Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Punya Bhumi

Big chaos, Small heroes

The terror attack on Mumbai ended at least 173 lives and created havoc and fear throughout the city, and via cable news, the world. But it also brought out acts of spontaneous heroism from unassuming persons. Like Vishnu Datta Ram Zende, the platform announcer at Victoria Terminus Railway Station. His job is to use the public-address system at Mumbai's largest railway station to direct rushing hordes of travelers to their trains. His voice is similar to voices that most of us have heard traveling across India on trains.

But last Wednesday just before 10 p.m., Mr. Zende became a lone rescue worker in a horrific situation. He heard a loud explosion and saw people being shot at and running across the platform. He gripped his microphone in his small control booth and calmly directed a panicked crowd toward the safest exit.

"Walk to the back and leave the station through Gate No. 1," he chanted alternately in Hindi and Marathi, barely stopping to take a breath until the platform was cleared. The gunmen, armed with AK-47 automatic weapons and hand grenades, located his announcement booth and fired at him, puncturing one of the windows. But they missed Mr. Zende who was not hurt.

As Mumbai faced a brutal and merciless attack by ten highly trained Pakistani militants shooting at random on everyone they came across, ordinary citizens like Mr. Zende displayed extraordinary grace and fearlessness. Many times, they did so at considerable personal risk, performing acts of heroism that went far beyond their job descriptions. Without their quick thinking and courage, the toll of the attacks would have been greater than the 173 confirmed deaths from the attacks.

At Victoria Terminus, the gunmen acted with a cool precision. They first struck the long-distance section of the station, spraying the large waiting hall with gunfire. Those waiting were about to board the slow, crowded, cheapest train to Varanasi, scheduled to depart at 11:55 pm, and most of the fatalities at the station happened here. Satya Sheel Mishra, who runs a second-floor restaurant called Re-Fresh Food Plaza, saw the two gunmen take their positions and fire. Seven bullets pierced his glass windows. Crouching on the ground, he saw the men shoot indiscriminately and then march toward the other side of the station, where Mr. Zende was making his announcements.

Zende saw the gunmen walk in front of his window which was one floor up from the train platforms. He crouched on the ground and heard them shoot. One bullet shattered the window. Above his microphone, a murti of Ganesh, the remover of obstacles, sat in a blue box with twinkling red lights around him. Saved because the gunmen did not climb the stairs to his announcement booth, Zende called his wife when the shooting stopped. "I am in the office. I'm safe. Don't worry."

He is one of many heroes who displayed noble qualities in the midst of bullets, death and panic. Many of us westerners who regularly visit India or who have lived there have come to appreciate the finer qualities of ordinary Indians. Despite so many ugly and distorted influences, Punya Bhumi, the land of spiritual culture, remains alive somehow. No matter how much under attack it becomes, whether from within its own borders-- by corrupt politicians or misguided religionists-- or from outside forces who envy and hate the Indians because they do not embrace their fundamentalism, the character of India's people still shines thru, as it did in some of the darkest hours last week in Mumbai.