February 19, 2020
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Night Over Charkhi Dadri

As villagers watch over the mangled debris, they thank the pilot for saving those on the ground

Night Over Charkhi Dadri

DEATH played cruel harvester in the barren fields of Charkhi Dadri. Mangled flesh, spilled-out innards, bodies mutilated and charred beyond recognition—all lay intermingled with the smithereened fuselage of the Saudia aircraft. And even the darkness of the cold night could not cloak the horror of the accident. The first body we stumbled upon had no face or hands or legs. It was a torso with broad shoulders. Cringing, we backed off. To step onto another one. A head with thick, curly hair. Its face buried in the ground. Helpful villagers offered to assist the cause of the media. "I’ll show you the face," said an eager Dadri youth, threatening to prod at the head with the formidable stick he was carrying. Disappointed at the panicky negative he received as a response, he left us. With our unused notebooks and pens. An all-pervading stench of burning flesh. And nausea churning the insides.

Such indulgence in trauma was, however, cut short. "Seen a woman with a camel coloured salwar-kameez or a man with beige jeans and a checked shirt?" enquired a middle-aged gentleman. Dead or alive, someone asked quite humourlessly. "Dead," answered he, choking with a sob. "She was my sister. He, Birendra Singh Bhati, my brother-in-law. He worked for Coca-Cola in Jeddah. Doing so well. I’d just bought sweets for them in the morning." 

And even as he mumbled incoherently, a foreign television crew materialised from somewhere, switched on harsh lights and rolled camera to record his grief. Hissar DIG V.B. Singh, assigned to help in the operations at the accident site, stood in queue to be interviewed next. Did he speak English, a crew member asked another. Upon which the cop stared straight into the camera and said: "No bodies of westerners found yet. Mostly brown people have died. And there have been no survivors." 

The villagers gathered at the site, however, clucked their disagreement. They swore that they had carried four moaning survivors to the nearby hospital in a tractor. "To be declared dead only after reaching there," they insisted. Lore was already building around the incident. The pilot of the Saudi aircraft had been lionised in the minds of the Dadri villagers. "You know, even in death he struggled to save the populace on ground. Burning and hurt, he directed the plane as far away from the villages as he could," said Dadri’s old Suresh Ram emotionally.

Abundant death and gloom, in fact, had many like aged Suresh Ram charged up. Faceless Dadri had gone international. And many heroes were born that night to rise to the occasion. Through the night, they battled tirelessly helping the dead.

Twenty-one-year-old Rakesh Aggarwal, general secretary of Dadri’s Janata College, had formed the Viman Durghatna Rahat Samiti. A generator to light up the site and water for the bereaved relatives being the Samiti’s contribution. The Dadri elders, meanwhile, arranged village hands and tractors for transporting the bodies to the make-shift mortuary at the nearby hospital. Yet another village samaritan arranged for a mike to make announcements.

And energetic members of the RSS, their saffron headbands firmly in place, were all over. Extracting the corpses from the debris, consoling shattered relatives, assisting the cops and interacting with the media. A young Sanghi caught up with us: "We are committed to help the distressed. We’ve even set up a lunch and tea counter for the grieving families in front of the hospital. I could show it to you tomorrow." Tomorrow seemed far away. But upon arrival it brought with it more horror. It revealed naked, disembodied passengers shorn of dignity by a terrible death. Broken sunglasses, Swiss watches, blood-drenched Kanjeevaram sarees, fluff toys, little packs of Indian spices—aspirations mourning the loss of their owners.

We moved on. Nine km away to fields in Maliya village where the remains of the Kazakh aircraft lay. Only to be confronted with more corpses. But these were like burnt charcoal. Junior doctors were trying to piece burnt bones together to form ‘bodies’. "After so many disfigured bodies last night this seems like nothing. This thing has desensitised us for life," observed an exhausted reporter. We agreed. Till, our next stop at the Dadri hospital jolted us out of our belief.

A man walked around with a leg. Trying to find a body that matched. A brain lay outside a skull that had cracked. Horror-struck eyes lay open in death. An infant child had his intestine lying beside him. Decaying death was in the air. And relatives scrounged for loved ones with handkerchiefs over their noses.

A red-eyed Mohammed Tahiz Khan peered at a heap of charred innards, hoping he’d find his sister there. The one who he had seen off at Indira Gandhi Airport last afternoon for a vacation with her husband. "Found?" asked someone. "Na," the tall man uttered before breaking down in dry sobs. A similar cry rose from another corner. Someone had found a relative in the same heap. Someone not any happier than Mohammed Tahiz for the discovery.

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