Years ago I was involved in a train accident, while travelling from Hyderabad to Naraspur for the shooting of ‘Prema katha’, which resulted in around 17 deaths. It was one of the most dramatic, comic and tragic experiences of my life.
I was sleeping on the upper berth in a First Class cabin, when I suddenly heard a huge rattling sound, and at the same time a moaning sound started coming from a person sleeping in the lower berth steadily rising in its volume. My first thought was that the train is off the track and I felt it will crash when the moaning below will reach its crescendo (I have this disease of constantly living in a state of filmdom irrespective of the situation). Both the rattling and the moaning stopped suddenly and there was complete silence. It was pitch dark and for a few seconds I thought I must have been dreaming.
Then I tried to get up and I couldn’t as my head was being pressed against the wall of the coach. I couldn’t figure out why, for a while, till I realized that coach was on its side inclined at about 30 degrees. With great difficulty I managed to get down and started searching for my shoes. As I wore them I started hearing faint whispers of people asking each other whether they were alright. The volume at which they were talking almost made me feel that they were scared to disturb the situation.
Slowly I managed to reach the coach door. There was a very faint moon light outside. As I stepped out my shoe went into the slush of paddy field. My first thought was “Yuck, my shoes are fucked.” I bought this new pair of shoes just the previous day. Once I got over the tragedy of my shoes I looked around to see a couple of coaches behind lying on their side and people slowly crawling out through the connecting doors of the coaches which broke in the accident. I went walking to the track which was about 50feet from the train as it was dry there. By that time people were coming out.
The initial reports were that nobody was killed or hurt. Now where these people got these reports from is anybody’s guess. One guy got a bed sheet and a pillow from inside the train, put it on the tracks and instructed people around to wake him up when the rescue train arrives.
As I looked around there was a mixture of shouts, sounds of people crying and strangely laughter too. Quite a bit of my unit was in the S5 coach which was about 4 coaches down. So I started walking towards it when a little ahead I saw a man with a severed leg on the grass. That’s when I came to know that the ‘all are well’ news were false. As I went further I saw the coach just before S5 so mangled and I could hear a man moaning in pain asking for water from inside. I couldn’t see the inside through the window in the darkness but I could make out that he was somehow trapped. A guy walked up to the window with a water bottle to hand it through the window when somebody shouted at him not to give the water. The water guy turned to the shouting guy to ask him why and the shouting guy gave his gyan on why an injured man should not be given water. The water guy had a sudden desire to be educated more on the subject. So both the shouting guy and the water guy went into an educational tour of the dangers of giving water to injured people. The shouting guy suddenly developed the personality of a all knowing teacher and the water guy of that of a wide-eyed pupil, and this scene was happening with the background score of the man inside the train moaning in pain and begging for water.
“Sir, are you fine?” someone shouted from the back and I turned to see E.Nivas who was my assistant at that time. He was in S5 coach. I asked him what about the rest of the crew. He said “mostly fine but Vidya is out”. I knew even when he said it what he meant, but I still thought it was strange to use a terminology of cricket to describe a known person’s death in a situation like that. Vidya was a camera assistant who joined my unit recommended by my cousin who was very close to his family. Niwas told me that it took him 45 minutes to come out of the coach. He was sleeping in the lower berth and after the accident he tried to move Vidya and he couldn’t and then he realized he was dead.
I took out my cell phone which was working and called up my cousin in Mumbai. It was about 4am. After I told him Vidya is dead, my cousin’s sleepy voiced first question was “are you sure?” I stopped short because I realized that I was just conveying what Niwas told me and I asked Niwas “are you sure?” Niwas also got into doubt and said that “he was not moving, for sure” and I said “then maybe he was just unconscious”. This put Niwas in further doubt, so both me and Niwas trudged through the slush to go to S5 coach which was lying on a 45 degrees incline. We went under it and Niwas started shouting Vidya’s name through the grilled window and I heard a moan. I turned sharply to Niwas and said “he’s alive” to which Niwas said “that’s not Vidya, it’s Murthy”. “Who is Murthy” I asked him and Niwas said he was just a friend they made in the coach the previous night and he was sleeping in the middle berth right below Vidya, and who also was apparently trapped.
Now Niwas started shouting at Murthy to try and nudge Vidya above him to see if he was alive. Murthy’s returning moans from the darkness became a character and I was instructing my directions to Niwas in soft whispers almost feeling guilty about using this new character Murthy as a medium to find out Vidya’s state. So the conversation went 3-ways between my whispers translated to Niwas’s shouts to Murthy’s groans and moans and all of us listening to Vidya’s silence.
