With yet another blast in Hyderabad, Anand Venkateswaran remembers the aftermath of the first one he witnessed.
May 18, 2007. Lunch time. The bureau chief called for me through the intercom on the rooftop canteen. Half-way through the meal I was sharing with a friend, I stumbled out of my chair. The friend, who at the same moment received a text message on her phone, mouthed “Bomb Blast” as I rushed past her and downstairs.
“Why did I call you?” He asked. I was about six months into my first job. My beat was 'Health'. I didn't know why he called me. I couldn't bring myself to say “Bomb Blast.” It seemed too far-fetched. “There's been a blast in Old City,” he said. He waited. “I’ll be there in 10 minutes, Sir.” I ran.
A cub reporter spends little time thinking about the responsibilities of a journalist in a crisis. The primary concern is to bring back enough material to ensure continued survival in the organisation, with a fervent hope for a “human interest” story that will make readers draw in a quick breath and go “tch tch tch.” I was terrified that I would lose my job that day. I drove like a maniac to Osmania hospital, a massive structure that sort of marked the boundary of what we called the Old City area. The time was 2:30 p.m. I wandered for 20 minutes. No one would talk; no one would stop and stand.
Panic grew by the second. A part of my mind observed that I hadn’t yet registered the tragedy in the situation. All I felt was an all-consuming thirst for exclusive information. A crowd was building up at the hospital already — journalists, a few policemen. I asked them for some numbers. How many injured, how many dead? No one knew. One of them said it didn’t matter. “Everyone gets it wrong on the first day. You can always revise it tomorrow. Just wait for the doctors to make an official statement.” I felt an insane thrill. That would be my story. I would have the exact numbers. Where every other publication would flounder, I would bring back an irrefutable count. “Right now, there’s a riot going on near the mosque. Better wait it out.” I ran.
Police had cordoned off a wide arc with a 1.5km radius from the Masjid. The barricading or cordoning off wasn't a closed circle like some might have you believe. That would have been impossible. Entry into the area is the only clearly defined route. The rest of it is a labyrinth of by-lanes. I parked my motorbike in a no-parking zone, confident it would remain untouched for the next two hours, and jogged up to Charminar. The journalist at Osmania wasn’t joking. It was a riot alright. There were the three participants that every riot must have — armoured and armed policemen, rioters, and journalists. It is a three-legged dance. Leaders of the rioters were missing. It was still too soon.
There were at least six photographers I knew on the scene that day and a few more I didn’t. The really young ones will snap up anything that moves, but will be pushed around by policemen. The very senior ones will wait for a few standard riot shots — lathicharge, yelling crowd, teargas, policeman with gun, debris on the road with crowd out of focus. The middle-aged ones, in their prime and on the best terms with the policemen, enjoy fuller access. Our photographer was pushing his luck, trying to capture images from bang in the middle of the road. It looked as though this riot would play out like any other. Then all hell broke loose.
First, a policeman was injured, struck by a hurled rock. The fighting intensified; got bolder on both sides. A teargas canister was expelled with a ‘thoomp’, landed among the rioters. Then some of the rioters called out the elephant in the room, dropped the ‘H’ word, blamed a particular community for the attack and the rioters were now a mob. The fury was real. I had seen enough. This was the photographers’ territory. I had no business here. By then, I had advanced all the way up to the mosque.
The mosque was strangely quiet. Whether out of shock, or reverence — I believe it was the latter — those inside mourned in muted voices and simply kept looking at the carnage in front of them. There was a great big granite slab, cracked in two. Around the slab, on the carpet, were pools of blood and pieces of human flesh. There was some brain tissue. The metallic smell of human blood in that mosque remains a vivid memory. Something about that mosque, about the way the people stood around that granite slab, something penetrated my naiveté, made my childish fear of failure seem incongruous. Unfortunately, I didn’t allow it to sink in. I interpreted it as a solidifying of purpose and decided to go to Princess Esra Hospital, where the bodies were.
The distance from the mosque to the hospital is less than a kilometre. I kept to street corners and avoided the direct route. There seemed to have been a change in the rioting — groups of rioters were mobile, stuffed into SUVs. Policemen were chasing after some of the groups. Barely 200 metres beyond the mosque, there was no one. The shops were shut and the houses could have been empty for all the noise on that street. Not a leaf stirred. I took a left turn and then an immediate right. Noise erupted again.
