‘They couldn’t grasp each other’s language. But it didn’t matter’

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Illustrations: Mayanglambam Dinesh
Illustrations: Mayanglambam Dinesh

It was raining heavily when we left the Calicut airport on that eventful evening of July 2001. I was working as an aviation officer at the Indian Oil Corporation’s fuel station there. There were five of us in the jeep and we were looking forward to going home after a tedious day. By the time we entered the city, we could sense a frantic urgency, the way cars were rushing by. When a few ambulances screamed past, I asked the driver to stop and enquire. He came back with the shocking news that the Mangalore-Chennai mail had derailed and plunged into the Kadalundi river. Many of our colleagues, who worked in the city depot, usually took the same train after their evening shift. Without waiting for instructions, the driver drove us to the Medical College Hospital in Calicut.

At the hospital, it was chaos. Speculation was rife about the number of people who had died. The injured and the dead were being brought in by the public in jeeps, taxis, private cars, auto rickshaws and ambulances in droves. Cameras were flashing and television crews had arrived, adding to the confusion. It was a scene from hell. By midnight, VIPs started arriving. Soon, it was as if the victims did not matter, only the photo ops of politicians did.

The accident claimed 57 lives. By midnight, we had confirmed that all our colleagues had reached home safely, except one. They were saved by the rain. Our depot manager had offered them a lift in his car and six of them had squeezed in, not wanting to walk all the way to the station in the downpour. An unfortunate colleague, who was the last to leave his table, could not find a place in the car. They found his body three days later from the muddy bottoms of Kadalundi river.

As we were preparing to leave the hospital, an old man, with his right hand in a sling, came limping to me and asked whether I knew Hindi. My Hindi was as patchy then as it is now, but I decided to help. He asked me whether I could help him find rescue workers from the accident spot. I stopped a man pushing a stretcher and asked whether he was from the Vallikunnu or Kadalundi village, the villages on either side of the river. People of these villages had worked tirelessly in the rain and rising tide to save as many lives as possible. When the young man nodded his head impatiently, confirming that he was one of the rescuers, the old man grabbed his hands and pulled him to a ward where a young woman lay asleep. I thought he was thanking the young man for saving his daughter’s life but the villager said he had nothing to do with rescuing the old man’s daughter. By this time, the man was untying a knot in his daughter’s shawl with shaky fingers. When he opened the knot, we saw three pieces of a broken gold chain.

We stared at it without comprehension. Then it dawned on us. Some villager who had rescued her had carefully tied the broken gold chain to her shawl. The man or men who saved her had, not even for a moment, thought about pocketing the fortune. These were men who lived frugally — daily labourers and fishermen. Nobody would have known had they sneaked it off. Yet they chose to be honest when no one was watching. The villager kept on repeating in Malayalam that he had not rescued the old man’s daughter. The old man knew that the villager sitting before him could not have been the same person, who had saved his daughter, but that did not stop him from expressing his gratitude in Hindi. Both did not understand a word of what the other was saying. It did not matter. I felt I was watching something profound and spiritual.

I do not know the name of either men, but I will never forget their faces. As long as such people exist, I feel there is still hope for our country, despite its corrupt politicians and avaricious power-seekers.

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