November 29, 2008

On looking

The crowds surge from here to there, like some clothed and hairy wave. Hostage coming out of that exit? Run over there. Distraught relative emerging from this one? Leap over the flowers to get back. On and on it goes, and my memory of the afternoon has plenty of ponytails swishing as their owners scurry back and forth.

After the end of the horrific ordeal at the Oberoi, hostages from the hotel -- dead and alive -- are being brought to the Air India building next door.

One exit is for vehicles that back in to take the people away. Or try to, the press of rubbernecking people is so heavy that several cars cannot get through. The first such car I see is a Scorpio that just barrels through and up the ramp, waved on by a burly man who is helping families with the whole process. He shouts angrily at bystanders and by sheer force of personality clears a path for the Scorpio to pull in, for a man speaking Italian to put his hostage relative into the car, and for it to drive out again. Subsequent such operations don't go as easily, despite the burly man's anger, because this first dramatic hostage departure attracts more running hordes.

The other exit is through Air India's ticket office, and the small lobby there is a collection of grieving relatives waiting for news from inside. Each family has sent in somebody, and every now and then a distraught person emerges with whatever they have found out, and the sorrow ripples outwards from them. Two hostages emerge, pale and shaken, and are led away weeping by parents through thronging onlookers and photographers and cameramen running after them, alongside, backward in front of them. Twice there's news of a death, and the family stands there shattered and crying, with onlookers crowding around and photographers with long lenses contorting for their shots.

A young woman in blue jeans and a green top stands at the base of the steps up to the lobby, leaning forward and taking photographs of this sorrow with a tiny camera. After a few minutes of this, a woman from one of the waiting families walks over and berates her. "Why are you taking photographs, for God's sake? Don't you have any human decency? And you're a woman, you're not even a man!"

The young woman looks truly abashed for several seconds. Then she resumes taking pictures. Not just that, some minutes later I see that she has handed her tiny camera to a friend and is posing for a picture, green in front of the grief.

Twice more, family members berate photographers and cameramen like this. One of the photographers breaks away while she's being berated and runs, because there's a sudden commotion at the other exit. Her ponytail, swishing across her back.

Through all this, a news correspondent from TV 18 stalks up and down this pavement, trailed by her cameraman, talking steadily into her mike. Sometimes they seem to follow a family, sometimes she stops to speak so that they are in the background, most of the time she just stalks and talks. She keeps this up for a good 45 minutes. I can't imagine what watching her channel's coverage of this tragedy must be like. Actually, I can, and I'm glad I'm not watching.

The man standing right next to me speaks into his phone. "Look," he says, "I desperately need you to get me someone high up in the police who can get me in to check out the dead bodies." I can't quite believe I heard this: I mean, is this the level of voyeurism we're getting to? So I turn to say something to him. I bite off my words, because as I turn, a weeping woman buries her face in his shoulder. This is one of the affected families.

And it's about then that I think something that I have eventually found myself thinking at every scene of great disaster and sorrow I've been at.

Sure, I feel that contempt for voyeurs like Madamoiselle Green Top.

But what makes me any different?

1 comment:

km said...

Great post, Dilip.