August 01, 2005

Will it crash again?

My alternate Monday column was in Mid-Day today. But while there's a mention of it on their front page on the web, the link doesn't work. So here's the article. I called it "We All Fall Down", Mid-Day changed that to "Will it crash again?" Whatever.


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.


@mit said...

Dilip - I have been a great admirer of your columns for quite some time now. I think Rediff introduced me to you first and I have been reading your columns since then (with appreciation). I have also been visiting your blog for sometime with regularity.

But today, I feel that in your quest to write and write well, you have lost the reason why you actually write. In the last few days your posts (and many others - not the personal ones) have been more about putting the misery of other people in wonderful words and paragraphs. what is the use of that? Whay are you doing this? I know that whatever you write about is true and that you feel like writing about it.

But my point is simple. I know that there are people who drink a milk shake made of Rat Blood, but that does not mean that Fear Factor needs to show me that.

Your columns and posts have become like Fear Factor. you are trying to write for the sake of writing. you want to use the choosiset words, use the poetic flair and write about the misery of others. What is the point? I am sure you must be doing your bit in helping those poor souls too, then write about it.

I agree that you are far better than I am, because you go to the places where I dare not, but then I have set high standards for you. Please live up to them

Dilip D'Souza said...

@mit, fair point. I take such criticism seriously, and I'll make an attempt to respond to it seriously.

Why did I go to Saki Naka? Or earlier to the massive traffic jam caused by the rain? Not to show I can write well, or write about tragic situations. Besides, I'm no philanthropist, and in any case, what I might do to "help" is not what I choose to write about.

I went there, and I will go elsewhere, because I feel I have to understand for myself what is happening out there. I don't get that understanding sitting in my home and reading the papers. I do get it if I step outside and see things for myself. It's not the photographs or the figures that put last Tuesday's downpour into perspective for me, it is the people behind them. It's the ordinary little stories that give these episodes meaning.

More important, they don't necessarily have to be about "misery". In fact, what I find most interesting and uplifting about these calamities is not the tragedies, but how ordinary people help, get on with the job, move on, that kind of thing. Which is, for example, why I wrote that short bit about the guys who work hard to simply lay down rubble so the trucks can get a grip in the mud. What a job! And yet these guys were doing it diligently, with humour and sincerity. I couldn't have emulated them.

It is little sidelights like that -- which I would have only learned by going out there myself -- that tell me what this whole thing was about.

I don't know if you get what I'm trying to say, but this is my explanation. Thanks for writing to tell me what you think.

Nikhil said...

Just going thru all the news for the past few days makes me wonder: Should Bombayites haul up and prosecure the State and Civic administration for crimes against humanity. Honestly what the city people have gone thru for the past few days is totally inhuman.

spiralarchitect said...

I would agree with you on the pulling up of authorities. It always is easy for people to hide behind the garb of nature's follies, force majure for their short comings and this is precisely what the government is doing. It is not about creating a safe and secure environment for people to live in. It is about how quickly and what cost can a building be constructed ? It may sound cliched, esp in this column to talk about other cities. But if we as a powerful state, as a state who wants to be part of the permanant secruity council in the UN, want to be known, it is through infrastructure and policies.Sadly this is not the case. Let us hope the Mumbaites can arm twist the government to make their homes secure

nina said...

apropos @mit's critique:

I look forward to your blog updates, dilip, precisely for the first person POV you bring to them.

The Sakinaka land slide is pretty much out of the news now with all questions now going towards system failure and disaster management plans.

But the nightmare is far from over - families being pulled out of rubble. It's so dreadful it's easier to look away and just let them get on with it. The easy out is to term it 'looking beyond'.

So thanks dilip for not looking away, and making sure we don't either.


@mit said...

Dilip - First and Foremost, Thanks for responding earnestly and honestly to my comment. Thanks for not using the excuse, that this is my blog and I will write whatever I want. I beleive the whole idea of blogging and blogosphere is the fact that the bloggers can provide the window to others about what they see and feel.

Secondly, I believe that I should have written about my thoughts to you in an email rather than on the post. I think it was incorrect on my part to do that and if I need to discuss this any further I will email you in that regard. Apologies for not doing it earlier.

As a gist of what I feel about your response: I appreciate that you take the time and pain to visit and experience the events first hand (to whatever extent possible) and tell us about them. It puts things into perspective. I agree with most of the points that you make.

My only contention, is that the misery of people who have been affected by the events (this and many others) is a very personal thing for them. In an effort to report those and relay those across the globe, many reporters recount their experience. I am sure you are doing the same. I do not contest that. Actually I contest the whole idea of reporting these experiences. I will write to you more.

Last but not the least, I appreciate your blog much and will continue visiting the same.

Thanks and Regards,

Savitha said...

Dilip - I tend to agree with Amit on this count. But your points on experiencing the issues first had also ring a bell

Rakesh said...

The idea of reporting miseries of others is miserable.

Dilip D'Souza said...

@mit, Savitha and Rakesh,

For one thing, I nearly always ask for permission to write about people I speak to in these places, make it clear to them I'm a writer/journalist, etc. ("Nearly" because yes, I've made mistakes and there have been exceptions). Those who ask me not to mention their name and/or their experiences, I respect that. At Saki Naka itself there were a few such, and what they told me remains in my diary.

For another, I don't agree that writing about misery is miserable. If we journalists report the uplifting stories -- and I've seen and written about plenty of those too, because they inspire me -- then we must report the sadness too. There is the risk that people will react, as you guys have, saying this is an intrusion into privacy and so forth. There's no getting away from that, and the only answer there is what I say in the previous para.

As I said, it's all of this that makes these experiences take on meaning and sense for me.

Thanks for your thoughts.

uma said...

I agree with Nina. If it weren't for despatches like this, we wouldn't know about the reality of people's lives. If it's easy to look away but hard to read about, and (it must be) harder to write about, then one can only imagine what a living nightmare it must be for those who experienced this tragedy. I'm reading this piece again months after it happened, but it remains as powerful and moving as ever. Thanks for sharing, and thanks also to those who shared their experiences with you.