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Exit Fireworks

14 September, 2008 (02:18) | Travelogue

An old sign adorns a shop’s window in Connaught Place, Delhi.
For more electrifying pictures of India, click here.

The explosion echoes from Connaught Place. We all turn, our heads craned at awkward angles due to the way we’re crammed into our auto rickshaw.

“Whoa,” says Gina.

“It’s probably just fireworks,” responds Emilie. “They set off fireworks all year in India. I was woken up in Jaipur once thinking it was bombs, but it was just fireworks.”

“Why do they do that?” I ask, thinking nothing of the booming echo now faded beneath the honking horns of Delhi’s dense traffic.

“I don’t know.”

“It could’ve been a bomb,” says Gina. “There were bombings in Jaipur before Emilie got here.”

“Yeah,” agrees Emilie. “There were 60 killed shortly before I got there. A bunch more after. They hit Ahmedabad, Bangalore, and some in Surrah, but they were diffused before they went off.”

“Muslims attacking Hindus, Hindus attacking Muslims,” explains Gina.

Centre Park sits quietly full of birds in the early afternoon.

“You mean the violence over the temples?” I ask, referring to the mosques given to the Hindus and then taken back by the local government in Jammu and Kashmir.

“No, that was different.”

“Why didn’t we go there?” I ask sarcastically.

“No, fuck that, Ben. I don’t care what you want, but it’s stupid to go someplace with violence. It’s not going to happen.” I stare sourly out at the passing ground outside. As much as I hate the way he said it, he’s right. There’s no logical reason for me to rush someplace likely dangerous, and my reasoning seems as elusive to me as it must to Matt.

“Besides,” says Emilie, quieting Matt’s tirade, “they don’t hit the same city twice. They do one and then move on.”

“True,” I say.

A few minutes later we walk into Emilie’s hotel. We’re leaving for the airport in 45 minutes to continue onward. I flip through the channels looking for the BBC. Every Hindu speaking channel that isn’t blasting Bollywood songs and Bhangra is screaming with breaking news: three blasts in Delhi, soon to be amended to four. Two of these were in Connaught Place-one in the park in which we took our group photo and one in block M where we visited Planet M.

Two trash cans sit in Centre Park, one of which could’ve hidden the bomb that exploded.

When I was in Jerusalem, we were on a major road shopping. We finished, packed up and got on the bus. An hour later, a bomb killed 13, including 4 tourists. We didn’t find out until after we arrived back home.

The images on the screen show bodies being dragged from rubble, blood dripping in heavy pools on the cement floor. Men and women lie prone or painfully rocking on the ground. This wouldn’t have been on TV in US. The TV says that 4 people have been injured and there are no reported casualties. The images tell a different story. At least 20 people have been shown injured, though not all of them in CP. There’s still no report as to what might be the reason for these blasts.

“That boom we heard was a bomb,” Emilie says as Gina comes back in.

“Told you,” Gina says, a slight fear wavering in her voice as she flops onto the bed. The TV says it’s been mostly damage-motorbikes, cabs and a car sheared in half. The ticker says the bomb at Ghaffer Market in the M-block of Connaught Place was in an auto rickshaw. Another blew up in the same park where we snapped our group photo only a few hours before.

The sole group picture from the India leg, taken in Centre Park on the 13th of September.

I begin to feel like grabbing a cab and heading back down. My flight isn’t until 4 AM, which means our 7:30 airport ride will leave lots of waiting for my flight. Matt wouldn’t let me. In a way, I’m grateful I’m nowhere near the aftermath. In a different way, I’m relieved that I can blame Matt for not running down there, even though he’s only looking out for my well-being. I run and tell him the news in the hotel internet café, but the BBC’s website says nothing about the blasts.

First person accounts are now rolling in. The injury toll has risen to 30. The Metro lines have been blocked and cell phone jammers have been put in place. There’s still nothing on casualties. We’re all sitting rapt, flipping from channel to channel, stopping on any station reporting, English or Hindi. One report links these bombs to the ones in Bangalore and Ahmedabad, which, combined with Delhi, makes their Fox News-esque acronym BAD, currently flashing across the screen.

The death toll is reported as “two feared dead,” though there’s no confirmation. I’m thinking bullshit. Greater Kailash and Karol Bagh were the other targets, all blasts coming within 45 minutes. One of the blasts was in a trash can.

“We should get going,” Matt says, breaking us away from our stupor. It’s 7:20, still 10 minutes from our taxi time. I doubt the explosions will affect traffic. I swear I hear the TV say there’s been 5 blasts as Matt flips it off and sends us scurrying for the door.

The taxi ride is surprisingly subdued. Everything in Delhi seems normal. Stretchers covered in bodies pass in the corner of my eye, but when I turn my camera in their direction the lens reveals carts covered in building materials. My imagination is playing tricks on me. I can’t tell if people’s faces are sadder and more dour or if it’s all in my head.

A couple of Indian ride on their scooter as if nothing is different.

