST), which was usually about a half-an-hour journey back then. He got the first aid and got the stitches and headed for home. 

The colleague from the Bandra office who had handed him the cheque was severely apologetic. His string of apologies continued for months. 

***

What followed were sleepless nights for Baba. And it went on for months. The strange ‘massive but muffled' boom, the bloodshed, the gruesome visuals of severed human body parts would disturb his concentration. Life wasn’t the same for him and neither for Ma nor for me. Ma developed a tension disorder, and also to this day, whenever we are out of the home, she would make several calls to check on us. Actually, she checks if we are fine. In school, teachers often asked me to narrate the incident. As a seven-year-old, retelling the ordeal wasn't easy always.

“World-coming-to-an-end stories trigger curiosity, but if it happens, I guess the experience of humans will be like the people of Bombay on that Black Friday or the New Yorkers on 911.”
 

1993, 2003, 2006, 2008, 2011… Mumbai has seen a lot, and so have we. Before this incident, I believed my Baba was stronger than Superman and mightier than He-Man. I learnt a lesson on abruptness and how fragile life is, making us mere mortals. Death is inevitable and can be often gruesome. 

Many blamed Baba had to pay heavily for being altruistic. He used to say often that Bombay’s life is very mechanical, and we Bengalis can change things by infusing our culture to it. So most of the time, he kept himself busy with different types of social and cultural activity.

Being of very ebullient nature, he involved himself in societal activities after his never-ending office hours. On many occasions, he had to take the trouble for this type of overindulgence, and the cheque deposit was one of them. But he never agreed to it. He still says that the blast could have taken place in his office building itself. Try arguing and he would lecture you with the words from Bhagavad Gita. 

Karmanyevadhikaraste 
ma phalesukadachana
ma karma-phala-heturbhur
ma tesango ‘stuakarmani...

[You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of action. Never consider yourself the cause of the results of your activities, and never be attached to not doing your duty.] 

The Hindu-Muslim riots before the blasts stemmed politically from the Babri Masjid issue, but the sufferers were the innocent poor slum dwellers of both religions. This bomb blast was the retaliation of the communal riots, but it did not kill any politician or any big name; people who died had nothing to do with the decision-making. 

Being a Mustafi 

Originally Moitra, a Hindu Bengali-Brahmin community, my ancestors took great pride in the fact that they were once conferred with the title ‘Mustoufi’ during the Muslim rule in Bengal. Mustoufi-us-Musaliq means Chief Accountant of the State to deal with the most complicated business economics and statistics over the country. The British modified it to Mustafi.  

Since then, many Mustafis have used the surname and the title both, while many have used only one of them, and for most in my family line, we have mostly used just the title. 

Having the last name of ‘Mustafi’ would often create confusion for many. Most mistook us as Muslims. During the Bombay riots, we lived in a Shiv Sena dominant area. Our neighbours had advised us to get rid of our nameplate, in case the Shiv Sainiks decided to raid our colony. Ma was against this, and she said, whatever the situation was, we have nothing to fear about, and the nameplate was kept intact. 

During the riots, we weren’t allowed to go out of our colony. And curfew time meant being locked at home. One instance, I went out in the evening to play, my regular friends weren’t yet out, so I decided to play with another group. Its leader was very blunt, ‘you are a Mustafi, right? So you must be a Muslim! My parents told me that Muslims are bad people and to stay away from them.’

I didn't clarify, instead didn’t utter a word. Dejected, I returned home. I was too young even to understand what Hindus and Muslims were? 

Whenever did I ask this to Baba? I was told that they are just two names of religion, but there is no difference apart from this. All human beings irrespective of religion, caste, creed or race should be treated as an equal and with the same compassion.

Baba’s word always meant gospel to me. As a curious kid, during the riots, I once asked, ‘why do they kill each other if there is no other difference?’ and my father had no answer.  

Often in the evenings, during the riots, I used to go to the terrace of my building. To my horror, I saw the slums in Pathanwadi burning and heard horrifying screams. We had a hawker coming to our colony every Sunday to sell sweet-water fish, which was a daily part of our Bengali lives. The man was amiable and jovial. He wasn’t seen in our colony since December 1992. After the riots ended in January, we came to know that he was killed. He was a Muslim. This poor man would make money by selling fish. He would share his jokes with all the little kids in the colony and make them smile. Why him? But yeah, innocents die. Only innocents do. 

Similarly, the backlash for the demolition of the Babri Masjid was felt in Bangladesh where Hindus are a minority. The riots affected scores of Hindus there.

In times when scientific progress continues to scale newer heights and at the same time, issues like climate change frown upon us, the world continues to talk religion and faces a major threat of extremism. Most terror acts like the 911, Bombay blasts, gunman entering schools, etc. are not declared, and they strike you off-guard. But there are some announced terror acts too, like in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. 

The bottom-line remains that the kingpins and the masterminds resting on the throne lose nothing and the ones who sufferer are the ones who have done nothing and have nothing to do with anything.  

***

Terror on Twelfth is a chapter from Abrupt, Volume One, authored by Suvajit Mustafi. 

Abrupt distressful events are a part of life. Some are forced into our lives due to the malevolence section of society. Every life has a story. Some stories take unexpected diversions and some to abrupt ends. The book is a series of short stories referencing to real-life disastrous events. Apart from the real-life account of the author’s father in Terror on Twelfth, Abrupt – Volume One is a collection of four more tales, all fictional, but set in our real conflict-driven world.
 

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