It was 1993 and Mumbai was on fire. Riots had broken out following the Babri Masjid demolition. Gangs of criminals had the run of the Mumbai roads. Wisps of smoke could be seen almost everywhere. There would relative quiet for a few hours interspersed with a spree of stabbing. The trauma ward of Nair hospital saw endless influx of patients with stabs and burns.
One particularly horrible day I was chatting with the casualty officer who looked all in. Suddenly a police van screeched to a halt. Three police constables leaped out. One of them pulled a trolley to the door of the van. They unloaded a completely charred body on to the trolley. The body was so badly charred that I could not even determine the gender. Though I was inured to the sights in the hospital having seen mangled remains, blast victims, this was just too ghastly a sight.
As the body was wheeled into the mortuary, I asked the policeman “Do you carry the Lee Enfield rifle for show? Why don’t you shoot the b******s who did this?” I was immediately ashamed at my outburst when I looked into the red rimmed fatigued eyes of the cop. He sighed “Saab, there is just one bullet in my gun. That’s all that we are issued. There was a mob of over two hundred who doused this man with petrol and set him on fire in front of our eyes. I felt like turning my own gun against me rather than helplessly watching. Things will change now. The Army has been deployed with orders to shoot at sight”
In the evening Naina, Svini and I had gone up to the terrace of the building “to eat fresh air”; a quaint Indian expression for breathing fresh air. The sight from the terrace was breathtaking with the sea stretching as far as the eyes could see. The Haji Ali mosque stood in solitary splendor. The Mumbai Central station was to the left surrounded by slums.
Suddenly fire bloomed near the station. Faint screams and shouts could be heard. The air was filled by screaming sirens of the ambulances and the police vans rushing to the Mumbai Central station. We could hear staccato bursts of gun fire. “Fire Crackers!” exclaimed Svini, all of eight. I did not correct her. My heart sank. My unit was on call. I braced myself for a long night. We went down with a heavy heart. Naina patted my shoulder.
The security guard of the building informed me the ambulance from the hospital had arrived to transport me and some nurses to the hospital. The ambulance driver’s face was grim. “Situation is bad Prof” he told me. “My ambulance almost got attacked by a mob. I manged to swerve and drove like a madman. I hope the crowd is gone by now”.
“Daddy, why do have to go? There are bad men out there” Svini wailed. Naina comforted her “Daddy is a brave man. He has to go and treat people who are hurt. He will be back soon” Her troubled eyes met mine.
The ambulance took off swerving from side to side. It was of probably an Army surplus vehicle of the second world war vintage. The roads were deserted. We went round the ‘Saat Rasta’ circle and headed towards the hospital. Suddenly the ambulance screeched to a halt. Stones thudded on to its body. The windscreen shattered. The driver was blabbering with fear. The nurses with me in the ambulance were whimpering . I felt a cold chill.
I had seen minor riots and unrest in Mumbai. Ambulances and Fire tenders were never ever attacked. This time it was different. There had been rumors circulating that ambulances were being used to ferry arms. There was a crowd of around a dozen ruffianly looking persons surrounding the ambulance. They were asking us to get down.
I could see a posse of policemen at a distance running towards us. One of them put what looked like a gun to his shoulder. I was petrified. Suddenly something landed under the ambulance. It was filled by an acrid ammoniacal mist that made our eyes tear uncontrollably. I suddenly realized that the policeman had fired a tear gas shell at the mob, which was running helter skelter. “Drive” I screamed at the driver. He didn’t need to be told again. We careened into the sanctuary of the hospital.
The trauma ward was in a chaos. There were patients everywhere. Rajiv, my lecturer met me at the entrance, his eyes dancing with excitement. Someone from across the road had fired into the huge plate glass windows of the ward. There were two neat round holes in the glass. The platoon of Gurkha rifles had immediately ordered everyone to drop to the ground. Some soldiers had crossed the street to the building from where firing seemed to have come. Within minutes a small group of rough looking people came out with their hands in the air.
I went around the ward. The injuries were not serious. There was a body covered by a blood stained sheet. I pulled back the sheet and stared in horror. This was a middle aged woman who had half of her face shot off by a high caliber bullet.
“This is Kamlaben. Do you remember her, Prof?” said Rajiv. I had met her a couple of times when she had accompanied some patients to the Surgical outpatients.
“She was leading a group of rioters. Had a sword in her hand. Didn’t stop even after three warnings. Had to to this. Pity. The Army hates it when called for civilian riot control duties. I have to counsel my men before and after the duty, telling them that they are shooting at anti nationals and not their fellow countrymen” This was the young dashing Captain of the Gorkhas
“Doc, the Gorkhas are here. We will sort out the rioters pronto. Don’t you worry” The Captain smiled. His eyes were unsmiling.