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Focus on Safety




In this series of travelogues, I've been chronicling my latest business trip to India, with all its attendant delights and horrors. As you know from the emails you've been sent, Nagendra, the man who makes the Yerbonitsas, the canvas cases and many of the Music Maker's spare parts, was recently involved with the terrorist attacks in India. His story is so compelling, and his experience with the aftermath thereof so unique from a cultural perspective, that I felt it valuable to insert his story here, now, and out of chronological order.

Nagendra was quite perturbed as he placed the telephone back in its cradle. The unpleasant conversation he'd just had with an obstructive Indian customs official (is there any other kind?) had confirmed that yet another European Expressions shipment was being held up in Mumbai. Nagendra sighed. He'd probably neglected to cross a "t" or dot an "i" somewhere in the large stack of documents required to move goods out of the country.
Nagendra sighed again, and then had a "Eureka!" moment. He telephoned his close friend, Vijay, and asked if he might be free to accompany him to Mumbai on a business trip. Nagendra said he would first have to settle a customs problem, after which the two friends would be free to travel on to the old Portugese trading port of Goa, where they could spend a week enjoying India's prettiest beaches and visit a particularly beautiful temple. Vijay said he was available and a few days later the two friends took the 10 hour long train ride from Uttar Pradesh, known for its peaceful, agricultural countryside, to the teeming city of Mumbai, home to 14 million people--more than half of whom live in slums.
The thought of two married men going off on a ten day mini-vacation together might strike Westerners as unusual. But in India, as in many other parts of the world, men can be very close friends--just friends--without anyone raising an eyebrow.
Nagendra and Vijay's mini-vacation did not begin well. And would end worse. The customs official they met with summarily rejected Nagendra's attempt to determine why his shipment had been seized for inspection, had then never been inspected, and was now languishing on a dock somewhere (neither the customs inspector nor the freight company seemed to know exactly where). The customs official was so staunchly officious that he wouldn't even accept a bribe! In fact he seemed offended when Nagendra made the suggestion--thereby differentiating himself from every other government official Nagendra had ever met.
Having failed, Nagendra and Vijay continued on with the second part of their trip. The beaches of Goa beckoned. The two men collected their bags and took a taxi to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Mumbai's largest, and thereby one of the world's busiest, train stations. India is not a quiet country by any stretch of the imagination, and the station wasn't just noisy--it was bedlam. Tens of thousands of people bumped, jostled, shouted, screamed, yelled and bellowed as they made their way to and from the train cars. Nagendra and Vijay bought their tickets, and as their train was delayed for an hour, tried to find a place to the side of the station where they wouldn't be trampled.
With a quarter of an hour to go, the two friends plunged into the human current and began to force their way toward the platform at which their train was scheduled to arrive. Confusion reigned. This was chaos. The crowd was so thick that it was almost impossible to make any headway.
Suddenly, the crowd ahead of them parted magically in "Moses Before the Red Sea" fashion. Seizing the opportunity, Nagendra and Vijay stepped into the gap--hoping to make some measurable progress toward their train--and then stopped short. Five young men wearing Levis and black T-shirts marched determinedly toward them, machine guns held threateningly in their hands. A man at each side of the group walked sideways, sweeping the barrel of his machine gun toward the crowd. The man at the rear followed, alternately switching to walking backward, aiming his AK47 aggressively and thus dissuading anyone from falling in too close behind the group.
"Get out of our way!" the men in front shouted, punctuating their message with a nudge of their machine guns forward. "Don't bother us. Leave us alone!" Like breakers crashing on shore, men, women and children fell over themselves in their haste to get out of the group's way. .
Amazingly, the sight of five men barging through a crowded railway station, machine guns at the ready, did not strike Nagendra as being particularly out of the ordinary. "It was nothing special to me," Nagendra admitted later. "In India, machine gun people are very common. And policemen often wear civilian clothing, so I thought they were part of the Mumbai police force."
More curious than concerned, Nagendra and Vijay stepped to the side, and watched as the group of "policemen" pushed past them and toward the train station's exit, shouting the entire time that no-one should attempt to hinder them. Upon reaching the exit door, the five young men turned on their heels as one--and began to fire into the crowd.
People dove for cover. But Nagendra and Vijay, stunned into immobility, remained standing upright. Nagendra never heard a sound. The shooting. The screaming. He never heard a bit of it. Everything had gone silent.