Princess Esra hospital was being mobbed. A hundred men at the very least, clambering onto the cast iron gates of the hospital, shaking it violently, jumping over the wall into the compound, baying for blood. “Bahar nikal…maar dalenge. Doctor! Bahar nikal!” They screamed. They wanted to kill the doctors, all of them inside the hospital. It was terribly strange. The mob was held at bay by another group of their own peers, who had already let themselves in. In effect, they had taken over the hospital. They controlled who came in; they made sure no one left. At the base of the agitation, there was a small cluster of men — journalists from a few regional language dailies, mostly Urdu publications — demanding to be let in. I walked up to the cluster and stood beside one of them — a large man, sporting a copper-red beard, dressed in a grey ‘Safari’ suit. He was negotiating entry, trying to convince the gatekeeper that his group should be allowed in. “Mujhe bhi andar jana hai,” I said. As one, five men from the other side of the gate looked at me. “Yeh kaun hai?” one of them asked the bearded man. The harmonics in that man’s voice struck me like a bolt of electricity. It helped illuminate the sheer stupidity of what I had done. With sudden — and for that day uncharacteristic — clarity, I realised that barely hours after a mosque was bombed, when tempers were frayed and an entire community was on a hair-trigger, I was the only non-Muslim in a one-kilometre radius.
It was a strange realisation. As someone right in the heart of that situation, I could see that religion had nothing at all to do with the anger now staring me in the face. It’s hard to explain, but when you’re looking at actual people — the man at the gate, trying to keep things from getting out of hand; the mob itself, reacting out of shared grief, multiplied by an enviable societal bond; or the man beside me, who seemed perfectly at home, who probably knew most of the families that were now breaking into the hospital — it all makes more sense than when you read about ‘a riot’ or ‘chaos’ or ‘violence’ in the papers the next day. I also understood I was 10 seconds away from a lynching.
The realisation did little to help my wits. I was about to tell him my name and newly acquired designation, when the man beside me put his right arm around my shoulder and said, “Yeh mere saath hai.” I gulped down whatever it was I was going to say, and nodded. As I focussed on the buzzing in my ears, he talked with the gatekeeper animatedly. Presently, the gate creaked open another half foot. We squeezed in, just the two of us.
I jogged to keep up with him. He looked at my neck and his eyes widened mid-stride. He stopped suddenly and growled, “Pocket mein dalo.” I was wearing the crystal rosary beads my grandfather had given me. I tend to let the beads spill over a collar. A style thing, cultivated consciously, until it became an unconscious action every time I did more than walk. I pocketed the beads in three seconds, while he casually shielded me with the ruse of hitching up his pants.
The hospital was choking with injury, death and grief. And people — so many of them, in every ward, in every available room. Later reports confirmed that even operation theatres were mobbed. I wasn’t surprised. This wasn’t simply a hospital in a time of crisis. I had spent much of my first six months on the job in hospitals. Blood, injury, grief, death; these are not rare or extraordinary. The frequency and volume rises and falls, but the pattern is the same. The caregivers are always jaded and the grief is always in pockets. Each family covers itself in a cocoon and weeps. Princess Esra was something else. The people were grieving together, being angry together.
We were escorted by four men, swiftly, without stopping or talking to anyone on the way, straight to a room full of bodies. This room was even more packed than the others. The group inside the room looked up at us, saw my protector remove a pen from his pocket and gently tap his notepad. Recognition. Most of them shook their heads and bowed down again. Some of them sighed deeply and matched his gaze. He looked at me once, motioned me to wait. Out of the highest form of courtesy I have ever experienced, he gestured if I wanted to talk to anyone. We both knew that would put him at great risk. I pursed my lips and shook my head a barest fraction. He nodded once, walked over to the nearest man and began talking in a soft, soothing voice. I listened. As he spoke with everyone in the room, I counted the bodies.
I spent less than 10 minutes inside Princess Esra. I didn’t say a word. The four men who brought us inside remained with us all through. While inside the room, two groups of men came to the door, pointed at me and started an agitated conversation. Two of our escort took them away, and returned to their post at the door.
Presently, we were back at the gate. I held out my hand to the first person in the quartet that took us in. Barely a moment’s hesitation. A quick, vigorous shake, a clap on the back, and we were out of the gate.
I didn’t remember what happened after, barely remember walking back. I didn’t even ask him his name. In a daze, I went back to Charminar.
The Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) leaders had arrived. The situation had gotten out of hand. They came and saved the day. They calmed their community. Owaisi (the elder one) himself patrolled the by-lanes in his SUV and appealed to the public to stop rioting. Half-truths, myths; the politics of conflict at work.
Stories emerged, I absorbed them automatically. A teenager who didn’t attend the prayer, but lost his brother to the blast; residents of the area who offered first aid, who rushed the first wave of the injured to the hospital even before the ambulances arrived; traffic blocked, vehicles attacked near Osmania hospital, policemen accosted, politicians arrive late. And MIM regains its weakening hold over Old City.
The office knew I had gone in deeper than the others they sent out. They called and asked me for details. I told them about the riot, I told them about the injured. I told them what the doctors said. I confirmed what they knew from other correspondents, I asked them for details to flesh out fragments I already had. They patched together some reports before I returned.
I filed a straight-forward story about the chaos at hospitals, children injured in the blast. Bits of what I brought back were absorbed into other stories.
Before putting it to bed, I gave them the numbers again — how many dead, how many injured. “Are you sure about this?” the chief asked. “I counted the bodies,” I said.