Inside the one room kitchen tenement at Ranoli in Vadodara, between several boxes haphazardly pushed over the loft, is a metal trunk in which are tucked away memories of the “missing” Mangala. A faded postcard sized photograph of her is in another corner of the loft with a small stand for incense sticks placed before it. The cemented floor has broken up at many places and the sky blue walls have almost greyed— the only colour on them is the crepe ribbons reading ‘Happy Birthday Aditi’, put up by Satish Mishra’s daughter Archana during her last visit in August when he celebrated the third birthday of his grand daughter.
“Who says wounds heal? There is always a scar,” Mishra says, seated in a plastic chair, looking at the scars of the burns on the back of his hands — they have served as a grim reminder of the tragedy that occurred 15 years ago when coach S6 of the ill-fated Sabarmati Express was set afire on February 27, 2002. Mishra, wife Mangala and Archana were returning from Lucknow when the tragedy struck their family.
While Mishra and Archana managed to escape through the broken window rails, Mangala could not make it. For several months after the carnage, Mishra continued to search for his wife but Mangala, who was believed to have received treatment in Godhra for burns, was never found again.
“These marks remind me of the incident every single day… My life has been a standstill ever since. This room you see is exactly the way Mangala left it. I haven’t touched a thing, not even her clothes,” Mishra says.
Mishra recalls a last year incident in Halol where he was visiting for work. “Someone identified me and began asking questions. He asked me if I was on Sabarmati Express on February 27, 2002, and whether I was returning from Kar Seva. It agitated me because the person had no idea about what I have lost in my life. The situation escalated into a fight and I had to seek police intervention,” he says.
For Mishra, accepting Mangala’s death has been a process of conditioning himself to believe the worst, in absence of Mangala’s body and a death certificate. “If I had found her body and performed last rites, I would have been more at peace with myself. I have no doubt that the fire swallowed her as I was the last person to leave the coach and she was right behind me. My back was on fire. At that very moment I knew that the person behind me — Mangala, then 35 — had been engulfed by fire. But, I was hoping that she would make it.”
Mishra says Sabarmati Express had only chugged into Godhra when a loud verbal fight began on the platform. “We, passengers, were not affected by some local fight. Some of the passengers got out of the train to have tea at a stall, returned, and the train began to depart. Just minutes later, the train stopped again near the signal cabin and only a couple of the last coaches would have still been at the platform. Before we could even grasp what happened, a wave of orange and blue flames burst through the floor of the coach, almost instantly tearing the coach.Only 19 of the 78 managed to escape,” Mishra says.
After a long drawn battle with the Railways to prove that Mangala died in the carnage, Mishra managed to secure a Railways Tribunal Order in 2010 for a compensation of Rs 4 lakh to him and his daughter Archana, who was 13 in 2002. However, Mishra says he is still awaiting the state compensation for kin of riot victims as Mangala’s body has not been found. “I have made several rounds to authorities in Vadodara and Godhra to seek a death certificate for Mangala, but every office tells me to go to the other. If they provide me a death certificate, I can at least claim the life insurance cover that we had in her name,” says Mishra, a contractor for industrial chilling plants.
After the carnage, Mishra had sent away Archana to his extended family in Sultanpur in UP to help her overcome the grief. But, for Mishra moving out of Gujarat would mean leaving a home he made with Mangala. “I live a life of solitude with these memories in this house. Every person has to put aside the grief and do that. It is difficult but I am doing it,” he says, adding that he often relives the tragic sequence of events when people recognise and ask him questions.
The tragedy, however, has not deterred Mishra from undertaking another journey on the same train. In fact, he says he regularly travels on Sabarmati Express, often in coach S6 and on the same seats — 34, 35, 36 — which were reserved for his family in 2002. In 2012, Mishra undertook a journey on Sabarmati Express to Lucknow for Archana’s wedding, too. “Everytime, I need to visit my mother in Lucknow, I take Sabarmati Express as it is the only connecting train from here. I have never crossed the Godhra station, without looking out and thinking that it was this place that took away my life from me,” he says.