The man, carrying a briefcase, is shouting into the phone trying to be heard over the hubbub around him.
“Hyan, bhanga dekhtey eshechhi, (Yes I have come to see the broken)”, he says.
The “broken” is the collapsed Vivekananda Road Flyover in Kolkata. Now that the roads have been cleared, and most of the bodies removed from under the rubble, the disaster site has turned into disaster tourism.
There are gaggles of schoolchildren in uniform, a father and young daughter (who keeps protesting she cannot see properly), even an old lady who confesses her husband does not know she has snuck out.
Another woman tells her reassuringly, “No fear, you can go and see. You know what auntie, if it’s written you die, you can go by slipping on your bathroom floor.”
The Kolkata administration, stung into action with an election looming over the state, worked through the night to clear the junction and impose some sense of order in the chaos. The blue and white temporary control room is stocked with bottled water. Canisters of tea arrive for the rescue workers.
Now they are evacuating the old buildings that might be threatened as more of the flyover comes down with the help of heavy machinery. As night falls, those buildings look eerie, most of the windows shuttered, as are the medicine shops and the Crusoe innerwear medical store at street level. Lights burn in only a couple of flats and residents stands on the balcony staring down at the surreal scene below – a Mad Max nightmare of mangled steel and concrete with the carcasses of trapped lorries and cars.
Police barricades hold back curious onlookers.
“They just told us to move,” complains resident Biswajeet Bhattacharya. “They did not even offer us a dharamsala to stay in. Some of us are sheltering in a movie theater.” He says there are still bodies lying in front of the Jorasanko Kali temple. “When the wind changes you can smell the stench.” He wonders who will know how many of the kangalis (destitute) outside the temple were crushed to death. “They are saying 24 died. I don’t believe the number. It’s much more. This is Burrabazar, the heart of the city.”
The main disaster site has been cordoned off but all day long people keep coming in droves, cameras at the ready, clicking pictures. A volunteer with a lathi keeps the crowd moving as if it’s a Durga Puja pandal. “Keep going, keep going,” he shouts, blowing a whistle. Some of the crushed cars have been pulled out from the wreckage and parked on the streets outside. They have become tourist magnets.
Yellow taxi WB04 E7696 is a twisted mess, its roof caved in, its windshield shattered. Limes and chillies, meant to ward off the evil eye still hang near the dashboard. People crowd around it taking pictures much to the annoyance of the tea-wallah whose shop they are blocking who keeps saying “Go to the other side. You can take better pictures there.” A group of young schoolgirls gawk at the wreck while a man tells them “Be careful you’ll get nightmares tonight.”
“Where is the Tata Sumo?” asks a young man. “I hear there’s a Sumo.”
“Just ahead on the right hand side near the temple,” replies the man next to him.
It turns out a makeshift disaster tour is developing with designated sights.
Workers clean up debris at the site.
Where the main roads are cordoned off there are side alleys snaking between cramped buildings, barely wide enough for two to pass abreast. And there are even “tour guides” of sorts. Local residents who were eye-witnesses to the disaster stand around reliving that day for strangers (and media) hungry for details. Others wonder about more mundane details – will the milk booth open?
Bapi tells a small crowd around him about how he had just crossed the road when the flyover collapsed. He saw a family who had come up on their scooter stop at the juice shop. The parents went to get the juice while the daughter stayed on the scooter. “Death must have been calling her,” says the man. She died instantly while the parents survived. Bapi says he was shaking so much he could not even call family to say he was safe. “I saw blood flowing on the street. I would not be so scared if I was with a tiger in its cage.”
Across the street from him near the battered Tata Sumo which has “I love my India” emblazoned on its side, another man is the self-appointed guide and guard, keeping photo-clickers at bay. “Don’t touch the car,” he says. “Take pictures. But no climbing.”
He has his own grisly stories about a man killed in an Ola car. His leg was left in the car, his body taken to the morgue. But his face was so charred, he could only be identified by the red t-shirt he wore.
At one level this disaster tourism seems ugly and shocking. Young men pose for selfies against mangled cars. Others sift through piles of stone chips and gravel as if searching for pieces of the Berlin Wall. Yet they too are documenting the disaster in their own way just as journalists are. And perhaps in some way they are less intrusive than the mad scrum of television cameras as a rumour goes around that another body might have been retrieved from the rubble. And who is to say the politician strutting around in kurta and white sneakers and hollering for “Two teas without sugar” is any less of a disaster tourist?
The site of the flyover collapse.
The local chapter of the Congress even leads what is for all practical purposes a “guided tour” right into the heart of the disaster site. Holding flags and candles, the marchers are there to express solidarity but really to score political points. Dipali Chowdhury, a Congress candidate for the local ward, says she is there to make sure something like this never happens again and to protest government inaction in the first hours after the collapse. The procession gets into heated arguments with the officials at the site and eventually leave after lighting a few candles.
As night falls, the junction, eerily devoid of traffic remains lit up like a scene from a film set with coifed television anchors doing live reports. The girders are precariously propped against each other, pieces of metal sticking up into the air like antenna. The collapsed flyover looks like cloth, a cascade of concrete. A yellow sign for a coaching class still promises government jobs except now it’s upside down, upended by the disaster.
As I leave the site, there are still crowds pressing in on the police barriers trying to get a glimpse of the biggest news of their city. In front of the Shailendra rice hotel, a group of youngsters have put together a roadside memorial with newspaper front pages and funeral wreaths. Dental assistant Priyanka Chakravarty says she belongs to no party, no organization.
“We are normal public. We just could not stop ourselves, we wanted to pray for their souls,” she says as she cups her hands around a candle to shelter it from the breeze.
She quietly pins a black ribbon on my sleeve as a reminder of the tragedy. Or is it a tourist memento?
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