By Prapti Barman
Her eyes fluttered open. As her eyes received light after a long period of time, everything appeared quite a bit dazzling to her. She could not quite make out anything apart from the bright light that encompassed her. In the few seconds her eyes remained open her brain was driving an overload trying to accumulate data about all things that the retina perceived. She felt a bit dizzy. She promptly closed her eyes and took deep breaths. “No need to hurry Mrs. Basu. Open your eyes slowly,” she could hear someone instruct. She decided to follow the lead as that seemed to be her only rational option. Once more she opened her eyes slowly only a small fraction at a time. After about ten minutes or so, she had successfully opened her eyes without getting dazzled by the white light.
She took in her surroundings. She found herself in an unfamiliar room. Hospital room, she surmised. The walls were white. One of the walls, probably a window, was covered by white vertical blinds. She was lying on a narrow bed guarded by rails, the ones which you find in a hospital. Lots of wires surrounded her, one connected her arm to a bottle of saline through an IV. A big chunk of machine sat near her bed showing some kind of graph and making a beeping noise. Two doctors stood near her. One of them was taking down some notes in his clipboard from the machine display. The elder doctor smiled kindly at her.
“Welcome back, Mrs. Basu. How are you feeling now. Are you in pain?” the doctor asked.
She tried to speak but her throat was dry. Realizing her discomfort, the doctor brought a cup of water and asked her to drink. Once she completed drinking, she felt marginally better. “Not much pain but my head is throbbing a bit,” she answered quietly to answer the doctor’s previous query. The doctor nodded but his eyes narrowed a bit. “Mithi,” came a sound from the door. She turned around to find an elderly woman standing with two children. Seeing them, she came out of her blank state as millions of thoughts burst forth as synaptic messages from millions of neurons. “Ma,” she cried out. The woman hurried towards her daughter with the two kids in tow. “Oh God Mithi, I was so worried. It has been almost a month. Thank God you are awake. You have come back to us,” she wailed while embracing her daughter. The senior doctor signalled the other doctor and quietly they left the room to give the family some privacy.
Mithi embraced her mother and tried to calm her wild racing heart. A faint sound of a train whistle reverberated in her memory. She started hyperventilating as millions of images started pouring into her mind. “Mommy” hearing this sweet voice, she opened her eyes and broke contact with her mother to acknowledge the presence of her children for the first time. She bit her lips to keep herself off from drowning in despair. Rather she concentrated on her two daughters – six year old Priti and four year old Arusikha. Her sweet children. They were looking at her timidly as if their mommy was going to vanish. Oh God, how much pain and uncertainty did they suffer when they saw their mother unconscious? Mithi gave a loving look towards her daughters and pulled them in a hug and started crying. Youngest Arusikha patted her mother’s back to give her comfort as she had seen her mother do countless number of times. That alone caused Mithi to almost lose her control… almost. I am the one supposed to give her comfort, to protect her from any pain. And here she is protecting me.
May 28 : 12 am
Mithi was lying in the lower bunk. She had her eyes closed and earphones plugged in her ear. She always faced trouble sleeping during train journeys. She figured it was best to listen to songs to pass the time. If during the process, she would be lulled to sleep then that would be an added bonus. Nevertheless she did not take help of any foolish ways like counting and back counting sheep to help her sleep. They would simply prove to be fruitless.
She turned sideways and watched her husband sleep peacefully in the adjacent bunk. His face was only partially illuminated by the dim light in the passageway. He was snoring lightly. Mithi smiled a bit. She had a strong urge to play with his unruly hairs. But Pradip was looking so calm and peaceful in his sleep, she did not have the heart to touch him. Rather Mithi turned sideways, placed her head on the crook of her shoulder and watched her husband.
Pradip was a handsome man. Mithi had no doubt about it. She on the other hand was downright mediocre in the looks department. Still now she was not completely sure how on heaven was she able to entrap a fine man like him. It still seemed like she was living her life in a fairy tale and someday the dream would end. She had heard her friends sigh loudly after looking at ‘her’ Pradip. But they did not know half the reason why Pradip was such a fine catch. He was more beautiful inside than outside and she felt herself quite lucky to be given the opportunity to spend the rest of her life with him.
