A charred frame barely recognisable as one of a Maruti 800, the remains of a flattened hatchback, and six bicycles against a wall stand in the basement of Uphaar Cinema. It was here that a transformer burst on June 13, 1997, causing a fire that led to 59 visitors choking to death.
Near the back gate to the basement, a broken sign notifies the parking charge. It still reads Rs 5.
The theatre itself has never seen light since the night electricity snapped. The only way to enter today is a small gate at the back. That night, locals say, this was the only open exit for those in the front rows. It leads, ironically, to a fire escape sign.
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Rajesh, 43, the caretaker of the complex, was posted here last year by a security agency. Until Tuesday, he had never entered the hall on the first floor. When stray firecrackers last Diwali caused a fire outside the fourth floor, Rajesh called the fire brigade but wouldn’t go beyond the gate, leaving the firemen to make their own way up. “I feared history was repeating itself,” Rajesh said. “From the gate at night, you can hear the mice and it sounds as if ghosts are talking.”
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On Wednesday, he entered the hall for the first time, guiding The Indian Express team with the light of his mobile. The mice scurried about noisily. Rajesh stumbled on something and shrieked; it was a soft-drinks bottle. At the end of rows of seats, their shine now covered in dust, is the balcony where most people were trapped and died.
Outside, Vinod Kumar Gupta sells tea at the only shop still running on the complex. Just 18 in 1997, he is today Guptaji, known across Green Park for his accounts about “that night”. “I heard screams from the back gate and rushed there,” he said. “I saw someone throw a child down the first floor. I was so dumbstruck I couldn’t rush to catch him. I don’t know what happened to him but that sight pushed me to act.”
Gupta said he and others fetched mattresses from Uphaar Mattress Shop, which still stands. “We laid the mattresses below the windows for those who jumped. I must have called the fire brigade and the police six, seven times,” Gupta said.
Gupta fought his own court battle for a decade to keep his stall open. “For two years after the fire, the municipal corporation shut down my shop. The final verdict from the high court came in May. I could not send my son to school because of court costs,” he said.
Gupta’s shop and a small room next to the basement, where Rajesh sleeps, remain the only parts of Uphaar that are opened everyday in the rows of closed offices and shops. “I still pay the Ansals rent for my shop,” Gupta said.
The front of the building is supported by a scaffolding of rods that were put up for repair of the complex in 1997, then yellow, now dulled. In front, a new parking lot has opened. It has replaced the Uphaar lot where most of Green Park Market used to park.
Over the years, Guptaji has watched all memorial functions in the park. “Every time I see the families, I remember the cries of the screaming child thrown down by his parents,” he said. “I wonder if they saw me and thought I would move. But I couldn’t.”