The flames are still burning

Nineteen years after Uphaar, the Krishanamoorthy couple recalls the horror

February 04, 2017 03:40 pm | Updated 03:40 pm IST

Trial by Fire; Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy, Penguin, ₹299.

Trial by Fire; Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy, Penguin, ₹299.

Trial by Fire has almost everything a good story needs. The protagonists are relatable. Their story starts off in a pretty mundane fashion. A father cooks lunch for his children. The mother books tickets for the children to watch a movie in the evening. Then comes the twist. The day that started out like every other ends in a massive tragedy, one which takes the family through two decades of anguish, anger and mourning.

But there are no happy endings here. In fact, this story has no end.

That’s because the real-life ordeal that compelled Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy to write the book has not ended. For 19 years, the Krishnamoorthys have fought for justice for their children, Unnati and Ujjwal, who were among the 59 people killed in the Uphaar Cinema fire in Delhi in 1997.

Just as closure has evaded the Krishnamoorthys and the 27 other families that lost loved ones on June 13, 1997, Trial by Fire cannot have a neat conclusion. The book, written in the voice of Neelam, follows the lives of the couple after the Uphaar tragedy as they wage a never-ending battle against the owners of the cinema, Gopal and Sushil Ansal. In their quest to get justice for the Uphaar victims, the Krishnamoorthys end up playing different roles through the years. They become researchers, legal assistants to their attorney and, finally, activists.

Much has been said and written about the incident and its aftermath. But this is the first time that the Krishnamoorthys, who spearheaded the legal battle against the Ansals after forming the Association of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT), are telling their story.

Here’s what they say happened. Unnati, 17, and Ujjwal, 13, wanted to watch the matinee show of the Hindi movie Border that had released that day. Neelam booked tickets for the children — something which she regrets till date She left early to visit a relative in hospital, leaving Shekhar in charge of cooking lunch for Unnati and Ujjwal. That was the last meal the children ate.

Unknown to them at the time, at 4.55 p.m. a spark in an electricity transformer on the ground floor of the Uphaar complex led to a fire. It spread to the parking lot, where cars went up in flames, leading to thick toxic smoke entering the auditorium via the air-conditioning ducts. While the 750 people sitting on the first floor of the cinema managed to escape, those in the balcony were less lucky. Illegal extensions, additional seats and blocked exits left them trapped as smoke filled the hall.

Ujjwal and Unnati sat in the first row of the balcony, next to a gangway and exit that were blocked to make space for an eight-seater box for the Ansal family. Fifty-nine people who sat in the balcony died and over 100 were injured.

Describing the phone call from a friend informing them of the fire, the frantic rush to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) and the sight of their children’s lifeless bodies, Neelam and Shekhar write of how they lost their faith in god that day.

Years later, they were to lose their faith in the judiciary, when the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of the Ansals but allowed them to skip jail by paying Rs. 60 crore to the Delhi government to build a trauma centre in 2015.

Trial by Fire is not just about the Krishnamoorthys’ personal loss and struggle to get justice, but lays bare the systemic rot in our institutions. There were not enough ambulances that day; the theatre owners did not have safety clearances; building norms were flouted; and victims were abused in court.

The book makes the argument that our public spaces are still vulnerable to such tragedies. That the government and private sector have not done enough. That another Uphaar could happen today.

But at the heart of the story is the Krishnamoorthys’ determination to fight in memory of their children. They write of moments of weakness, when fighting the battery of high-profile lawyers hired by the Ansals got too much. But they carried on.

A few years ago, a friend of Unnati’s rang their doorbell. He was inviting them to his wedding. While they accepted his invitation and promised that they would attend, Neelam and Shekhar write they couldn’t muster up the courage to go. It would have only reminded them of the wedding Unnati would never have.

Trial by Fire; Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy, Penguin, 299.

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