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Memories of the dark night

Soutik Biswas | 19:25 UK time, Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) railway station, MumbaiLife doesn't halt for a second at Mumbai's Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) railway station. Some 2.5 million people pass through the gothic Victorian terminus every day. Over a thousand trains arrive at and depart from its 18 platforms. The station itself employs a staggering 2,400 people to look after it - 800 of them are guards and cleaners.

Ashok Kumar Tiwari, however, remembers the time that life stopped at CST one night last November. The middle-aged station manager's eyes well up when I ask him the question. We are sitting in a well-appointed ante-room adjoining his office overlooking the concourse.

What do you remember about the night?

Mr Tiwari looks away for a moment, collects his thoughts and tells me the story.

"I was settling down for dinner at my home when my phone rang out. A panicky station master was on the line shouting, 'Sir, indiscriminate firing is taking place here.' I decided I had to run back."

Early TV pictures were already beaming shaky images of the mayhem breaking out in the city. Mr Tiwari's station, two hotels, a café and a Jewish centre had been attacked by a group of gunmen.

As he got ready to rush back to the station, Mr Tiwari's 12-year-old son stopped him.

"He implored, 'Papa don't go, don't go'. I told him as long as Lord Krishna is alive in my heart nothing will happen." Lord Krishna is the most loved deity of the many Indian gods. And then, he says, he was off.

He says he can never forget the sight that greeted him when he arrived. "There were people dead and dying on the concourse. There were pools of blood. The sight was terrifying, terrifying."

Then, he says, he got to work with his army of employees, taking the injured to hospital, washing the blood-slicked floor, ordering incoming trains to stop in their tracks. His employees, he says, even took a stray puppy wounded by a bullet to the nearest veterinary clinic.

"But I had to keep the station running next day at any cost," he says.Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus station, Mumbai

He did. The first train left the station on time, at 3.28 am, five and a half hours after the killings. (I remember when I walked into the station next morning people were already pouring in to catch their trains. Bleaching powder had been heaped all over the place, but it still stank of death.)

How did you cope with the incident, I ask Mr Tiwari, a veteran railwayman. As the chief manager for the past four years, he had faced challenges before: rail services came to a halt after rains had flooded the tracks once, and there had been the serial train blasts on the busy suburban network in 2006.

"No, no," he says. "This was different. I am a civil servant. We are in the business of selling services. We have no defence training. We do not know how to take on terrorists. Maybe all of should be given some training..." he trails off, lost in his thoughts.

"Things were not easy, you see," he continues. "For 20-25 days after the incident, I had nightmares. I had high blood pressure."

What were the dreams you had, I ask him.

"I had two dreams. In one I saw a lot of blood flowing all over. In another, I had screaming people fleeing the station. I couldn't sleep. I increased chanting my prayers. Meditation helped."

Is he afraid it could happen again?, I ask.

"As long as Lord Krishna is there with me, it will not happen again. We have more security, more surveillance cameras," he says softly.Memorial for attack victims at CST station, Mumbai

Outside his office, a black marble memorial to the people who died at the station on 26 November is a sombre reminder of the horrors of the black night. We counted the names of 52 victims on the memorial. Twenty of them were Muslim. Two of the victims were never identified. Six of them were railway employees. One of them was Inspector Shinde, a railway police inspector.

"You know, I used to know him well," says Mr Tiwari, his voice quavering.

He picks up his mobile phone and scans his contacts. "I haven't erased his number from my list yet. I remember him so well."

Outside his office, the CST, like all big railway stations in India, is a veritable city. Indians come and make it their home as they wait to catch trains. They eat, sleep and talk there. They drink water from its marble fountain taps. So the concourse is packed with waiting passengers, and entire families are asleep on the floor. A prowling sniffer dog is the only reminder that India's railroad cities also feel less secure.


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