Twenty long years ago, a young mother was excitedly planning to send her 17-year-old daughter to college. The world was hers to conquer and with her mother by her side, she was getting ready to spread her wings and fly.
That day, 20 years ago, 17-year-old Unnati Krishnamoorthy and her 13-year-old brother, Ujjwal, did what most kids do: watch a movie the day it hits the theatres.
It was Friday the thirteenth, 1997.
A fire broke out at Delhi’s Uphaar cinema and Unnati and Ujjwal, were amongst 59 who died of asphyxiation.
Neelam, the young mother, and her husband Shekhar--now familiar faces in the court and on television screens--didn’t know Uphaar would go on to become a tragic leitmotif.
The happy couple had stolen their way out of the gynecological ward at Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) to watch a movie at the same hall--Uphaar--a night before Unnati was born.
Their life changed in so many ways when they were back at the theatre and the same hospital, to find their dead children laid out on stretchers.
Today, after a long and adverse battle, a review petition heard by the Supreme Court has sentenced Gopal, one of the real-estate Ansal brothers (owners of Uphaar) to one year in prison. The older brother, Sushil Ansal was given a reprieve on the basis of his age. He is 77.
Has justice been served?
It is not often that journalists go on to become friends with people they meet in the course of their work. I first met Neelam and Shekhar, 20 years ago, soon after the deaths of their children and have been in touch with them ever since.
The loss of a child brings unbearable pain.
Unnati and Ujjwal’s deaths devastated the Krishnmoorthys but they have believed from the beginning--and have not wavered since--that they had only two choices: accept the tragedy as a bad card that fate had dealt them or take the road to justice.
They have fought valiantly and even authored a book, Trial by Fire, that painstakingly details their journey through various courts in the quest for justice: an elusive, slippery customer subject to frequent adjournments despite an order that placed it in the ‘fast track category’.
They fought because as Neelam once told me, the case appeared fairly straight forward. None of the victims died of fire injuries but choked to death because extra seats had been put up by the businessman owners, the Ansals, for profit. The seats blocked the exits through which the victims could have escaped. The functional door was bolted from the outside as thick smoke engulfed the balcony and fifty nine people slowly gasped for their last breath.
Questions have haunted the Krishnamoorthy’s over the last two decades.
Were Unnati and Ujjwal together in their dying moments?
Ujjwal was asthamatic. Was the death very painful?
Who succumbed first, Unnati or Ujjwal?
I called Neelam today, on hearing that Gopal Ansal would have to serve a prison sentence but she was disappointed. The emotional exhaustion of trying to get justice for 59 innocents was wearing her down and the words just tumbled:
‘Sushil Ansal is too old says the court. Is it my fault that the case took 20 years? What kind of precedence is the court setting, that yes, you are guilty of ‘death by negligence’ but you can still walk free because you’re 77. My children were only 17 and 13. They deserved to live… and you know, the same Supreme Court sent a 92-year-old to jail. Why are the standards different for the rich?’
I listened and told her what I thought: it was partial victory, it is not often that the rich and famous are sent to jail.
Neelam and Shekhar are resilient and tenacious. The book details the resilience shown by parents wracked by grief, just as it gives an insider’s account of what it means to be a litigant in court.
The litigants, I’m sure, will warrior on.
There is one more legal step available to them: to file a curative petition against Sushil’s discharge.
Will you opt for it, I asked Neelam and realized it was a no-brainer.
“When you play cricket, you play till the last ball,” she said.
That’s Neelam. A mother, Unnati and Ujjwal will be proud of.
(The author tweets as @shammybaweja)