The Hyderabad Blasts & After
Death, fear, voyeurism and resilience. A first-person account of the effects of the blast.
Boom! Boom! I heard the two sounds, one following another within a span of short time – it felt like seconds then. Although the thought of bomb blasts ran through my mind for a split second, I immediately dismissed the thought as the sound was mild enough to be passed off as a fire-cracker or a transformer blast. About a quarter of an hour later, close to 7:15 PM on that fateful day of February 21, 2013, the tweets started rolling in about powerful explosions in Dilsukhnagar area of Hyderabad. Though various sources put the number of explosions from two to five, I was certain I heard just the two.
Could they really be bomb blasts, I asked myself? The first tweet on the exact location mentioned Venkatadri Theatre. “This is too close to home”. Some agencies were suggesting burst cylinders as the cause for explosions. At that moment, I was certain, probably even hoping subconsciously, it was the cylinders. All the bomb blasts I read about before had shattered windows in far-off houses. My house is only about 500-600 meters from the site of the blasts and it has huge windows but they didn’t even vibrate. That two cylinders wouldn’t burst one after the other, didn’t register with me till it was suggested to me by one of the blast witnesses.
The only reason I met this blast witness is, dare I call it, the lure of a blast. The first thought I had, was to make a dash to the site of the incident. What is it about a blast that lures people towards it rather than scares them away from it? Except for a few of those who felt the impact of the bomb enough to scare them away, the rest are immediately drawn to it. Why was I drawn to it?
Things started happening very fast after the blasts. Tweets started pouring in. I switched on the TV and some reporters, if my memory serves me right, were already at the blast site. A quick channel surf revealed a variety of figures on the number of blasts to the dead to the injured. It was time to go. I made sure to carry my wallet with ID cards, some cash and credit cards for any emergency. I wore my watch which might help them ID me if I get caught in another blast. I remembered the second blast in Pakistan’s Quetta that killed the rescuers and bystanders of the first blast. Yes, I was thinking very quick. But not very smart.
The first thing I noticed was the calmness. As soon as I got out of my apartment and on to the streets, I noticed that not many, if any, knew of the blast. It was business as usual around the vegetable vendor and the tea stalls. A guy stopped me to hitch a ride. When I told him I was going to the blast site, he smiled, told me he just came from there to drop off his girlfriend and was headed back to the site. The lure of the blast. He told me he was at the snack corner – one of the two blast sites – just a minute before the blast. He was walking away when it happened and the guy behind him was hit by something. He was strangely quite cheerful.
I ditched the bike before getting on to the main highway where a large crowd built up around the blast sites. The foot over-bridge was choc-a-block with curious onlookers. I quickly jumped on to the large median to get a good look at the blast sites that were on the other side of the road. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the police had kept the traffic flowing on that side of the road allowing easy movement of ambulances. I expected a huge pile-up of traffic – traffic at this crucial bus-junction can get into knots on a normal day if traffic-policemen go missing for a minute.
Except for the feeling that you were there soon after it happened, there is really no point in actually being there. There are so many people around the scene that all you get is see is other people trying to catch a glimpse. Police repeatedly kept charging at people to scare the mob away, even roughing up an odd person here or there. I realised I could get more information in the comfort of my at home than standing there on the streets.
Back in the comfort of home, I made the obligatory FB and Twitter posts while furiously flipping between millions of Telugu news channels trying to get as much information as possible. Watching Home Minister Shinde’s statement ably supported by what looks like a perpetual smirk on his face was a momentary blood-curdling distraction. The response of a kid who said “9-10-11” when an idiotic reporter looking for drama asked (at 8PM) the kid about the timing of the blast (7PM) made for a distraction of more pleasant kind. The most idiotic and irresponsible comment of the night was made on twitter by CNN-IBN’s Veeraraghav who bragged (see picture) about their coverage of the blasts even before the flesh was cleared.
By then, it was clear that the two blasts happened few meters apart – one near the Konark Theatre and another near the Venkatadri Theatre. These two along with the Rajadhani Theatre formed the iconic trinity of standalone cinemas in this area. I suddenly felt a huge weight of nostalgia reminiscing over how much a movie in these cinemas meant in my early childhood days. I am sure the same holds for anyone who ever lived within a few square kilometers of this holy trinity.
