Oddly enough, the question that's uppermost in my mind is, how did these enormous excavators get here? I get a fleeting vision of Air Force helicopters dropping excavators in addition to the usual food packets -- that seems to be the only way they could have reached.
But naturally, it didn't happen that way. These machines came up the road, itself narrow and twisting and wet with slick brown mud, to this spot. The mildly depressing thing about that road is that it didn't exist before the deluge. In order to get the excavators and trucks up here, the Municipality had to drive a road through the slum, demolishing several huts. That is, to reach the victims of a landslide that destroyed a hundred or more huts, still more huts had to be destroyed.
There's a lesson about this city somewhere in there.
Though there is a difference. The landslide didn't just destroy huts, it also snuffed out lives.
This is the slum of Netaji Nagar in Saki Naka, where the huge downpour of last Tuesday set an entire hillside sliding. Just days later, such a slide is a prospect frightening even to imagine.
For one thing, there are the boulders, some as large as Maruti Zens. What it must have been for those huge stones to roll down onto densely packed hutments, I can't comprehend.
For another, there is the hillside. It towers directly above me, the gaping space left by the slide a gigantic wound -- brown, raw and exposed. It's riven with huge cracks and looks like it's going to come crashing down right now. And then it begins to rain, and heavily. Will it come crashing down?
For a third, there are the excavators. They sit on the boulders, four big-heavy-clumsy yet skillful machines, working away. One uses a long metal probe to hammer at the boulders, push them aside, pick through them; and as it does, some of the boulders roll down the hill towards the machine itself. When it drills an especially big stone, breaking it up, I can feel the vibrations in my feet, my very bones, even though I'm standing a good 100 feet away. I look up uneasily at the hillside. Will it come crashing down?
For a fourth, there are the huts. Many around me where I stand, at the base of the hill. But many more on top, lining the very edge of the raw hillside wound; some of them actually overhang the edge slightly. And there are people in there, a few looking down curiously at all of us, but most just going about their business, whatever business it is they do on the very edge of a landsliding hill.
When the slope collapsed, many of the huts destroyed were on top like those still are. Their inhabitants must have been going about their business that afternoon, just as these that I can see are doing this afternoon. But that afternoon, they slid down with the mud and rocks and huts onto more huts below, they were caught in the tumbling rocks and mangled to death.
People tell me in hushed tones, they've brought out 72 bodies so far, but there must be many more. They haven't even started looking in many places on the hillside. People tell me, under the stones where one excavator stands, under this road the municipality made for the trucks, there's an entire chawl! A chawl, can you understand that, sahib? So when they finish with those boulders, we have to dig here; 7 or 8 feet at least before we get to that buried chawl, and who knows how many bodies we'll find there? Who knows what condition they'll be in?
I don't know how to take this. But the people who tell me are very serious about it indeed. They expect to find hundreds more bodies by the time they are finished.
Meanwhile, one dead body comes past. Four firemen with masks carry a stretcher, and on it is what anyone might pass off as just a bundle of clothes, were it not for where we are and why and who's carrying the stretcher. Just a shape in light pink, not even filling the stretcher from side to side, not even making the canvas sag much from the poles. For this is Komal Ramdayal Yadav, and she was just over a year old when she died on Tuesday afternoon. And trudging behind as she lies on her final bed is Ramdayal Yadav, her thin tall father with tears in his eyes.
Like most men here, Ramdayal left for work early that morning. No fixed job, he would just go to the Saki Naka junction and sign up for whatever construction work was going. He managed to come home only at 9 that night, and knew with one look at the hill that his wife and their two children, whom he had left in their hut on top of the hill, had to be dead. He has been here since then, standing by the excavators and rescue personnel through three days and more until their bodies were found. Komal is the first to emerge. An hour later, his wife Sunita and their son Pravin follow, on their own firemen-hefted stretchers. Ramdayal trudges behind again, more tears in his eyes.
For the rescue workers, after 70 bodies, this is now routine stuff. I hear them calling to him for one thing or another: "Yadav!" "Ramdayal!", terse and loud. He crisscrosses the road the municipality made, to sign this, or identify that, or to add his name over there.
I ask him, what will you do? He has the grace not to treat that as the stupid question it is. He just says: "What can I do, after this?"
And as I walk out of Netaji Nagar, I turn to look up at the hillside one last time. That crack looks ominous. It is raining again.