I have been ruminating on this story for months now, but the idea always failed to get past the Quality Assurance department of my mind. Today, the story managed to bribe its way through and its relative mediocrity manifests itself as a blogpost. It is semi-fictional-semi-autobiographical. So dyed-in-wool Mumbaikars, please don't point out factual inaccuracies.
AN EAR FOR DANGER
I got out of the rickshaw at the Borivli railway station and dragged my huge suitcase out. I hated this suitcase. It was so damn big that a stupid packer like me ended up taking with him a lot of unecessary stuff. Somewhere deep down inside, I believe that any space is there just to be filled (spare me your Freudian analyses :-P) and this belief translates into me taking the most unnecessary stuff with me for the shortest journeys. When I go home for a weeklong term break, I take so many clothes with me.....out of which I use barely 20% because face it, once you live in a hostel, your term break is spent romancing that estranged mistress called TV.
The point is that I walked into Borivli Rly Stn that day carrying a suitcase that was too heavy and probably contained everything except for the proverbial kitchen sink. Was I shifting base? Not exactly. This was during my summer internship and having spent 1 amazing month in Mumbai, I had to go to Delhi for approximately the same duration. So both of us(the suitcase and I) were going to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus(CST) to board Punjab Mail...or some such train headed for the capital. It was around 3 p.m. in the afternoon and I was planning to take a local to Churchgate, the last stop on the Western Line, and then take a taxi to CST.
Fortunately a lot of local trains start from Borivali, and it being afternoon time, I easily got a place to sit after depositing the suitcase on the shelf above. The seats filled up very fast, as did the shelves. I had managed to bag a window seat and I sat there looking outside, taking in my last sights of trackside Mumbai for the next month or so. The train started and I noticed with astonishment that even at 3 p.m., the bogie was almost full with a lot of people standing.
The train was a fast one and so it skipped the smaller stations and made only the big stops. At Andheri a bunch of people got down, but a bigger bunch of people got in. At Bandra, same story. The next stop was the busiest one, Dadar. Here the compartment almost emptied completely. The guy sitting next to me, who was sweating profusely....even more than the usual Mumbai levels.....got up, and a lady clad in a burkha sat next to me. I noticed that she wasn't the only one. There were 3 more burkha clad figures sitting around me, and one old man with a long flowing beard and a cap, wearing a lungi. There were other people in the bogie as well, and I assumed all of them were going to Churchgate like me, since the shelves were still almost completely empty.
As the train left the Dadar station I noticed how different the compartment looks when it is relatively empty....in Mumbai empty means that only 3-4 people are standing up, and all the seats are occupied. Another thing I noticed was the relative peace that came with this sparse population. Usually when the compartment is full of chattering office goers, or is standing at crowded railway stations with blaring announcements, you can't hear yourself think. Now however I was actually noticing other sounds, as I looked out of the window.
So many different sounds in this quiet, i said to myself. The bark of a dog by the railway track, the laughing of kids in the seat next to mine, music from the radio of a man sitting a few feet away from me, the sound of a clock ticking, hum of the engine......hold on...back up a bit. A clock ticking???? In a local train??? OH SHIT!!! I thought to myself.
The picture of the devastated compartment of the Mulund blasts immediately filled my mind, as did the picture of a BEST bus that blew up in Ghatkopar. I could sense a tide of terror starting to flood my heart and mind. Though you read the news and feel sad and angry at the blasts, thinking that you might actually be the victim of one any moment now is a totally different experience. I strained my ears to figure out where the ticking sound was coming from.
TICK TOCK TICK TOCK TICK TOCK.....
Oh no, it was right above me. Sitting perched between my suitcase and another one, was a cardboard box, with a string tied around it. I started sweating, and every passing moment seemed like an excruciating eternity. My eyes fell on the burkha clad ladies and the man who were conversing in what seemed to be Malayalam......yes, the police had said they suspected the involvement of a Muslim couple. What should I do? I need to tell someone. No, i first need to get out of this train. Man, hope Mumbai Central comes soon....I am not sticking around till Churchgate.
What are you panicking for? a part of me said. Dont go stereotyping people, and dont give in to paranoia. Even if there is a bomb on the shelf, what makes you think these people put it there? For all we know, the culprit has gotten away. If they had kept the bomb they would have gotten down at dadar, where it is easier to dissolve into the crowd. But what if they got in at dadar in the first place? I was looking out of the window all the time. Shit, this is too much.....I can still hear the ticking....should I mention the sound to the guy? But he seems to have a bag in his hand....what if it has the remote control to blow up the bomb?
OK, OK, let us not lose our head here. There is a simple thing that can be done. See if these people take the box with them when they get down. Oh good, we are nearing Mumbai Central.
The foursome was still talking heatedly in Malayalam, and I had no idea what they were saying. It seemed as if there was some argument going on. Suddenly all of them got up and gathered different things from the shelves in a hurry. However they did not touch the cardboard box. I stood up and dragged my suitcase towards the door. As the train slowly came to a stop at the crowded and chaotic Mumbai Central station, the 3 women and 1 man got off without the cardboard box. I got off with my suitcase, wondering what to do. On an impulse I put my hand on the man's shoulder as he was walking away and said,
"Bhaisaahab, woh baksaa aapka hai na jo abhi andar hai......"(Isnt the box on the shelf yours?)
As i said this I saw panic spread on his face. He shook my hand off, said something to the ladies, and the four of them started rushing towards the exit.
Shit, I thought to myself. They have planted the bomb and are running away to a safe distance so that they can blow it up using the remote control. I stood rooted to the spot for a few seconds as the comprehension of what was about to happen dawned on me. The logical thing to do would have been to start running, but even then I thought of the marksheets and certificates in my suitcase, and dragged it with me as I made a run for the exit. The 4 bombers had disappeared by then. The bag was heavy and it was a bit tiring to run with it in tow, but fear of death will make you do superhuman things. In a few moments I was outside, breathless. I put my hands on my knees to catch my breath and regain my composure. My eyes fell on a policeman standing 20 feet away from me. Once I realised that there was no danger to my life, the dutiful citizen in me woke up and I was about to run to him and tell him about the bomb and the Muslim family on the train. But as I took one step in his direction, I froze, for I had just heard a similar sound.
TICK TOCK TICK TOCK TICK TOCK.....
Gradually my neck turned and my eyes fell on my own suitcase. I muttered an expletice out loud and got to my knees, pulling the suitcase in a horizontal position. I got the keys out of my pocket and opened the suitcase right there outside the Mumbai Central Railway Station.
I saw clothes, shoes, cassettes, books....and a small rectangular alarm clock that had been performing diligently the duty of waking me up every morning at 6:30 so that I wouldn't be late for office.