Abruptly, Vijay was hit in the leg by a bullet and thrown violently to the ground by the impact. Seeing this, Nagendra came to his senses, and dove to the ground, crawling on his hands and knees to the back of a large group of unfortunates trying to shelter behind a far-too-narrow concrete pillar. Through a tangle of arms and legs, Nagendra saw that the young men were now throwing grenades at groups of people huddling together. The blasts were shockingly loud, and for the first time, Nagendra felt fear.
Kurt Vonnegut's magnificent novel 'Slaughterhouse Five' begins with the line: "Listen, Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time," Nagendra had also come unstuck in time. It sped up. It slowed down. Time was never more relative. Nagendra saw policemen--real ones this time--coming to their aid. These brave men took cover as best they could and began to fire at the terrorists. But the contest was uneven. The policemen had old-fashioned, single shot rifles, whereas the young men facing them were armed with AK47s and the unshaken conviction that the one true god was at their side. One policeman after the other was hit, and fell to the ground.
Reinforcements quickly took their place, however. Rushing to the scene, hearing the automatic gunfire as they ran, the policemen who had been stationed outside the terminal must have known how unequal the battle was going to be. And yet they came. Came running. Heroes all.
Nagendra hid as best as he could while the battle raged around him. Chased by a hail of bullets, the terrorists ran outside the station, commandeered a taxi, and sped away. Amazingly, in spite of all the gunfire launched at them, not a single one of the terrorists was hit.
The shooting may have stopped, but no-one in the station was prepared to take the chance that the terrorists might not return. Everyone, the horribly wounded included, had to wait another quarter hour until the police were able to comb the train station and confirm that no terrorists remained nor had anybombs been left behind.
Fifty-three would be killed at the train station that day and hundreds wounded Nagendra remembers seeing blood spreading out across the smooth marble floor like a lava flow, struck by the contrast of the vibrant red mixing with the coolness of the marble.
Nagendra stood up and searched through the crowd for Vijay, passing by one dead or wounded person after the other, until he found his friend still on the floor, writhing in pain.
Vijay was rushed to the hospital, Nagendra accompanying him, and staying at his side for the next three days. Luckily, the bullet which had hit Vijay had been a ricochet and had thus lost much of its momentum. Vijay's wounds were painful but not life-threatening and he was soon released from the hospital. Nagendra and his friend were then taken to a special police compound in the city where they spent the next eleven days being interrogated around the clock.
"It was horrible," Nagendra recalled. "I would sit before a desk and a security agent would interrogate me for hours and hours. They would ask the same questions, over and over again. When one agent's shift ended, he would be replaced by another--who would begin by asking exactly the same questions."
Every day was the same. No sooner had Nagendra finished breakfast than the interrogations began, and continued to the noon hour. A poor quality meal would be served for lunch, followed by more interrogations. A brief pause after dinner was allocated and then the interrogations ran into the night. Nagendra was only allowed to telephone his wife twice.
On the eleventh day, Nagendra revolted. This gentle man had had enough. "Look, you've asked me the same questions a million times," he said. "My answers aren't going to change. It's time for you to let us go. Our families are worried. You can't keep us here forever."
Surprisingly, the intelligence officer agreed. "OK, you can go," he said. "But you'll be interviewed again in your home town by either the police or security services."
Nagendra was released and immediately began to savor all the commonplace things he took for granted: the joy of being able to walk outside unhindered, the sound of birds singing, the feeling of the warm sun on his face. Even the ten hour train ride home, previously a trial, was now a blessing.
Nagendra didn't feel up to going back to work immediately after his return, and took a few days off to relax. The second morning, Nagendra volunteered to do the shopping (usually women's work) and reed basket in hand, walked through his home town to the square where the vegetable market was in full swing. Nagendra made his way from stall to stall, buying fruits and vegetables, worrying whether the melon he had just selected would be deemed ripe, unripe, or far too ripe by his wife.
Suddenly, a man stepped in front of turned and disappeared into the crowd.
Nagendra was deeply troubled by this event, but afterward he began to wonder if someone wasn't playing a bad joke on him. Forty percent of the people living in Nagendra's region are Muslim, and religious tensions are constantly near the boiling point. It takes very little to spark a riot. But Nagendra was known for putting religious differences behind him. Unlike many Hindus, Nagendra actively hired Muslims. His principal assistant is a Muslim.
Nagendra wondered if a former employee who had recently been caught trying to steal Nagendra's business contacts, and had been dismissed for doing so, was behind the affair. He quickly put the market day incident out of his mind.
A few days later, the police demanded that Nagendra undergo another interrogation. The same questions were asked. The same answers were given. Nagendra was more than glad to see the policemen leave his house many hours later.