Soon after her marriage with Pradip, she had been blessed with two beautiful babies – her angels Priti and Arusikha. She smiled a bit as she remembered what a tantrum Priti had thrown when she had discovered that her parents were going to Mumbai on a weekend trip to attend a marriage ceremony. Little Arusikha had caught a cold. Although she was recovering, Mithi did not want to tag them along if there was even a little possibility that she would overstress herself in the journey. Mithi would have stayed back too if her mother had not stepped up to take responsibility of her grandchildren. After consoling Priti for almost an hour and promising her to buy a pretty teddy bear, Mithi was able to calm down her child.
Mithi opened her purse which she had kept with herself and took out a faded picture of her children. It was taken during Arusikha’s second birthday. Both of them looked cute in matching pink dresses. She tenderly kissed the photo and kept it back in her purse. She checked the time. It was 1 o’clock in the morning. The train was stopping at very few stations. Hence it was impossible for Mithi to determine how much it had travelled. Still she tried to look outside the window. It was pitch dark except for a few lampposts which slowly glided away to the opposite direction. Due to last minute decisions on who would attend the ceremony, they had been able to book tickets in the general compartment only. But Mithi didn’t mind. She closed her eyes and enjoyed the slight cool breeze that was kissing her cheeks. It would be hot and sultry in the morning. But now the temperature was perfect.
After a few more minutes she decided to take a short trip to the lavatory. As she passed along the passage, she had to bend a little to avoid touching the protruding legs of many sleeping passengers so as not to wake them up. The train was making an occasional squeaking noise, a result of friction between rusted plates. Sometimes when the engine would gain speed the jerking of the compartment would increase. On several such occasions, Mithi was forced to hold onto any support she could find to maintain her vertical balance. As she reached the narrow passage in front of the lavatories, she noticed that one of the front doors was open. Wind was howling through the door. Mithi put as much distance as possible between her and the opened door and entered the toilet.
Five minutes later, she was standing in front of the small washbasin. She wiped her face carefully with water. Looking into the attached mirror, she tried to tame her hair which had gone wild due to the high speed wind. She then turned towards the open door and stood looking at the darkness outside. Darkness seemed to spread all around her. Holding onto the iron handles, she progressed a bit towards the open door. She could see faint shadows of the huge railway track on which this giant beast of a train with thirteen compartments was running along. The whistle of the train and the squeaking noise was much more pronounced here. She felt quite insignificant standing in front of the door. Her heart skipped a beat and sweat began to form on her forehead. She didn’t understand the reason behind the waves of panic slowly crippling her spines. She could feel it in her bones but could not fathom why. Here she was standing, alone in a partially lit passage of a moving train in front of an open door, when probably all of her co-passengers were sleeping peacefully. She was feeling panic for some reason but she stood in the same place, seemingly unable to move. Was it some premonition of her subconscious mind?
Suddenly she heard a loud booming sound. What was it? It sounded like the sound of crackers during Diwali, but only a thousand times louder. Mithi could hear the faint confused murmur of some passengers who had been woken up by the sound. The fear that was slowly gripping her increased. She forced herself to move towards her compartment. But no sooner had she taken one step forward that the entire coach shuddered and she was thrown back on the floor.
Mithi watched as a nurse took her children away from the ICU room under the pretence of showing them the garden. Once Mithi was sure that both her kids were out of ear shot, she turned towards her mother. Mithi’s mother looked uncomfortable, frightened even. Now that her grandchildren were away, there was no avoiding the giant elephant in the room. She tried to look at any other place apart from the eyes of her daughter, those eyes which were undoubtedly brimming with unshed tears of countless questions and despair. “Ma, look at me,” said Mithi. Once her mother shifted her eyes towards her, Mithi looked into the eyes of her mother and tried to read them. She could read equal amounts of fear, uncertainty and love shining in her eyes. These, coupled with her sagging shoulders, gave a powerful hunch about Mithi’s current predicament. Still Mithi steeled herself and asked in a cool detached voice, “Pradip is no more, isn’t it?”
