A red coloured Maruti van parked 100 metres away.
Four hefty men with bulging eyes.
Stark silence, dreaded darkness.
No familiar faces in sight.
The time was past midnight.
… a shiver ran down my spine.
Amidst the chaos and clutter of charred bodies being wheeled in with families breaking down, little did I conceive an event that even today, gives me Goosebumps, every time I read a news story of a woman being sexually violated, and her body, mysteriously dumped in an isolated place.
As a trainee journalist, covering an event as catastrophic as the serial bomb blast that shook the city of Mumbai in July 2011 was challenging at several levels.
Identifying that one aggrieved family member, who could narrate the whereabouts of their loved one before he/she reached the spot of the blast, sending real-time updates to the editor, maintaining my composure in such an emotionally-charged setup besides answering phone calls from my mother, who wanted to know if I was safe and had eaten my dinner, was a strenuous exercise, both, professionally and emotionally.
It was past midnight on the clock. Even as shutters of shops in the neighbourhood were pulled down and people on the streets had returned to the safe confines of their homes, the situation at the hospital only got more heart-breaking with every tick of the clock. More bodies were being wheeled in and the police personnel gheraod certain areas to keep the journalists at bay.
Since it was the first time, I was working in such a high-pressure situation I was accompanied by a senior journalist from my own publication. I had to ensure that I was on my toes, keeping her in the know of everything that I found.
It was at this moment, when I was with a group of journalists, who were busy listing out the names of the identified victims, an unknown man, standing a few feet away, called out to me. Bogged down with the pressure of finding any relevant information that could make it to the next morning’s paper, I didn’t think twice before responding to him.
“Madam, hospital ke back gate ke bahar, ek family hai jinke bete ka death hua hai. Mein aapki baat-cheet unke saath karwa sakta hoon.” (Madam, I will introduce you to the family of a victim, who died in the blast. They are waiting near the back gate of the hospital.)
Now, finding a family, which could talk to the press at such a time was a real challenge. Thus, when the man offered to help, I actually felt relieved.
After informing my senior in hushed whispers- hoping that no other newspaper reporter could hear- that I would be back in a moment after speaking to the family, I followed the man.
Unthinkingly, I walked along with the man, asking him questions about the deceased and which member of the family might be in a more composed state to talk to me. He insisted that the victim’s father was around and even assured me an exclusive interview with him. I believed him.
A minute into this conversation, the unfamiliar corridors through which he was directing me through struck me like a thunderbolt. It was just the two of us, away from the public and police glare, in the middle of the night. Moreover, the cemented walls in the large hospital ensured that there was either low or absolutely no mobile network for me to contact anyone. It was then that I started questioning my decision and this man’s intentions.
Suddenly, his genuine tone sounded pretentious. His eyes looked puffier than what I had first noticed, his story fragmented and fake with every word he uttered.
What would he get by promising me an ‘exclusive’ story?
Why would he take me through these unfamiliar corridors, when there is a direct road from outside the main gate to the morgue?
There were many more “Why” and “What” questions that sprung up in my mind. None had a convincing answer.
It was too late to turn back and move. We had crossed three long corridors and hastily turning back and running seemed like an implausible option. So, I decided to maintain my cool, go along with him, while hoping that some familiar face would suddenly appear to help me out of there. All this while, I continued to expect the worst and prayed to some divine unknown for deliverance.
Finally, after walking through several empty corridors that were towards the end, dimly lit, an exit door was visible. Three men, whom I immediately noticed were brawny and looked woozy, waited near a red coloured Maruti van that was parked a few metres from the gate.
My heart skipped a beat. A shiver ran down my spine. I felt numb.
“Gaadi ke peeche woh victim ka daddy khada hai. Chalo, aap mere saath aa jao.” (The victim’s father is waiting behind the car. Come along.) My feet refused to move. I didn’t find any escape route. There was no “daddy” visible through the faint light in the dark. Just the van and three men, staring at and into me.
I stood still for a few seconds.
What followed surpassed my imagination.
A senior journalist from a rival newspaper called out to me from behind, “Reetika, what the hell are you doing there? Just come here. Soon.” Who would have imagined that in following me to find out what story I was pursuing, she would in fact end up safeguarding me from a fate that could have been difficult to make peace with.
I ran. Ran towards her with tears rolling down my cheeks.
The man in the background suddenly disappeared into the darkness and was later seen, only in the nightmares that I had in the following few nights.