Assam Chronicles Chapter 3: The Burning Bus

February 20, 2012 § 1 Comment

Warning: Adult Content

And by adult I mean guns, fire, violence. Real.

So, it has been long since I wrote on the blog, and in the meantime it also crossed 5,000 hits (Yayy !), and life changed as I went from Assam to Mizoram and am now in the diametrically opposite (in many ways!) Ahmedabad.

And finally I can tell the stories I wanted to tell the most, because well, I did not want my family to know the dangers faced in Assam. They might know now that I am out of there.

We begin by the story of the 10th day of life in Guwahati. New employee, post MBA, back in professional world, seemed cool. And Guwahati is not so much of a backward place as I imagined. There is Pizza Hut, Dominos, KFC, Subway, and at least 2 movie halls. Seemed like a nice city. Now if you are someone living in Mumbai or Delhi or Bangalore or Hyderabad or Gurgaon, or… you know what I mean, Guwahati will seem primitive, but compared to the place I was living in rural Assam, it was New York.

Back to day 10 in life at Guwahati. As part of our induction, we were visiting the Customer Service center at Dispur, which was almost exactly opposite the CM’s office. As we came out of the CS center, looking around for lunch, we heard sharp cracks piercing the air. Small note here: Guns do not, they never sound like what we see in TV or in first person shooter games. Its not a loud dhoo-dhaad sound, but a very sharp, thak one. Very much like a crack.

So we saw a large mass of people, standing outside the CM’s place. A guy standing near us told that it was a protest by tribals against government taking up their land. He said we need not worry about the gun-fire, they were blank shots, only directed to scare people.

Later we would learn that 3 people were killed.

But I believed in him then. For if those were real shots, with that frequency, it would have been a bloodbath. I did not even understand what a blank meant, but only got that – it was just like that, nothing harmful, and decided to move outside and go for good lunch.

So we found a place near a mall offering Parathas, and other good things. We had been taking things lightly, but it soon turned out that was bad judgment. As we finished lunch at the outlets on the ground floor of a mall, the angry crowds kept enveloping the road. We heard that a van was burnt, and the mob was raging because of the gun-shots. They had moved in the direction of the mall, and now there was no way for us to go back. I vividly remember seeing a man throwing bricks at a building some distance from the mall. And I was also like, I forgot my camera at the office.

At the mall, there were guards ready to close doors in case trouble came there, and I was just outside. Still it seemed a bit distant.

Then I saw the bus.

Exactly across the road, the crowd had stopped a bus, and was breaking it with sticks, I can still see the picture in my mind. That’s when I knew we were in deep trouble, they would start pelting stones on the mall and maybe try to enter it. Irrational fears (or, were they?) of guys entering the mall and hunting us started to fill my head.

We moved to the 3rd floor of the mall, farthest from danger. Was pretty sure the security would close the iron door of the mall if the mob tried to enter. But fact was fact. If they entered, we really had nowhere to go. But as someone mentioned there, the idea brought some respite that these people were agitating against the government and harming buildings, not innocent bystanders. Hopefully they wouldn’t come after us. Maybe they would just stone the mall, break some glass from the outside, and move on.

I remember feeling afraid but not totally lost. There was a big glass wall on the 3rd floor and we could look outside. The bus which was being broken was now on fire. The smoke was coming as high as the 3rd floor itself. Thick, black smoke.

How often do you see a bus burning?

I still had the 1.2 Megapixel mobile cam, and this was a sight to be captured. As shown below

It was much more horrifying in reality. No matter how good a camera or cameraman, it can never have the beauty or horror of live action.

I still felt somewhat safe in the mall, and there was a café coffee day outlet and I ordered tea. I was worried enough to call my friends, and confident enough that I didn’t need to call home. Yet. And then one of my friends is like – “Aisa tere saath hi kyu hota hai”, and one was like “Tu exciting life jee raha hai”. Yeah, exciting. But well, I knew if something happened, they would call home.

Though one random lady, also looking out of the glass wall did try to increase the fear factor by saying – “Aap Assamese logon ko jaante nahi ho. Panga mat lena, chhodenge nahi.” Ooh !

Tense moments passed and then, as I like to tell my friends – “Literally, God saved us.” – for then it started raining. And how it rained! Continuously, and heavily, for around 3-4 hours. It calmed us, and I guess everyone else. The agitation died down, and the forces were there. Finally, a bit wet, we came out safe.

As I look back, it was a strange day, a bit afraid, a bit secure, looking out of the glass wall on the mayhem below. Looking at people running around, looking at a CRPF gypsy coming on the scene and turning back, looking at the burning bus, and still feeling a sense of peace. Somehow feeling that things will become okay.

Later we were given divergent messages from people regarding the incident. Some said, it keeps happening – for them it was a part of life. Others were of the argument – this happens everywhere, it happened here, ergo, here is like everywhere. Mumbai was given as the most frequent example. And though initially this logic angered me, I came to see that unless one adopts this way of thinking and living, existence in that area would be impossible.

Below are some more pics – which I took after we got back to the office and I got my point-and-shoot. There was more burning of vehicles. And a lot of photography !

Sitting here in Ahmedabad, much safer, I wonder if I should share such an experience. But maybe I should, if only to remember that one needs to be careful in this world, and how imperative it is to make efforts for peace. Daily, and with everyone.

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