So what is it like to be right outside Mantralaya at the time of the fire? That thought gets me to leave my home at 4.25 pm and rush towards the scene. I am not a disaster expert, have never covered a fire in my three decades of journalism, I was abroad when 26/11 took place, and so this time I am determined to tear myself away from the hyperventilating reporters on the TV screen and see first hand what happens on the ground, at the centre of it all and what goes on at the margins of a calamity. It hits me like a thunderbolt: even a minute away from the television coverage and it’s like nothing’s happening. All is calm.
I decide the world is divided into two kinds of people. One kind that sits at home and watches ‘breaking news’ and gets agitated and the other is the one on the streets and gets on with things. The usual shoppers strolling down Kemps Corner, the quotidian everyday scenes at Hughes Road, the sleepy devotees at Babulnath; giggling students on a loaf bunking lectures at Wilson college.
The first handshake with the fire I have is when I turn into Marine Drive at 4.43 pm. A dark feather’s plume above the cluster of familiar buildings in a distance. I look around to observe my fellow commuters: no one’s noticed it. My plan is to alight from my vehicle wherever the road’s blocked and walk the rest of the way to Mantralaya. I imagine that the roads will be blocked at least half way across Marine Drive. As it turns out, we drive right up to the Air India building, where the first signs of police presence greet us cheerily. I have my Press pass ready in case identification is required. But it’s not needed, I just tell them I’m a resident wanting to go home and they waive us through.
Abandoning my car opposite the Air India building I join a few people walking towards the fire; the road is clear, and except for a few police cars, is free of traffic. Right above me, I hear the roar of a helicopter. There are over a dozen OB vans parked outside the western flank of the building. There are crowds, but they are lined peacefully on the pavements. I can now see the orange flames dancing from the windows. No cop stops me or asks for reasons why I’m there. There are at least 30 photographers, lenses trained at the building. As I get closer, I see a contingent of policewomen standing nearby. They are gossiping. One has undone her bun and is reworking it. They could be at a market.
I decided to see if I could get to the front of the building where the main gate lies. As I’m walking towards it alongside the Mantralaya wall, a cop requests me and another gentleman to cross over to the other side of the road. He does so politely, even kindly. The gentleman clambers on to the traffic divider, and I follow. Seeing that I’m struggling with my bag the cop rushes to assist me. No one asks me what I’m doing there, or why I need to be so close to the gate.
Now I’m directly in front of the gate, along with assorted strangers craning our necks up to stare in fascination at the flames. Right next to me is the hyperventilating TV reporter from the leading English news channel spreading panic and conspiracy theories. She is sweating, her brow is furrowed, her hair all askew. She seems as if she exists in a bubble of chaos.
Then I notice a plump jolly man dressed in all white gear wearing a hat, which says Lexus prominently on its front, posing for a picture with the TV anchor. He stands near her elbow, so she can’t see that while she’s screaming about the catastrophe — he’s waving to his mum.
I ask him if he will pose for me and he happily obliges. His name is Yogendra Thorat, an NCP worker from Sangli, he was in the building when the fire broke and has been standing outside it for the last few hours, mesmerised. Another bystander, Jitendra Kadam introduces himself, he too was in the building. He’s been working there for the past two years, he says he heard an explosion and fled down the stairs.
I eavesdrop on a conversation between two women and a cop. They are trying to talk him in to allowing them to walk past the building to Colaba. “Why do they need to get to Colaba,” I ask them? “To go home,” they shrug. “We work in the Air India building, and it’s 5.15 pm, office is over.”
If the raging fire in their city’s most important building at all puts them out, they don’t let on. My colleague from MiD DAY informs me that the CM is opposite us, inside the compound, and is about to address the press. I decide to get back and file this copy. As I leave, I steal a glance at the hyperventilating anchor, who appears as if she’s reporting the news from another planet altogether.
By the time I reach Nariman Point not even three minutes away, the city coalesces itself peacefully around me even though through my phone, I continue receiving updates from the same TV channel of how dire the situation is. It is 5.43 pm. I tell myself I should watch less TV.