It has been only a couple of months since I arrived in the city. I was returning home from office and the bus was plying down NICE road. My heart was thumping in anticipation of something. Others in the bus too would have felt their hearts thump hard against their anxiety-filled faces. The anxiety soon turned into distress when a mob of young men stopped the bus. They were shouting aloud a lot of things. The only word I could hear clearly was Kaveri. The driver tried turning around the bus to head back to office but the young men threatened to pelt stones. The driver got down, spoke to the men in Kannada and tried pacifying them. His pleas fell on deaf ears and a feisty commotion followed outside the bus. But inside there was a dreadful silence. Cars, buses and a lot of other vehicles stood there in silence while the commotion continued. A few minutes later we were all asked to step out of our vehicles. The young men said that they cannot allow our vehicles to go any further. We got down and stood there, lost! The sun was already down and there was a thick dark patch across sky. I thought it must be another one of those mystic cloud painting across the canvas of sky.
It did not take us too long to understand that we were on our own. The emergency helplines were busy and there was no sight of police. No one was coming to rescue us out of the dire situation. We wanted to get away from there before the situation turned any worse. So we decided to walk. As we walked down the long road, I figured out that the dark patch was not the rain cloud but smoke from the fire that was eating up the city. Few meters ahead in the middle of the road there was a truck completely wrecked down by fire. Beside the burning truck I saw a bigger and louder group of young men making merry around the burning truck. We were stopped again. The young men shouted out slogans and demanded that we repeat. We had no choice but to repeat the slogans after them. They asked “Kaveri yarathu?” .We replied “Kaveri namathu”. They cried “Beku Beku”. We replied with a “Kaveri Beku”. I did not know then that this was just the beginning of a long and arduous evening in one of my favourite cities.
As the highway ended and the city came into sight, I saw things that I had never experienced in person in life. Every few meters there was a vehicle on fire. Some were being lit, some still burning, some just burnt out and some in ashes. Every junction of the road was blocked with blazing flames on all sides. The flyovers were breathing fire too. We were redirected through smaller lanes as the main roads were completely engulfed in the flames. In one of those secluded lanes I saw people getting ready with wires, tyres and barrels of fuel for the next round of protests. They were loading fuel in vehicles to transport them across the city. We were stopped every now and then, rattled and bullied for not knowing the vernacular. Strangely enough, more than a good 30% of the protesters were teenagers and more than a 50% in their early twenties. Their eyes seemed to light up with joy at the sight of people who were scared and wanted nothing more than a safe passage to home. At times a few kind hearted men and women suggested that we keep our heads down and mouths shut to get past the fire.
We kept walking because that was the only option available. Metro was shut, city bus services crippled, and every other mode of transport including auto rickshaws and taxis were stalled. Private vehicles were stopped at every few meters and their registration was checked before they were allowed to drive through a fence of fire. People were seen hurrying home without wanting to attract any trouble. There were elderly citizens trying hard to breathe through the smoke, heavily pregnant women catching their breath every now and then, young mothers with their petrified kids cuddled to them, newly-weds with their hands clasped tightly, the differently abled finding their way through the commotion, tired laborers returning home after a long day, the sick hoping for some relief and a lot more. The air that night smelled more of hatred than of smoke.
I had already walked for more than 2 hours without a break along with a friend. Our backs started to break and legs starting to scream out loud in pain. We had sipped the last drop of water from the bottle. I stopped for a minute and looked around. All shops including eateries and pharmacies were shut. There was no food, no water, no emergency medicines and still no police. Home seemed like a long way away. Few minutes later, we stopped by in front of a wedding hall and asked for some water to drink. They were kind enough to give us some juice and a bottle of water. They let us rest there for a while before we started dragging ourselves home. At around 9.30 PM we were at Rajaji nagar. Google Map said 9 more kilometers to go and the night was getting chilly despite all the fire. I was hoping for a miracle. My miracle arrived in the form of a phone call. A friend was coming to pick us up. It was a risky proposition but we had no other go. Cramped in a bike, I looked around and I was instantly reminded of a beautiful picture that used to adorn the walls of my parent’s home.
This picture had been in the house for more than 30 years now. It was a wedding gift to my parents with a personalized note. My father had it framed and let it hang on the wall along with portraits of the family. The colors are now gone and the impressions of the ink are barely visible. That notwithstanding, I have always loved the picture for two reasons. One because that probably is the only wedding gift which survived the times and stayed in the family. Another because that was my first image of the beautiful Bangalore. It was a picture of Vidhan Soudha. I am not sure why their friend chose Vidhan Soudha for a wedding gift but the image was so enticing that I was in love with Bangalore even without visiting it. The stories from uncles, aunts and cousins who visited Bangalore only made it more endearing to me. I had the exact opposite feeling towards Chennai. Now when I think of it, the lack of empathy towards Chennai probably stemmed from the blind love for Bangalore. The first time I visited Bangalore, I could hear my heart thumping hard and racing fast in excitement. It was as if I was finally allowed to have that warm embrace that I had long yearned for. Unlike a lot of other things in life, Bangalore lived up to the tales I had heard about it. It was exactly as I thought it would be. I did learn to love Chennai over the years, but my love for Bangalore never diminished a bit. Every time I visited the city even if I was only passing through it, the city still filled me with some child-like glee and my heart thumped in joy.
The day was the 12th of September 2016. My heart thumped that evening too, only this time it wasn’t in joy but in pain and horror.