Her mother could hold herself no more. She broke down crying, placing her head on Mithi’s lap. She cried for the moment when she learnt about the fateful accident from news headlines. She cried for her frantic phone calls to anybody who could help her get some information on her daughter and her son in law. She cried for the anxiety and pain that she suffered during the prolonged wait in a Mumbai police station, only a piece of paper in her hand where Mithi had written down the coach and the berth numbers they would occupy. She cried for the brief sense of relief when she was informed that her daughter was amongst the injured passengers who were being airlifted from Jhargram. That sense of relief was soon replaced by heartbreak when she saw her only child lying in the ICU bed, suffering from multiple broken bones and near fatal injuries.
Mithi appeared like a doll, only a broken one. She had refused to drop a single tear as she had tried to remain strong for her daughter and her grandkids. Day after day she had watched the doctor’s grim faces. She would see the families of hundreds of victims, some crying, and some praying and others sitting stone-still as if somebody’s life depended on it. Every day would be a reminder, every death would be like a bad omen. Even though the doctors had assured her that everything would be okay, she knew in her heart that nothing would be okay. It would never be the same. Her life had fallen apart. Still she prayed to God for each day that her daughter kept on breathing and her heart continued beating. Then after a week or so came another terrible information. Pradip had died. His body had been rescued from beneath tons of debris. She had still not dropped any tear. She had maintained a cool demeanour as she put her grandkids to sleep that night. She even relented when Priti demanded to stay up a little later to watch cartoons. She did not have the heart to be hard on two innocent children who have just lost a parent. Today, after weeks of keeping all the emotions bottled up inside her, she finally cried. Mithi placed her hand on her mother’s shoulder and simply allowed her to cry. She knew her ma needed this outlet. Their role had just been reversed.
After half an hour, Mithi was sitting holding her mother’s hand who had sobered up a bit. “Ma, have they caught who was responsible?” Mithi asked softly.
“They have caught some suspects. Every day some new data, some new lead is getting uncovered. God only knows what is correct. The whole country is agitated. Everybody is waiting for the culprit to get caught and put behind the bars. Everday the political leaders are attending meetings.”
“Don’t listen to them ma. They are a bunch of liars who would advertise any situation if they had some profit out of it. Sympathy? They only have sympathy for themselves. This whole situation will turn out to be another monkey business. One party will throw mud at another. They will show sympathy to victims’ families, give them financial support, promise of a job. Each will try to put more limelight on oneself. Rumours will flow. Sometimes after all dust settled down, people will forget about everything. It will be as if nothing happened. There will be no discussions why so many train derailments happen in India and how to put a stop to that. Life will go on, for them and for us. The only difference is that our faces will show scars when we look in the mirror. Funny how things turn out, huh? A month before I was on that side of fence. I would show my sympathies, I would cry at the pain of my fellow countrymen but then everything would go back to normal. But today I am standing on this side of the fence. Nothing will ever be normal.”
Mithi’s mother was slightly surprised to hear her daughter’s words. She had never heard her daughter to be this bitter. Maybe Mithi was right, maybe this incident had indeed changed everything. Nothing would ever be as before.
Priti entered the room holding little Arusikha’s hand. “Mommy, this place is so beautiful. You know they have a huge garden with so many beautiful plants. The doctor also showed me a pretty blue room. There are so many toys in the room. He told me that it’s okay if we come and play with those toys anytime we want…,” she continued gushing excitedly. Mithi’s mother noticed that her daughter’s face had brightened significantly when her grandchildren walked into the room. Now as Priti sat in front of her mother babbling about how cool the hospital was, she found Mithi’s face light up slowly with a smile. She looked almost like her old self, undamaged. Oh God let my daughter find her peace in her children, let them bind her to her life, she prayed.
May 28 : 1.30 am
Mithi had hit her head to the corner of the washbasin when she was thrown backwards. She could feel blood oozing out of her wound. She was unable to comprehend what was happening. Her head felt weak due to the sudden shock and pain. But even amidst that she could hear people screaming. She opened her eyes but when she found that her vision was getting blurry, she tried to focus. She could see that a few men from the adjacent berths were trying to get out to see what caused the terrible jolt. One even jostled past her stepping on her hand in his hurry to get to the door. Mithi’s painful scream got caught in her throat as she felt the train move. The only difference was that the train was not moving forward. Rather it appeared to be sliding sideway.