Suddenly a cheerful voice from behind said “Varma saab you are here?” I turned around to see a man with a group of people walking towards me. I couldn’t recognise him. He realized that and introduced himself as a Railway Officer who I met in the shooting of the climax of “Kshana Kshanam”. He had come on the rescue train and went about introducing his colleagues “We have all come here to do the needful”, “He is Station Supervisor Ramchandran”, “He is my close friend Venkateshwarlu” etc etc. Then he asked me “Can we do anything for you?” I said “Sir there’s a unit member of mine called Vidya who is trapped inside this coach. Can you help in finding out his state?” To which he said “Yes, yes I will do the needful.” Suddenly a voice from behind said “Are you suspecting any sabotage?” We turned around to see a reporter with a Dictaphone. Suddenly the Officer became very authoritative and told him “First we have to attend to the needful. But any information you should only ask me. My name is Rao.” I could clearly see that Mr.Needful wants to see his name in the paper the next day.
Meanwhile a gleeful looking man from a nearby village was ecstatic about how nothing like this ever happened near his village. I could imagine Mr.Gleeful till the day of death will tell his children and grand children of his experiences.
I left Niwas and the Production Manager Giri to attend to the rest and along with a unit member on the directions of Mr.Needful I started walking towards a jeep to take me to a nearby town Guntur. As I was walking many officers and passengers who recognized me were greeting me and treating me with great respect. I reached the jeep, got in and told the driver to move. He gave me one dirty look and pointed to the wheel which was stuck in the mud and then he went off on a long barrage of expletives cursing the officers for not listening to him when he predicted that the jeep will get stuck. He was least bothered about me or the accident. So I had no choice but to trudge through the paddy field along with some unit members towards a nearby village from which I presumed Mr.Gleeful came from. After I walked a certain distance to the village I turned back to see the train on its side and there was a tree on the right between the train and me. I wished that it was a little to the left so that the visual would have looked better (Hello! Remember my disease of living in a state of filmdom?)
Once we reached the village there were some vehicles. Nagarjuna’s family friend from Guntur took me into his vehicle and drove me to his home. He was hospitality personified and apparently a huge fan of mine and was in awe of me. As I got down in front of his home, I was unbelievably dirty, both my clothes and feet. Even as I asked for water to wash my feet Mr.Hospitality insisted I come in. So I went in to face a woman who couldn’t control her anger looking at the dirt on my feet. Mr.Hospitality introduced her as his wife and she took off on him on why he couldn’t get my feet washed outside to which he screamed at her saying “Do you know who he is?” to which I volunteered to go out to which she said “What’s the point now as you already made the floor dirty.” Now Mr.Hospitality wanted me to sit on the sofa and from the look in her eyes I knew that both me and Mr.Hospitality were in mortal danger if anything even near to that happens. I stomped my feet down literally and said I am not doing anything except for cleaning myself up.
Once I got cleaned I shifted to a nearby Hotel where most people from the accident were put up. Niwas called me and told that Murthy stopped speaking. Both of us remained silent and did not speak about the ‘death’ word.
The S5 coach was mangled and they had to cut the top open. Now it so happened that Vidya was right below the roof as he was on the upper berth. So in the process of cutting the roof, his face got completely burnt from the heat of the welding torch. Whether he died before itself or during this process is anybody’s guess.
My cousin en-route from Mumbai called me and said Vidya’s father was coming and I have to break the news to him about his son’s death. His father was only told that Vidya is injured. I felt terrible that I am meeting this man for the first time in my life and the first thing I have to speak to him is that his son is dead. I confided about this to a relative of mine Pandu, who came to see me there, to which he said not to worry and he will take care of that. I wondered how he will do that.
When Vidya’s father walked in looking at me very fearfully not knowing what to expect Pandu sharply slapped his back from behind and said in a tone of loud cheerful happiness ‘Your son is very lucky. God loves him and took him away. We all are bastards and I don’t know when we will get that lucky”. I was shocked at the way Pandu broke the news. The effect on Vidya’s father was mesmeric. He was startled both with the news and the way it was told to him. My first reaction was that it was very insensitive on Pandu’s part but on second thoughts I thought it was the most perfect way of breaking the news in that situation. Pandu went on a barrage of advantages, incidents and anecdotes about God and His ways not giving thinking and feeling time to Vidya’s father. Pandu was instinctive but I think he was more a philosopher and psychiatrist than anybody I met.
Later I sat with Vidya’s father and gave a long talk to him on why he should not show Vidya’s body in the state of his burnt face to his mother. I said ‘let her remember him the way he was’, to which he countered how he cannot do that as he is her only son to which I was getting angry more with the fact that my logic was not being listened to.
However by the time he reached his place along with the body, my cousin called me and told me that Vidya’s father decided to go by my advice and got the cremation done without the mother seeing Vidya’s face. I felt triumphant of my counselling power.
Anyway after the entire experience the one truth I realized for myself is that “life is really a comedy which pretends to be a tragedy".