Two decades after Godhra, revisiting a raging cauldron lit this day

The S6 coach of Sabarmati Express Train burns near the Godhra Railway Station in Gujarat on February 27, 2002.

Two decades ago this day, February 27, 2002, to be precise, we landed in Gujarat’s commercial capital, Ahmedabad, from India’s teeming megapolis of Mumbai.

Bombay, which shed its British legacy to embrace its desi avatar of Mumbai seven years ago, was then our 'adda'.

It was still Bombay for us and we thrived there for months despite the agony of an unwarranted pink slip.

BridgeNews was making waves in the booming North American market oceans away, taking on heavyweights Reuters and Bloomberg head-on in the business of commodities, equities and money market news via its newsfeed terminals.

Its meteoric rise was as speedy as its unceremonious crash.

This poor soul, though, had the good fortune to revel in its peak at its Nariman Point office, which housed a major part of its India news operations.

 Nariman Point
People sit at a seafront promenade in an evening at the Nariman Point financial area in South Mumbai. File photo: Reuters

Bridge went on a hiring spree in India as elsewhere, steeply raised the paycheques of journalists and disrupted the media industry in the country.

A section of Indian journos shed their underpaid, overworked, anaemic perspective. The mostly alien concept of a five-day week, hitherto confined to certain global media outlets with operations in India, gradually crept into the smoke-filled psyche of Bombay Press Club, which shared its garden wall with Azad maidan, and newsrooms.

Bridge’s phenomenal strides culminated in a dramatic collapse as it pursued frenzied hiring, savage expansion and a torrent of acquisitions. It was probably in too much of a hurry.

Talk of its troubled fortunes began doing the rounds in early 2001.

It was only a matter of time before it filed for bankruptcy. Pink slips made a maiden appearance in the media industry’s vocabulary then.

For many of us, who went jobless overnight, the Bombay Press Club’s garden offered the solace of good spirits as empathetic peers from the vibrant journalistic community in Bombay chipped in to keep the fizz alive.

But rentals and monthly payouts were increasingly nagging. Remember, you were charged extravagantly even for incoming calls those days -- Rs 16 for a call I presume. Orange was my service provider then.

As the wear and tear of a penniless existence in Bombay began to invade the discomfiture of our nerves, my young colleague Ullekh and I decided to take a break from the rigmarole of an aimless existence.

That night, while the ice cubes seeped through the waning spirit induced by our sorrows, we were gazing into the horizon of Azad Maidan.

From nowhere, a magic wand suddenly unleashed an idea that could not have changed our lives but offer an immediate solace to check the default woes of penury.

Ahmedabad, roughly 600km north of Bombay, became our destination without the assistance of Google Maps.

Not that a job offer was waiting to be handed over after an overnight journey, but food and shelter was a shoo-in, thanks to Thomas Kutty Abraham, who was the commodities reporter of Reuters there.

Coming from the backdrop of a tin-box structure existence in Bombay, his spacious three-room flat in a Patel Colony in the heart of the city offered us the luxurious comforts of a suite.

Workers prepare India's national flag ahead of an Independence Day celebration at a workshop in Ahmedabad in August, 2015. Photo: AFP

As we landed in Ahmedabad -- the hub of Gujarat’s booming textile industry and its commercial capital -- two decades ago this day for the first time something was missing. An unknown kerfuffle was in the making and Assembly polls were 14 months away.

Narendra Modi was just five months in the office that February, after the Sangh airdropped him to replace Keshubhai Patel.

Gujarat was a 'dry' state, but we had to somehow wash out the lousy turbulence of our mundane routines.

Not that your friendly neighbourhood poison was out of bounds. You could still have it, with a little effort.

From Bombay Central, from where most trains to the north originate, we landed in Ahmedabad on February 27, 2002. Just about a 10km auto ride in the morning took us to SAL Hospital road, a small detour from Sarkhej–Gandhinagar Highway.

The rendezvous of our destiny and destination was Thaltej, half a kilometer from SAL Hospital Road.

Thomas, who did not sport a beard, lived in a housing society occupied by Patels and Shahs near the Sunset Drive-in, where you can scour cinemas from the cozy comfort of your car. Probably, he was the lone 'outsider' to be accommodated there, but he was made to feel at home there and so were we, the visitors.

A policeman watches a burning car in the Shahalam Tolnaka area of Ahmedabad in May, 2002. Photo: AP

In nearby housing colonies also there were a few 'outsiders', who fled in the aftermath of a raging cauldron of hatred that emanated from Godhra, few hours after we landed that Wednesday.

After our crash landing in Aditya Complex, we went out to procure 'Somaras', as some of our friends out there fondly described the brew. It was an essential commodity to keep our sagging spirits afloat as winter, though on the wane, was still on.

We were back soon after a brief fling with our friendly neighbourhood interlude, but something was brewing.