“Stay the course,” George W. Bush whispers in my ear, eliciting an angry frown. “If we change our lives, the terrorists have won.” I can’t decide if I’m angry Bush, that shoddy excuse for a president, is in my head or if I’m angry that his statement seems incredibly apt in the given circumstances. Then again, what can really be done? My mind flashes to a blood donation tent we had passed this afternoon at Connaught Place.

“Hey, we could donate blood!” I had jokingly suggested. Now I wish I had.

The ride to the airport is silent. Despite our imminent separation, we have nothing to say. My mind is on the bombings. Matt’s worried about the security measures at the airport a mere 2 hours after a terrorist attack. Gina, perhaps most noble of the three of us, seems furrowed in thought about her sister, who’s staying in Delhi for a few days before starting the final two months of her time abroad in India. Then again, perhaps we’re all just tired of being together for long. We have been at each others’ throats more lately. I’m certainly road weary.

The airport is bustling as usual. There’s no news broadcasts or announcements to be had. Matt walks Gina through the check-in line. I sit, antsy for the latest word. Gina’s flight leaves around 11 PM, Matt’s at 2:30, mine not until 4:45, though I arrive in Turkey a full three hours before Matt. It’s the one flight in our journey we travel separately besides our final exodus from Europe.

Things move faster than expected and, in a matter of moments, Gina is gone and Matt and I are left to our own devices. There’s lounge or restaurant available to us until after we check in, an ordeal that won’t begin until 11:25 for Matt and 1:45 for me.

Our fate for the evening written in the sands of time, we find a plug, secure wireless (for an outrageous fee), and drop notes to our families saying we’re OK. The bombings are now the top story on the BBC. The death toll is a reported 18 with 80 injured. I feel vindicated, and then I feel guilty for feeling vindicated. A fifth bomb was diffused at the India Gate according to police. The Indian Mujahideen terrorist organization claimed responsibility for the attack via threatening letters beforehand. “Stop us if you can,” they said. Pakistan has, as expected, decried the act. I begin to wonder when it became necessary for enemies to issue press releases expressing solidarity with each other. I suspect it’s the media’s fault.

With time to waste, Matt begins to probe my desire to rush to the scene of the crime. It’s a difficult issue. I want to give a voice to the voiceless. I want to give people accurate information. I want to do what I think I do best, which is tell a story. I want to help, even if it’s not as tangible as the wonderful works of EMTs, policemen and firemen. I want to perform up to the impossible standards of journalism. I want to sacrifice myself for the greater good; for the truth.

And I want to be selfish. I want to challenge myself and see if I rise to the occasion. I want to have stories of glory to tell my family and friends. I want to know everything, good and bad. I want to experience life. I want to be remembered as someone who did something rather than running away.

It’s a difficult dichotomy. Here we are, in the midst of a terrible tragedy. It could still be dangerous, perhaps with more bombs, Matt reminds me. My arrival could incense the crowd and I could get in the way. I might not be able to handle it, instead breaking down and sitting on a curb with my hands in my head in shock. I could be arrested or, even worse, die. And for some intangible reason, I still want to go.

An auto rickshaw from Jaisalmer, India.

Matt leaves for his flight. I work my way through checking in and pass through security. The BBC is reporting a second bomb diffused. Several volatile areas of India are on high alert. I eat a Subway Club, India style: turkey, lamb and chicken ham with veggies and a masala sauce.

In a few short hours, I’ll climb on a plane and depart India. I want to say that the trip was good, but I can’t. Good doesn’t adequately represent the intricate tapestry of emotion this portion of the journey has left on me. India has so much to offer, a mere 12 days couldn’t do it justice. From the gorgeous Himalayas begging to be hiked had we had more time to the elegant desert whose sandstone masterpieces left my heart in my throat, I’m simply overwhelmed by the glory, the poverty, the kindness, the litter, the serene spirituality and everything in between.

As amazing as some of the sights have seemed and as wonderful as the people have been, the insights I’m left with into myself are what remain with me most strongly. My philosophies, though solid and of strong conviction, rarely seem to make their way into my actions. I want so badly to make a difference in so many things that knowing it can never be enough is often stifling. What am I doing here? Why do I deserve this wonderful journey? I lead a charmed life, and even when I try to self-destruct and lower myself to a different rung of society, I find myself clinging to luxuries I can’t possibly deserve.

I envy Emilie her vegetarianism; her belief that it’s making a difference and her conviction that it will help end animal cruelty. I envy Gina her kindness; her pure desire to help the weak, sick, and poor, and her belief in the best of people, trusting them to use that money to better themselves. I envy Matt his mutability; his ability to befriend anyone we come across fearlessly, perfectly adapting himself into a comfortable figure in an instant. More than anything India has given me, it’s given me an utterly clear realization of how poorly I live up to my own ideals.

I wish I could say I’m leaving India a changed man; that I will arrive in Turkey a new visage of myself. But I won’t. I’ll still be yearning to be reporting on the bombings in Delhi despite that I’ve merely repeated what the news is saying, adding nothing original. I’ll probably still be unable to live up to the lofty standards I expect of myself. And, despite my deepest desires, I’ll still be the same me who wakes up angry at how many bad things are happening in the world, and goes to sleep not having changed a one. For now, though, I can at least hope I’m taking a step forward thanks to a few short days in India.