Fiction

Mayank Bhatt

1 Comment

 Plague 

March 1993

She smiled uncertainly; unsure if smiling was the right thing to do when people around us were dying. I was on a bed; she on another, in a hospital ward surrounded by an overpowering smell of disinfectants. The doctors and the nurses vainly attempted to bring order to the mounting chaos as more victims were being brought in. Her head was bandaged, but the bandage had been wrapped hurriedly and was smeared with blood on the left just above her eye. Her green salwar khameez had a Hawaiian floral pattern. Her nose was hooked at the bridge; I told her later that it resembled an eagle’s beak, she smiled. The nose and the brown eyes were the most striking part of her face.

It was probably the cops who brought me to the hospital in Bandra. I had passed out after I was thrown off the bus when the bomb went off at Worli. My co-passengers had turned into mangled heaps of ripped flesh and shredded bones. A thick black smoke engulfed the bus. The smell of burning flesh and tar was nauseating; it’d stay with me forever. My clothes were smeared with blood, not all of it was mine. I don’t know how, but I survived.

I saw her when I opened my eyes. She was on the bed next to mine.
Were you on the bus, too, I asked, trying to sound friendly but not succeeding.
No, I was walking on the pavement, she said.

From the two nurses who were cleansing wounds of a victim on another bed, I heard that 13 bombs had ripped through the city. I sat up on the bed. This was serious. I’d have to call my newspaper. I examined myself, looking at my hands and arms, raising my legs a bit; my bloodstained clothes were in tatters, I was sore in the back and my arms and knees were bruised, but I hadn’t broken any bones. I gingerly got up from the bed and took a few steps. I decided I didn’t need medical attention. I was unlikely to get any even if I did because the hospital ward was teeming with people who were more seriously injured.

I’m leaving, I said, looking at her.
I should, too, she said.
Are you OK?
Yes, I’m fine. I just have stomach ache. My home isn’t far from here. I’m at Carter Road, she said.

I called the news desk at the newspaper from the public phone in the hospital lobby. The news editor told me to return to work. I wasn’t keen to do that, but he insisted I return because Bombay hadn’t seen anything like this before, and the newspaper would need everyone.

We left the hospital together, and got into an auto-rickshaw that was waiting outside the hospital. The traffic on the street was surprisingly smooth.

Carter Road and then Andheri, I told the auto-rickshaw driver.
I’d have to go home. Dadi would be worried.
I’m Sharad, I said.
Nupur.
I’m a journalist. I work for The Morning Star. I was returning home in the bus when the bomb exploded, I said.
I know, she said.
Which part?
The newspaper part; I saw you when I was interviewed last week. You looked familiar and I was trying to remember where I had seen you but couldn’t, she said.
You must have met Cyrus, I said.
Yes.

Cyrus Modi was the newspaper’s editor. Everyone generally disliked him; I disliked him more than anyone else. Not sure what this would lead to, I kept quiet and looked outside the speeding three-wheeler.  She smiled when she got off, and briskly walked inside the building.

***

When I reached home, my Dadi panicked when she saw my bloodstained shirt.

It isn’t my blood. I helped an accident victim, I lied.

Dadi would have had a heart attack if I told her I was in the bus that blew up.

After chai, I left for work again. Trains were on time and the streets bustled, as always. It didn’t seem like Bombay had been battered by one of world’s worst terror attacks; three-hundred people had died within a span of half-an-hour.

The reporting department at the newspaper was buzzing with excitement; everyone had theories for the cause of the serial bomb blasts. I didn’t tell anyone that I was in the bus that blew up. I didn’t want to be at the centre of everyone’s attention. At that moment, I was more annoyed that I’d miss my weekly off.  Cyrus summoned me.

Our coverage must be better than the others, he said.
It’ll be, we’ve got a great team, I said.
After all this bomb business is over, I want you to handle the features sections in addition to your present responsibility, he said.
But Cyrus, I can barely manage reporting, I said.

We’re hiring new staff, he said, impatiently.

He then told me of Nupur’s impending appointment, and then dismissed me with a wave of his hand, as he began to dial a number on the telephone.

***

A couple of days later, when I was on the day shift, Nupur came for her final interview. She wore a pink linen khameez and a white salwar and went into Cyrus’s office. About 15 minutes later, they walked out, smiling; Cyrus introduced her to the staff. Then he came to my desk.

This is Sharad. You’ll be working with him, Cyrus said, looking first at her and then at me.
Nupur is joining us from tomorrow, he said to me.
We’ve met, she said, and shook my hand.
Not recently, I said.

Nupur raised an eyebrow, as Cyrus looked at me; he wanted to know more but couldn’t ask.

Shard will tell you what to do, he said, and walked away slowly.
Why did you lie, she asked, when Cyrus had returned to his office.
I haven’t told anyone I was at the hospital, I said.

Nupur wanted to know the reason but didn’t ask. She was an eager learner; that evening we went home together in a cab.

I can’t commute in the train, my stomach hurts, she said.

In the cab, we were quiet for a while, but then her questioning commenced. She wanted to know about my family. I told her I lived with my Dadi – my grandmother, and my sister Neeta, about my father’s death and my mother’s insanity.

Don’t call it insanity, she said, shaking her head in disapproval, and then told me about Anand Vanmali, her dad; her mother died when she was young. What’s your mother’s name, she asked.

Premeela. She has Alzheimer’s.  She is in a sanatorium in Khandala.

When I reached home, Dadi was sitting by the kitchen window on her wooden chair and watching the traffic go by, and fanning herself desultorily.  She looked at me as if she was seeing a ghost.

No booze today, she asked, and cackled.

I switched on the fan, and went to have a shower. Then, I served myself dinner. It was the same everyday – rice and dal. My silence irritated her.

What’s the matter, why’re you home so soon?
Do you want me to go back and return later? I asked.

She glowered at me, and returned to scrutinizing the traffic. After dinner I tried to sleep early, but couldn’t and lay awake thinking of Nupur.

***

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1 Comment

Ramesh Purohit April 12, 2017 at 12:08 pm

Brilliant-this story will stay with me for ever.

Reply

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