By Sanjay Jha
Friday March 12th 1993 seemed like just another pre-summer day , clear blue skies, odd shaped clouds drifting away in a cluster as if in animated conversation, with crisp sunshine flooding the skyscrapers of Nariman Point. Bombay ( as it was still called that then) seemed to exhibit it’s usual brisk pace, a breezy bustling like environment, unrelenting speed, chaotic frenzy, and a no-nonsense business-like exterior. In a few hours, it was all to change.
A corpulent colleague of mine, Anand Chadha ( name changed , for personal reasons) , who would have ransacked McDonald’s kitchen single-handedly ( we had to do with Mafco’s mayonnaise -stuffed chicken rolls in those days) walked up to me , looking a picture of utter dejection. It seemed as if he had just been given the pink-slip.
” Boss”, he said, his morose expression , having a contagious effect on me within seconds as I prepared to give him my shoulder to cry on , ” let’s go out for lunch”.
I was naturally too flabbergasted to respond to such a somber invitation, even as I was happy for him that he was still in company rolls.
” I just checked today’s lunch menu. It’s awful. Doraiswamy is messed up big-time. All bland, boring stuff”.
I looked at my watch; it was still early to consume calories by my usual body clock. But the humongous man in front of me looked clearly distressed.
” Let’s go”, I said, very reluctantly.
We quickly jumped into a cab, my colleague occupying three fourths of the backseat, as I craned my neck out of the window for some breathing space. Then my eyes suddenly noticed something peculiar. Far away in the distance, black smoke emanated from what looked like the Bombay Stock Exchange.
” Look”, I said, pointing towards the sky, the smoke now swelling up considerably, like a balloon undergoing inflation.
But my colleague sat there rubbing his bulging tummy , as he copiously made mental notes of the restaurants close by that he could plunder.
The cab neared Flora Fountain, but with every yard we covered, my unease began to escalate. The fire engulfing the BSE building seemed a formidable one, it was not just a cylinder blast in some downtown Udupi restaurant. It was disconcerting. There was something wrong.
Throngs of people were accumulating , looking and pointing skywards, perplexed and worried.
Anand and I walked into this restaurant serving the typical Bombay burgers , crisply fried chicken cutlets sandwiched gently between two huge flying saucers, with an overdose of tomato slices and coleslaw , trying to furtively squeeze out from all sides.
I looked out of the restaurant, Anand cussing the waiter for taking too long, two minutes after placing the order.
I then saw , for the first time in my life, a blood-soaked individual. He looked shell-shocked, his head and face like a red mask, his clothes torn to small shreds. Some passer-bys held his limp body up, as they hailed a taxi. And then I saw a middle-aged man, bleeding profusely from his neck and wounds on his chest, struggling to stand-up, looking dazed as if hit by a lightning. And then I saw another. And another.
This was a deadly bomb explosion, I had no doubt about that. I could not eat, but Anand had ensured that my chicken burger did not require to be packed.
It was time to drive back to the office and tell our office folk what we had just seen. There is this strange human instinct to want to narrate the bad breaking news with a first-hand account.
We reached the Air India building , circumventing wailing police jeeps, ambulances , press vehicles and traffic snarls. Evidently, there was panic and pandemonium had spread all around.
” Boss, let me have a quick paan ( betel-leaf) after such a satisfying meal ,” said Anand, smothering his burp and rubbing his stomach in an anti-clockwise direction.
A few friends from the bank joined in. There was the usual lunch gossip, about why bosses are rightfully associated with a certain part of the body anatomy. Anand described the awesome softness of the chicken in his meal with a chef’s passion. And my description of the horror playing out in the BSE building was considered exaggerated.
A minute and forty seconds later I was in the washroom of my bank in Express Towers when the bomb exploded. It had an unnerving fury about it, as glass shattered, frantic screams followed, and there was a sudden outbreak of terror in the air. I stepped out towards the next door Air India building, running against the tide of humanity surging in the opposite direction. Even as they ran, they fell, and even as they fell, they ran.
The place where we had last confabulated and discussed salacious bank gossip with office colleagues was in flames, parked cars were overturned and burning, the whole place was already destroyed and deserted. Food stalls were charred black, the metal road railing were bent and twisted, even as some people were running away in whichever direction they believed stood safety.
I minute 40 seconds separated us from the ghastly explosion that had just killed several innocent people. . I looked at my watch. If I remember correctly, it was a few minutes past 2.30 pm.
The truth is that as I reflected the next day on the March 13th serial bomb blasts that devastated Bombay , I realized, that Anand had unwittingly saved my life. In a lighter vein, perhaps, his voracious appetite certainly had. Let me tell you how.
I had made it a habitual practise to eat lunch when our canteen was reasonably empty. And secondly, almost invariably I would take a short walk to the Air India building, walk on it’s inner sidewalk, stop and look towards the tranquil Arabian sea beyond the Marine Drive embankments . It soothed me, allayed my nerves, kept me in touch with a world that did not care for the claustrophobic politics that prevailed between corporate whiz-kids in the bank. To the world outside, the infantile misdemeanors of mature bank professionals fighting for a quicker promotion or a bigger bonus was as meaningless as the pebble they threw into the waters below. It did not matter. To me, the post-lunch afternoon walk to Air India building was my daily dose of walk-on meditation. I had a most predictable routine, and was usually there by 2.30 pm . Every day.
When is the last time you took a walk around the block, for no obscure reason during your office hours? Or just stepped out to see what the real temperature was? Skipped the office meal, to just taste food in the new restaurant and sauntered thereafter aimlessly ? When did you just invite a friend from nowhere and have lunch without talking shop? When did you surprise someone special in your life by arriving home early, and then did nothing?
It is in our most innocuous acts that come to us naturally that we connect with reality. I keep reading about the new burn-out syndrome that is hitting everyone in corporate India. If we don’t correct ourselves, it will soon become like an epidemic, subsuming us with remorseless delight.
Take short break. A pause. Everyday. Make it a routine. Whatever you choose. A short walk out twice a day. Calling your mother just to say hi and exchange notes. Or just to sit silently and do nothing. It might be just 20 minutes. Or 10. It does not matter. But the break will punctuate your life with meaning. It will make you recognize that sometimes our priorities can be so misplaced. And in the larger scheme of things in the universe, does it really matter? Are the things that give you sleepless nights or raise your hypertension levels likely to reverse global warming? Will it solve the Iraq imbroglio? Will it alter the shape of the sun? A few months later, will you even remember why you were sweating about it?
On March 12th 1993 , by a whisker of 1 minute 40 seconds I believe I got a second innings to play. But life actually is like a one-day game. There are no second chances. Live it well. You deserve it. Give life your own pace. Believe me, nothing slows down. Everything still happens, and happens well. There are no TRPs here, so why make it a cliffhanger?