The following morning his mobile telephone rang. The question was harsh and immediate. "Why did you speak to the police?"
Nagendra's blood turned cold. "You shouldn't say anything, otherwise we can hurt you," the voice on the phone continued. Nagendra then heard the click on the line, indicating the other party had hung up.
The entire day passed in a haze. Nagendra said nothing to his wife. Reti's reaction to the attacks in Mumbai had been bad enough. Nagendra stumbled along, lost in thought, and then reported the incident to the police, who responded quickly. A wiretap was placed on Nagendra's cell phone. "Don't worry, we'll take care of you," the police officer said reassuringly upon leaving. "As soon as they call, we'll make arrests, and all this nonsense will stop."
That same evening, Nagendra's untapped home phone rang. "We know everything," the unidentified voice on the other end of the line said. "We know who you speak to, we know what you tell them. We know when you go, we know where you go. We know everything."
The phone line went dead. A sick feeling settled deep in Nagendra's stomach. He realized that someone within the police department was giving information to the radical Islamists.
Two days later, Nagendra and his wife had just finished dinner, when a loud knock came at the front door. Nagendra leaped out of his chair, wanting to make sure that he--and not his wife- would open the door. His heart pounding, Nagendra walked to the door, stood before it a moment in hesitation, and then pulled the door open. A solidly built stranger stood before him.
"This is your last warning," the man said softly. "If you help the policy it will be very bad for you and for your family." Having delivered his message, the man turned and disappeared into the darkness.
Nagendra closed the door, cursing himself for his stupidity at cooperating with the police. He should have known better. In Mumbai, the police are infamous for setting off after hours in tightly organized death squads, to resolve with bullets what the Indian judicial system regularly fails to do. Indian policemen are notoriously underpaid. Many hire themselves out as bodyguards. Others work for the underworld. No-one can be trusted.
Nagendra consulted a few close friends who urged him to speak to a local Muslim political leader who was known for 'resolving' issues such as this. A telephone call was made, and Nagendra found himself seated before the man a day later. "You should disappear for a few months," the leader advised after listening to Nagendra's story. "Just stay home. Don't make any phone calls. Don't answer the phone. Don't contact anyone. Just disappear."
(Note: Nagendra did not mention if money was exchanged during this meeting, but the question really doesn't need to be asked as the answer is patently obvious. Nagendra would only say that the affair was "settled").
'Settling' the affair meant that Nagendra again had to make the ten hour long train ride to Mumbai.
Nagendra marched in to Mumbai's central police station, identified himself, and requested that his name be taken off the official list of witnesses to the terrorist attacks.
"That's impossible," the police officer replied.
"This is an affair of state," the policeman resumed. "India and Pakistan are at the point of going to war. No-one can withdraw from an investigation like this."
What Nagendra had asked was indeed outrageous. Preposterous, even. But in India, 'impossible' does not always mean 'impossible.'
Nagendra lowered his voice and offered the policeman a bribe. The policeman accepted.
The next day, an envelope filled with cash was passed across a desk. A handshake was given. And Nagendra's name disappeared from the witness list.
"No-one has bothered me since," Nagendra says gratefully. "I can walk the streets of my village and not be afraid. It was a great difficulty for me, this police problem, but now it is all over."

# # #

Note One: Nagendra's last sentence is worth rereading, because it illustrates the vast gulf which separates our two cultures. According to Nagendra, the source of his difficulty lay with the police and not the terrorists, a point of view which is perplexing, to say the least.
Note Two: The official state report on the attacks at the Mumbai train station says only two terrorists were involved, something Nagendra hotly contests. "There were five of them, not two," he says with conviction. "The police are wrong."
Note Three: The police investigation remains sloppy to this day. The police maintain that the terrorists had taken cocaine and LSD in order to stay awake during the 50 hours their mission required. As proof, they point to hypodermic needles which were found at the train station. But a cocaine high doesn't last long, and anyone who takes LSD in order to stay awake is an idiot.
Note Four: Bizzarely, Nagendra contends that the terrorist's only intent was to "frighten," not injure or kill, people at the train station. It's a point he made again and again during our conversation, and one which stands in direct contradiction to the 53 innocent men, women and children who were killed, and the hundreds who were wounded. One does not throw grenades at groups of people cowering together in order to "frighten" them; leaving us to wonder if Nagendra is even now guarded in his conversations with others, desirous of putting out the version of events which has been suggested to him by "others."