It was 7 am on the 25th of February. North-east Delhi was on the boil, much like the large saucepan of tea on the thela outside gate no.3 of Delhi's GTB hospital. I had arrived early to gather information on the dead and the injured, for a live report for the 8 am bulletin. 30 dead, 4 injured. That's where the tally stood.
As I reported live, from under the portico outside the main building, I had to fight to keep my voice above the ever-swelling sound of sirens. As the morning progressed, an increasing number of ambulances and police gypsies had begun ferrying the injured. Not everyone got official help: Several families and friends were bringing their wounded in cars, scooties and even e-rickshaws.
One such scooty screeched to a halt in front of the Emergency. A young man with a large tilak on his forehead jumped off the two-wheeler. Slumped on the pillion was a middle-aged man who had been shot. The young man with the tilak carried the older man into the ER. After a while, when he came out, I walked up to him to try and get a soundbite. After all, I was here to gather news. The man was speaking to someone, weeping into the phone. "I have somehow managed to get chacha (uncle) to the hospital", he said, "but he has very little chance of making it". And then, the young man sat down on the ground and started crying uncontrollably. I decided to not disturb him in his moment of grief.
I saw him again, the very next day, outside the hospital mortuary. Today, the tilak was missing. "I had applied it yesterday, because I needed to get my injured uncle out of a Hindu area", he said. He glared at me, when I asked him whether he would say the same thing on camera. "I have to work with them," he told me, "and they are the ones who are helping me with money right now. I don't want to make an enemy of them by saying all this on TV." Life, I realised, was more complex than the truth.
Those were five long days that I spent among the dead and the living, amidst screams of grief and despair. At night, when I would reach home, I'd look at my mother's face and remember Ashfaq's mother, who had lost her son in the bloody riots. I would see my father's image in Babu Khan, whose two young sons had been killed by a murderous mob. My head would grow heavy, my heart restless.
Every morning, I would leave early, treading on weary feet, hoping that today would be a better day. That day, they said TV cameras were not going to be allowed. There were many more cops outside the hospital. Suddenly, a siren announced the arrival of a police gypsy. Private guards shooed people away to make way. An injured policeman was taken out of the vehicle. I began filming with my mobile phone.
Just then, two policemen approached me - one in his uniform and the other in plainclothes. One of them snatched my phone and said "tujhe samajh nahin aata, samjhaoon kya? (You don't understand orders? Should we make you?)" His face had turned red with anger. I glanced at his badge and could make out the name Pranay Dinesh. The other one, who was in plainclothes, dragged me towards the Emergency. I told him that I was trying to do my job. "Abhi sikhata hoon tujhe tera kaam (I'll teach you your job)," he shouted. I decided to avoid a confrontation, and he went away with my phone.
About half an hour later, a man came out and handed back my mobile phone, but not before he had given me a lecture on humanism. Here I was, a reporter from one of India's top channels, feeling powerless in front of those who could legally wield a stick. I could only imagine what the real victims of police excess felt in those days.
Defeated and despondent, I began walking towards the post-mortem building. From a distance, I could hear someone wail, "hai mera beta! (Oh my son)". A middle-aged man stood crying, his weight supported by two others. It was Hari Singh, father of Rahul Solanki, who had been killed in the riots. A girl from Rahul's marketing team stood by, weeping silently along with another friend, who refused to give his name. Later, I learnt from newspaper reports that this was Firoz, one of Rahul's best friends. Fear had forced him to grieve for his friend, namelessly, without any identity.
Close to Rahul's father was another figure grieving for yet another dead. It was Mehtab's sister-in-law. She kept recalling how Mehtab would tell her to get him married. Outside the mortuary, dozens of strangers had gathered to console and support the grieving families. I was there to get soundbites. As I did my job, tears would fill my eyes, my voice would break, my words would falter. In those times, I had to remind myself to be professional and not let emotions get the better of me.
I achieved nothing extraordinary in those five days.
Except that I learnt how cold death and loss is. I learnt how religion deserts you inside a mortuary and is replaced by the silence of sorrow. Mortuary, death, riots and mobs - these words will forever remind me of Parvez, Ashfaq, Rahul, Aasif and Nitin Kumar.
(Ravish Ranjan Shukla is a special correspondent with NDTV India.)
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