Why Dilsukhnagar? Well, it’s a bustling crowded locality in the South-East of Hyderabad, about 10KM from the State Legislature, lies on the NH9 that connects Hyderabad to Vijayawada. Over the last two decades, the city has stretched to the east of Dilsukhnagar – where my family moved to by the time I was 10 in the early Nineties – with the grape-fields being converted into residential areas. Quickly, Dilsukhnagar has grown into an all-important hub not only commercially but also for education, transport and entertainment.
Over the past decade, a large number of coaching centres sprung up in this area. Most of these students live in the hundreds of students hostels in the area behind the blast sites. They are from small towns and villages from the neighbouring districts of Hyderabad. Some of those who died in the first blast at the tea stall were such students sipping tea. A cousin of mine who lives in one of the hostels told me that the blasts made a big impression on many of the students and on their parents. Some of them, were going back to their native places till the threats subside (there have been unconfirmed reports of more live-bombs in the city).
The day after the blast, I went to visit my cousin who runs a business in what we used to call the Konark lane. This is the arterial road behind the blast sites, snaking its way for half a kilometer past the Konark theatre till it meets another road from the Sai Baba temple that was said to be the original target for the blasts. The shops/businesses on both sides of this meandering Konark lane were shut down owing to the bandh called by the BJP. Only the hospitals, medical shops and tea stalls were being allowed to run. Now the people running these businesses pass through the blast site few times every day and they were the ones most scarred and affected by these blasts.
Some said BJP called for a nation-wide bandh. Other said they only called for a peaceful protest. What I saw was a group of thugs carrying saffron flags on bikes and threatening to beat up some of the shop-keepers who dared to conduct business. I even saw some of the glass and hardware that they broke in a shop that did not immediately yield to their threats.
My cousin introduced me a friend of his who lives in a hostel about 100mts from the blast site. The injured were mostly cleared by the time he got there. He and others took one man injured near his eye to a nearby hospital. This friend of my cousin is Sakru Naik. Sakru moved to Hyderabad only recently to pursue his B Com and is from the neighbouring Mahboobnagar district and belongs to the nomadic Banjara tribe, referred to as Lambadis in Andhra Pradesh. He said he worked in the agriculture fields as a kid and wants to appear for the Excise constable exam. He was very angry with those who committed the blast. He said he would break their bones and pull their innards out. He very passionately said he wanted to serve his country in any way possible. He also said he thought of packing up and going back home after visiting the blast site the previous night. He said it twice. I didn’t interrupt and let his conflicting thoughts pass for the time being.
The blast had a very definitive impact on Sakru. He was talkative young man, bright and full of energy. I could also see a tinge of sadness now and then when he talked about the incident. He asked me why the attack wasn’t prevented by the police. I told him that the police do prevent many such attacks that we don’t hear of, the failure in regulating sale of Ammonium Nitrate and some other tidbits of knowledge I have of policing and intelligence.
The three of us visited a nearby tea-stall, exactly when the bomb-squad were there for some refreshments. They left without paying.
At a nearby Mee-Seva centre that allows citizens to pay their bills. I heard Venkatesh, who was there to courier some documents, describing the second blast near the Venkatadri theatre to his friend. After his call, I prompted him to talk about the incident. The previous evening, he was near that theatre. Venkatesh was lucky to be alive, but lost a friend. He had picked up a friend on his bike and went to the courier service near the Venkatadri theatre. As luck would have it, a shopkeeper refused to allow him to park his bike there as it would block the way to the shop. His friend got down there while Venkatesh looked for parking at a nearby garage. That is when the blast occurred followed by a large number of people running into the garage. Someone pulled down the shutter. Venkatesh told me someone in the crowd said something about seeing a gun in someone’s hand. They thought it was a full-on terrorist attack like in Mumbai 2008. Soon everyone ran out and away as far away from the spot as possible. Few people were also injured in the commotion. Venkatesh soon walked to the blast site and found his friend dead, the back of his skull ripped open. He saw another man with part of his gut hanging out by his side. Soon an ambulance picked up his friend.
His narrative was being repeatedly interrupted by his employer’s phone calls. “This is the same folder I went to courier yesterday”, he told me while making the payment. The pain in his eyes was there for all to see. I wanted to listen more to him. His employer was waiting for him. It hasn’t even been 24 hours since the blast. Venkatesh almost died. He lost a friend.
Governments are asked after any terror incident if they just expect people to move on with their lives. In reality, it doesn’t matter who expects what. People like Venkatesh, who need to work everyday for a living, have no choice. I hadn’t asked his name till then. I couldn’t let him go without knowing it. “Venkatesh”, he said smiling for the first time. And moved on.