“Oh God, the train is getting derailed,” shouted the man who had managed to reach the open door. Soon after he said that he jumped out of the door and was swallowed by the darkness. Panic crept into Mithi’s mind. She was holding onto the washbasin for her dear life when she felt the train gradually rotate on its side. Fear of what was in store for them was only fuelled by the fact that she was away from her husband. So close yet so far apart! He must have woken up and must be confused and frightened. Mithi cursed herself for coming to the passage alone.
She could hear screeching of metal and people’s screams resonating as the giant beast began to rotate on its side. Mithi was also on the verge of being pulled over to the other side towards the door that was not opened but she held on to the washbasin. She did not know for how long she could hold on. She was getting tired because her blood was constantly flowing out of her wound. Just when she thought that the hurdle was over and the train was slowing down, another disaster struck them.
Just like a tornado would strike unsuspecting victims, the decelerating train was struck causing a magnanimous vibration. The sound of the collision vibrated to the spines of each passenger gradually making them numb with panic. As if caught in a slow motion scene, Mithi found herself thrown towards the opposite side, through the open door. The force of the sway was too great for Mithi’s feeble fingers to hold onto the door and like a ragged doll she was lifted from the train and tossed onto the ground. She landed on the ground with a loud crunch. Pain rippled through her body at great speed until it was the main message being transmitted. She lost consciousness.
When she regained consciousness, she found herself amongst a pile of debris of destroyed civilization. The screams of people that she remembered being echoed earlier was reduced to a faint buzzing in the back of her head. She had opened her eyes to see the wide stretch of the blue sky in the first instant of sunrise. She could not find any poetry in its beauty. She had only felt hollow. Other emotions could not make any appearance as every inch, every nerve of her body was transferring the same message that her battered body felt – pain. She had tried to get up but the pain had been so tremendous that she had not tried to do so again. Instead she turned her head sideways to look at the scene in front of her. What she saw broke her heart, her mind and probably her soul too.
She saw the huge monstrosity that was the train lying toppled on the ground as if a neglected toy. The windows had been broken and the sides had been ruptured to form dangerous gashes. How could one imagine the possibility of this happening to a kilometre long chunk of steel and iron? Mithi could make out many bodies lying on the ground like her and many more trapped under the debris. She could count as many as fifty within the range of her vision. How many more were there? What were their names? What were their identities? Amit, Reena, Babu, Shabbir, Raja… Pradip? She felt nauseous at the gory image in front of her. What really broke her sanity was a small protruding hand from a gap inside the train. It was the hand of a child. The child had probably tried to crawl through the gap when he or she died. Mithi felt saline moisture on her lips and knew she was crying. There was no sound, no anger, and no panic in her cry. It was submission, submission and acceptance of a helpless person to her fate. She again drifted back to unconsciousness.
Next time she gained consciousness, she was being lifted from the ground. Two officers dressed in military uniforms were carrying her in a stretcher. Seeing her open eyes one of them said, “We have got you, madam. You are safe. Everything is okay.” Mithi closed her eyes.
Safe? Okay? If only they knew…
Ma : Stands for mother
Diwali : Diwali or Deepavali, popularly known as the “festival of lights,” is a festival celebrated between mid-October and mid-December for different reasons. Diwali commemorates the return of Lord Rama, along with Sita and Lakshmana, from his 14-year-long exile and vanquishing the demon-king Ravana. In joyous celebration of the return of their king, the people of Ayodhya, the Capital of Rama, illuminated the kingdom with earthen diyas and by bursting firecrackers
Author’s Note :
This is not a story. Rather it is a tribute to the thousands of people who lose their lives to such tragic accidents. I admit that I have been inspired by a true incident that happened in our family. The Jnaneswari Express derailment occurred on 28 May 2010 in the West Midnapore district of West Bengal, India. At 01:30 local time, a train with 13 carriages passing over the missing track derailed. The derailed train was then struck by a goods train travelling in the opposite direction. At least 141 people died and more than 180 people were injured. My distant aunt and uncle were also travelling in the same train. My aunt died and my uncle has suffered from a prolonged injury. Although I was not quite familiar with my aunt and uncle, I have seen my family suffer because of aunt’s untimely demise. Most that suffered were her children. I pray to God for the soul of my aunt and countless other victims who have faced the same untimely and unpredictable tragedy.
May their soul rest in peace!