A sliding sensation. Like slipping and falling, not knowing when you’ll hit the ground, or what bones might be broken on impact.
The train has gone off its rails. In the time it takes to exclaim, “Oh my god, oh my god,” the train grinds to a stop. Disorientation for three seconds. The carriage has rolled to its side and pitched up, making navigation out difficult, like walking up a ladder designed by Escher.Do we take our luggage? Leave it, leave your bags, shouts a man on the other side of the compartment. Come, I’ll help you with your bag, offers my seatmate. There doesn’t seem to be the urgency of smoke or fire, so I take my things. Assisting each other, the passengers in my carriage evacuate from the gloomy compartment and into bright sunshine. I am uninjured. Where was the elderly woman sitting next to me? I saw her, she’s fine, answers my neighbour.
Outside, another type of inferno awaits. A few compartments behind mine, the train cars have jack-knifed, creating a pincer, crumpling into each other. Behind the gashes in the carriage, bodies, some alive, others inert, and presumably dead, are hanging upside down, dripping with blood, like carcasses in a meat locker. An inverted woman in a black sari with white floral patterns is awake, in anguish and shock, blood flowing down her temples.Next to her, a man in a white banian, stained red. The foot of a child. Other passengers have gathered, pulling at the metal skin of the carriage, trying to free those crushed inside. The work is slow.There is only so much bare hands can do to tear away steel.
Earlier that morning, the train from Bangalore to Ernakulam in Kerala had been half an hour late. The line just had a single track, so we had to wait for the northbound train to pass. I turned to my cousin who was dropping me off at the station, and remarked how lucky I felt to be traveling by train. Famous last words.On entering my “luxury” compartment, a 2nd Class AC Chair Car, I realized my “romance for the rails” had been misguided. I saw the familiar dusty seats, their upholstery cracked and torn, broken ceiling fans, windows obscured with years of film.
Settling in, I opened a book. After twenty minutes, or in the time it took to read a few pages… The train lies in a small valley . The landscape is semi-arid, and sparse bushes and trees border the railway line. I climb up the 20-foot embankment for a better view. It appears that the casualties are confined to the two carriages that have collided. A train conductor is on his cellphone, calling for help (a thousand calls, he reports later). Other railway staff, consisting mostly of food servers in their faded maroon uniforms, sit cross-legged on the embankment, looking on blankly , untrained for disaster response. The passengers continue to lead the rescue effort.
Embedded in the train’s decrepit corpse is the cancer of decades of corruption, malaise and neglect. This train should have been retired years ago. But this is a developing country , goes the common refrain; with the posturing of a superpower.Aircraft carriers, nuclear weapons and a space program compete for finances with an antique train collection.
Onlookers gather from the nearby village of Bidaragere. Some bring tools to help with the recovery . A man, his back contorted, scoliosis-like, is brought out of the train. Don’t touch him, he may have a spine injury . But he wants to get up. The woman in the black sari is released from her confinement and also brought to the embankment. Bystanders ask each other -are you a doctor? I find a small, officiallooking box by the track. Opening it, there are some bandages and ointment. An anemic first aid kit. I offer it to the other passengers who are trying to provide care to the woman. Do you have any painkillers?
I go in search of my luggage and paw through my toiletries for a bottle of Ibuprofen. By the time I return, the woman is gone, apparently whisked away by paramedics who have finally started to arrive.
Another person is brought out of the train -the man in the white-red banian.Bystanders valiantly , vainly try to resuscitate his limp body . Shaking their heads and shrugging, they stop. It’s no use. I’m distracted for a moment, and when I look again, I see that the body of a boy has joined him. Someone shrouds their heads with a coat. Up on the embankment, by the ambulances that have appeared on the dirt paths, Kathakali theater. A policeman in a khaki uniform wields a lathi stick at the crowds assembling nearby . Hiyaaa! Hiiiyyyaaa! He intones with exaggerated facial expressions, striking the red dirt at the foot of the onlookers. (“He who wields the lathi keeps the cow,” explains a South Indian proverb.) I ask him what the point is. Wouldn’t he be of better service putting away his lathi and helping down at the crash site? Sir, I am not beating you. A cousin later tells me that in the United States, being white gives you protection.In India, looking affluent (like wearing a Polo Ralph Lauren-branded jacket) offers you protection. If you’re white (or lightskinned) and affluent in either country …
Don’t ask, won’t tell
A state minister is holding an ad hoc press conference. I hesitate, wondering if I want to say anything in front of rolling cameras, considering if I want to become part of the story rather than just documenting it. Throughout the morning, I have been navigating, unevenly , unsuccessfully, the roles of witness, photographer, activist, rescuer, surviving passenger. “Sir, we are now three hours into this situation, where was the official response hours ago?” Please keep quiet, the minister is speaking. I persist. The minister cocks his head towards me. This is a remote area. We are trying our best. But I can see the outskirts of Bangalore, just 4 km away . Not Bangalore. Anekal. We have differing opinions on urban sprawl. This is an unusual occurrence. Have you seen anything this bad before? Yes (I’m thinking about 911).Then trouble must be following you (well Minister, today is Friday the 13th). This is not the time to be having this conversation, he says.
When would be the right time? A year from now? Twenty years ago? Tomorrow, when another rail accident in India is likely to happen? If you truly want to help, then I suggest you go down to the train and do something, the minister offers. I can’t -lathi and megaphone-wielding police constables have finally cordoned off the area. He abruptly ends the news conference and moves towards his car.One of his entourage nods and smirks as he passes. My thoughts chase after them.If I really want to help, I should find a way to hold you accountable.
Another minister broadcasts that the cause of the derailment is a boulder that has fallen from the ghats (that the train was not traveling through). Invisible boulders and non-existent mountains -the magical thinking of politics. Is “boulder fell on track…train hit it…” a metaphor for political and operational incompetence?
Criminal negligence? Or was the displacement of blame beginning to happen? Force majeure. Beyond anyone’s control. This would conform well with a culture of superstition. A newspaper changes its original reporting to be less critical of the minister. History is altered.
Cost versus life
Accounts vary as to the death toll too. A railway official tells me eight, a paper claims ten. Rs 2 lakh is offered as compensation to the families. They can buy a twowheeler or two with that. How about Rs 2 crore? That might at least incentivize Indian Railways to provide better service.That’s naive, someone tells me. Lack of naivety , the excuse for political inertia.
Would reformers of the Indian railways be reviled? For change would likely involve higher fares. Pick: safety , comfort, efficiency , cost. Cost. For lives are cheap, and poverty is desperate.
The well-off can insulate themselves with air travel. Sir, please remove your scissors. But airports in other countries allow small scissors. Sir, this is India. We have a higher level of security here.
(The author is an assistant professor at the School of Architecture and Design, New York Institute of Technology)