This time Thomaskutty Abraham was dressed up for us to be back to leave for what he termed as an urgent, important assignment to Godhra Railway station, a three-hour drive towards east from Ahmedabad, that fateful day.

His cab driver was waiting. But we had no clue then about that storm of hatred that was waiting to be unleashed.

The Sabarmati Express train, which covers the vast swathes of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, to reach Godhra the second day, en route to Ahmedabad, was set ablaze at Godhra Railway station, nearly 1,500km southwest of Varanasi.

Worse, 59 kar sevaks were burnt alive in the carnage that erupted in S6 coach by 7.30-7.45 am, when the train, running about four hours late, was about to leave the station.

Just before heading to Godhra, our host had a friendly, stern warning: Wipe off the traces of beard on your face, lest...

Gujarat riots
A Bajrang Dal activist armed with an iron rod on the streets of Shahpur, Ahmedabad on February 28, 2002. Photo: AFP

The profound warning was a rude jolt as well as a realisation. The beard is not associated with your persona but your religious identity in some parts of the country then too.

Now, a flashback got juxtaposed into the tumultuous mindscape -- why was I always asked to show my railway pass back in Victoria Terminus suburban railway station during my Bombay stint? Does it have an eerie connection with the stubble? You never know. Some realisations dawn late.

Thomaskutty left and my dear young hairy sprouts were given a savage, situational burial on a washbasin.

We were stuck in the housing complex. The bleak scenario reminded us of Bruce Springsteen's iconic number Born In the USA: Nowhere to run, ain't got nowhere to go. There were no OTT channels then to give us company, internet service was a luxury and all our friends who worked in Ahmedabad were forced to tread the path of caution. The solace was that we had enough stock of rice, lentils, vegetables and tea powder.

Now, as this poor soul was an ignoramus in the art of cookery, the young man did the honours to keep us away from hunger.

At frequent intervals of the crawling daytime, we heard loud blasts from nowhere. But the locality was mostly sanitised from wanton destruction.

Some neighbours told us long-distance trucks were set ablaze at Thaltej. And a Honda showroom breathed the raging fires of destruction.

Those were the only major untoward incidents reported in half-a-kilometre radius, we were told.

Because no 'outsiders' owned or stayed there. The nearest settlements where you could spot members of a particular community were seven kilometers away in Mithakali, a tony locality, and 12 km away in Sarkhej-Juhapura.

Like Thomas, there was some Christian presence in the area, but that was not an 'issue'.

Yes, not an issue as we were also treated well by the neighbours of our host, a Christian by faith.

A pre-schooler staying in the complex often visited us with the warmth of sweet homemade delicacies in those three long-drawn-out days while Thomas was deciphering the carnage of Godhra and its ferocious fallout for the global audience of Reuters.

It had a soothing effect. We relished the delicacies which gave us a respite from the mundane routine of our forced captivity in the strife-torn state.

Smoke continued to billow out of charred buildings of the Old City and the riots showed no signs of abating, but time was up for us to get back to hunt for the elusive job in Bombay.

Modi with sword
In this photograph from April 2004, Deputy Prime Minister LK Advani, Gujarat Chief Minister Narandra Modi and Rajendra Singh Rana pose with swords during the second leg of Bharat Uday Yatra at Viramgam, Ahmedabad. Photo: PTI

But a deeply disturbing conversation from one of those dark days in Ahmedabad still haunts us:
अंकल, आप को पेट्रोल बॉब्ब बनाना आता हैं ?
-------- पर फेकने केलिए

(Uncle do you know how to make petrol bombs)
(To hurl on -------)

Those who understand the disturbing reality of new India can easily fill up the blanks.

We left for Bombay that day with an unease nagging us even after 20 years.


Two decades later
BridgeNews is non-existent even in the endless debris of the world wide web, out of bounds for Google's army of crawlers.

Orange changed colours to toe Hutch's lovable pug, which was snapped up by Vodafone (an acronym for VOice, DAta and PHONE).

It is thus still at my service down south in Kottayam, Kerala.

Kerala, where you can flaunt your beard, or Hijab, without the fear of persecution.

A beardless existence in God's Own Country means something is amiss. Perhaps, that is why I cosy up to the confines of what is called a French Beard now.

Thomaskutty Abraham is now the Bangkok Bureau Chief of Bloomberg.

Ullekh N P is now the executive editor of ‘Open’ magazine.

Narendra Modi is now the top executive of the country and Varanasi is the PM's constituency.

Gujarat is still a 'dry' state and booze is still available on the sly.

And Godhra is still a cauldron reeking of hatred in the tormented psyche of our nation.

The comments posted here/below/in the given space are not on behalf of Onmanorama. The person posting the comment will be in sole ownership of its responsibility. According to the central government's IT rules, obscene or offensive statement made against a person, religion, community or nation is a punishable offense, and legal action would be taken against people who indulge in such activities.