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The haunted station

books Updated: Nov 25, 2011 19:05 IST

Hindustan Times
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One hour before the blast at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus on November 26, 2008, I was taking photographs of the crowd of passengers waiting for their night trains. Earlier that year, I had planned to write the libretto of an opera that I intended to call, 'On An Indian Railway Platform' and I was researching my theme.

Having finished, I made my way back to my host Titoo Ahluwalia's flat in Colaba. My bus went past Leopold's Cafe a few minutes before the killing spree started there, and then past Nariman House, which is just a stone's throw away from the flat. I was going to bed when my host barged into the room, saying: "Mumbai is under siege! There have been several attacks in different parts of the city, including at the CST where you've just been!"

On that first, very inconclusive night, while everyone all over town was watching reports on TV and constantly ringing family and friends, I was glued to the screen of my Lumix camera, looking at my photos of those unfortunate people whose journey had been beginning or ending. Many of them must have been shot by the terrorists after I had photographed them enjoying their last moments of life or shot at and survived to live a life that would never be the same.

In 1976, I had boarded a train in what was then Victoria Terminus for my very first journey through India. The crowds in the hall had matched my western teenager's fantasies: the people were adequately flamboyant. In 2011, in a globalised India, the clothes, the attitudes were much less varied and exotic, but there were two absolutely gorgeous tribal women waiting there at the station. To my eyes, they represented the last remnants of the India of yore to which, just across the road, Mumbai and the New India have turned their back.

These women were standing, so prominent and gorgeous that they must have attracted the attention of the killers. Shooting at these representatives of 'no-more-Eternal India', the terrorists were aiming not at the metropolis of Mumbai, not at the symbol of the economic boom of Incredible India, not at the wealthy customers of the Taj or the Oberoi, but at the common people who don't fly on planes but still take the train; those mostly helpful, positive Indians who bring so much to many a traveller from the West who is faced with, and incensed by, the loss of human contact in his part of the world.

Caught up in the three days' curfew imposed on Colaba, I found no other solution to fight my agony while looking at my photographs of CST, than to start writing about my 30-odd years of travels in India, remembering the beauty of the place, the hospitality of so many of its people, analysing the passage from Old India to New India, for better or for worse. These notes were not meant for publication until a few months later, on my next trip to India, an Indian friend told me, "You westerners are only interested in yourselves! Look at 26/11. Your media went on about the five star hotels. Did they mention CST where ordinary people died?" I knew then that while not having the heart any more to write the libretto I had planned, I was doing the right thing by paying homage to the passengers I had photographed one hour before the blast at CST, through this book.

Bernard Turle translates the novels of authors writing in English that include VS Naipaul, Sudhir Kakar and Manu Joseph. He is currently translating Mohammed Hanif's Our Lady of Alice Bhatti. Turles' Une heure avant l'attentat (One Hour Before the Blast) was published in April in France by Les Promeneurs Solitaires.

The book is part-travel book, part-memoir and part-essay set against the background of 26/11. He lives in Paris

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