A photo on the table, a melody for the kids: Uphaar, 20 years on

Daman Singh was two when he lost his maternal uncle, Sudeep Rahi. Singh learnt about his uncle through qissas of him being known as the “Dharmendra of the galli and a charming chef”. Today, Rahi would have turned 42, says Singh.

Written by Somya Lakhani | New Delhi | Published:June 14, 2017 2:07 am
At an event to mark the 20th anniversary of the Uphaar fire, Tuesday. (Express/Tashi Tobgyal)

“Is she okay?” When Shyam Nagpal asked his younger daughter about Megha, the elder one, on Tuesday, he wasn’t referring to her bandaged ankle. On June 13, 1997, Megha — then a four-year-old — had accompanied her mother Madhu to the cinema hall to watch Sunny Deol’s Border.

Twenty years later, she accompanied her father to a havan to mark the 20th anniversary of the Uphaar Cinema fire — nursing an injured foot and a broken heart. Tuesday morning was a tough one for the Nagpals, as it was for the Sawhneys, the Lals and the Dangs, among others, who had gathered at Smriti Upavan in Green Park.

Minutes before the havan began, families were busy pinning photographs of loved ones they lost in the fire on June 13, 1997. The blaze claimed 59 lives — from one-month-old baby Chetna to 72-year-old Kartar K Malhotra.

At the memorial, the smell of mogra wafted in the air, hugs and faint smiles were exchanged, and bouquets laid down.

Tears dried up a long time ago but moving on still remains a challenge for the families. Naveen Sawhney, father of Tarika, who was 21 when she died in the fire, said, “That day, Tarika was wearing five rings and a wrist watch; we only found one ring and the watch at the hospital. I have given that watch to my granddaughter now. Every time she wears it, I think of Tarika.” On trying to move on, he says, “It’s a garb for the outside world… andar se deemak lag gayi hai.”

For Nagpal, the best way forward was to educate his daughters. “We started the Madhu Pandey Nagpal scholarship at Delhi School of Social Work, Department of Social Work, Delhi University, from where Madhu completed her masters. I decided that my daughters have to get the best education I can provide, so that they become responsible citizens. We celebrate her life now, and there’s a photo of her at the dining table… It feels like she is always there,” says Nagpal.

Daman Singh was two when he lost his maternal uncle, Sudeep Rahi. Singh learnt about his uncle through qissas of him being known as the “Dharmendra of the galli and a charming chef”. Today, Rahi would have turned 42, says Singh.

“He was 22 when he passed away; today I am 22. He was a chef, so am I. But I didn’t know my mama at all. Is this a way of keeping his memory alive? Maybe,” said Singh.

Every year on June 13, the Association of the Victims of Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT) organises a havan to commemorate the victims at the park built in their memory. For 20 years now, the association has been fighting real estate barons Sushil and Gopal Ansal, owners of the Uphaar Cinema hall.

In 2015, the Ansals, held guilty of “criminal negligence”, escaped further jail term, with the Supreme Court stating that Sushil is “fairly aged” and his younger brother deserves “parity” with him. “I am disappointed with the lack of public safety, the delayed judgment and the quantum of punishment. The age factor… is a mockery of justice,” said Nagpal.

For some, like the Dangs, who lost four members of their family — including three children aged six, nine and 16 — living in the same house was impossible.

“They are missed every day. It’s tough to describe the feeling of seeing bodies of your own family in the house. This is why they moved out — it was impossible to live there,” said Meenakshi Gogia, a relative of the Dangs.

As the pandit read out chants, just a few metres away stood Uphaar Cinema — a dilapidated building, with no sign of life. “We haven’t visited a cinema hall in the last 20 years. I tell my family to go but no one wants to. The fear remains,” said Sawhney.

For AVUT president Neelam Krishnamoorthy, who lost her children Unnati and Ujjawal in the fire, the only time she visited a cinema hall was with her husband, Shekhar, when she had to visit Uphaar to understand the topography for the case.

“We haven’t celebrated anything in the last 20 years. But I make sure that Shekhar does riyaz every day. He stopped singing professionally 20 years go, but we have a composition ready on our children — we might release that,” she said.

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