“I thought it was an earthquake, we ran away from the spot screaming,” recalls Vinod Sonkar. “My cart and fruits worth Rs 5,000 were completely buried under the rubble.”
The 37-year-old is a fruit vendor and owns a stall 20 metres from the site where a part of the under-construction Vivekananda flyover in the Burra Bazar area of Kolkata, the city’s trading heart, collapsed on March 31. Twenty- seven people were killed and more than 80 were injured in the incident.
A week after the tragedy, Sonkar is back at the spot, but the area “doesn’t look the same anymore”.
It’s 10 am and the busy Ganesh Talkies crossing is slowly stirring itself awake. The flyover was being built to decongest the crossing, which on most days is choked with traffic.
Traffic has reduced in the area, but only because most vehicles have been diverted to an alternative route. A few metres from Sonkar’s stall, the flyover has hit the road like a slide in a park and a group of civil engineers with yellow helmets are inspecting the accident site. A few commuters peep out of buses to get a glimpse of the fallen flyover.
“On other days, we would have sold fruits worth Rs 4,000 by now. But the flyover incident has affected sales. I have just earned Rs 1,000 so far,” says Sonkar.
Sonkar’s day starts early. He wakes up at 6 am at his two-room Company Bagan residence, which he shares with his wife, mother and three children. “It’s just a five-minute walk from the stall. I have a cup of tea and prefer to get to the market by 7 am,” he says. His helper Naresh Yadav, 45, also comes in by that time. Once Naresh arrives, Sonkar makes his first trip to the nearby Mechua Bazar wholesale fruit market, eventually going at least four times there in the course of the day. His shopping done, he takes full charge at the stall by 9 am.
A customer halts at the stall and begins examining musk melons, arranged in a pyramid on Sonkar’s cart. Amid price negotiations, the conversation drifts towards the events of March 31. “The area looked like a blast site, all vendors were covered in dust. The roads were empty… All we saw were terror-stricken faces and relief workers in masks,” he recounts.
After the incident, Sonkar, like the hundred-odd stall owners around the Ganesh Talkies crossing, closed his stall for two days. “I had rushed out of the area after the collapse and returned after 15 minutes. All of us were trying to help the victims,” he says.
That is when he spotted his friend Gulab Mali, who owned an incense stick stall close to his cart. “He was severely injured. I rushed him to the nearby Marwari Relief Society hospital, my shirt was completely stained with his blood,” he says. “He didn’t make it”.
March 31 had been an ordinary business day for the scores of vendors who sell everything from bidis to utensils at the traffic junction. “The flyover collapsed a little after noon, when business is slow. Most people buy fruits before noon or after 5 pm in the evening. I would have headed home for lunch a few minutes later,” says Vinod.
A few days later, he took stock of his “losses”. “The flyover incident has cost me
Rs 20,000,” he calculates. “I just make profit of about Rs 400 a day. Even the daily sales are just half of what they used to be a week ago.”
It’s 11 am, and it is time for Sonkar to make his second trip to Mechua Bazar, this time to refill his watermelon stock. “A basket of watermelons, holding about 80 kg of the fruit, will cost me Rs 800,” he says. After a brief conversation with Naresh, he decides to bring in just a basket.
A porter transports the fruit basket to Sonkar’s stall. “Many porters too were injured that day,” Sonkar notes, negotiating his way through the busy, narrow lanes of Mechua Bazar.
It’s 2 pm, and just about 15 people have made a stop at Sonkar’s stall so far through the day. “A lot of people come to me to just know about what happened on March 31. Maybe I should start charging a fee for telling my story,” he smiles.
Post lunch hours, most of his customers are mothers picking up their children from nearby schools. “Fortunately, my daughter’s school gets over at 2 pm. I often wonder what would have happened if we had left earlier that day,” says Tumpa Mukherjee, a resident of the nearby Girish Park area, who takes the Burra Bazar route from her daughter’s school every day.
Handing out a watermelon to Mukherjee, Naresh talks about how he had a close shave too. “I had gone to buy some bidi on the other side of the road. I had just crossed the road when the flyover collapsed,” he says.
As the day drags along, business at the stall continues to be slow. A little after 3pm, Sonkar’s phone breaks into the tune of a Himesh Reshammiya song. It’s his wife Shobha. She has called Sonkar thrice since noon, asking about when he would come home for lunch.
“I have already told her I am skipping lunch today, I will have a mango,” he shrugs, keeping the phone back in his pocket.
Since the incident, Shobha has taken to calling up her husband at least “five to six times a day”. “She fears that the remaining part of the flyover will fall too,” says Sonkar.
A few days after the collapse, engineers from Kolkata Municipal Corporation had visited the site. “We heard them say that during the clearing operation, the structure may become more unstable,” says Naresh.
So are they scared? “I am worried, yes. But I need to make a living,” says Sonkar.