| The burnt Sabarmati Express. (PTI file picture)
Ahmedabad, March 1: Hari Prasad Joshi has realised late in life that he is a coward.
He was 49 when he left his wife to die in the S-6 coach of the Sabarmati Express on February 27, 2002, and escape to life.
A year later, Hari Prasad vividly remembers Devkala gasping to her death in the smoking coach and his frantic crawl to safety. Fifty-eight others in the same coach perished with Hari Prasad’s wife.
“The most difficult thing to get in life is peace,” says the Ahmedabad-based employee of the income-tax department.
Today, Hari Prasad is investing the Rs 4 lakh he received from the railways as compensation in a temple he and some friends are building. He was the first person to get the compensation.
But no effort at finding peace has erased the dark memories of a year ago. The couple had reserved two berths in S-6 to travel to Ahmedabad from Lucknow. When the train rolled in four hours late at 1.30 am, they found a group of kar sevaks on their seats.
The ticketless kar sevaks refused to budge when Hari Prasad asked them to get off their berths. Strong and athletic, he managed to muscle his way onto one seat that he shared with his 42-year-old wife.
“I woke up in Godhra on hearing loud noises,” Hari Prasad recalls. “Some kar sevaks had picked up a fight with a couple of tea vendors and were hurling abuses at them.”
“They started shouting anti-Pakistan and anti-Muslim slogans. A little later, some of their leaders travelling in S-6 tried to placate them. But it was too late.”
What happened next is etched in Hari Prasad’s mind. “We were being attacked. A large crowd of armed men had gathered outside.’’
He remembers the stones, the petrol-soaked burning rags and the swords.
The passengers out on the platform had scrambled in and pulled down window shutters and shot the bolt on the door. The train moved, but within moments it came to a halt. Hari Prasad said it appeared as if someone had pulled the emergency chain.
Then he saw burning rags flying in through the only window that was left open. Within minutes, smoke was swirling inside the compartment and his fellow passengers were gasping.
“No one could have survived the noxious fumes from the burning plastic and foam,’’ Hari Prasad says. “I saw my wife struggling to breathe. But at that moment, the only thing on my mind was how to escape.”
Hari Prasad did escape but a year later, he hasn’t escaped the after-effects. After vomiting reddish-black soot for almost eight days then, he now suffers from convulsive fits.
“I held my breath for as long as I could,” Hari Prasad says. “After what seemed like an eternity, I saw an open window. The grill had been smashed. I crawled out. My wife had already died.’’
Wracked by trauma and self-hatred, Hari Prasad now spends most of his time praying for peace.
But that hasn’t stopped him from hating the kar sevaks, the attackers and himself for the irreversible turn his life took that fateful Wednesday.
“It was ominous the way the kar sevaks were bullying passengers, shoving them and misbehaving with them,’’ Hari Prasad says. “But nothing prepared us for the ferocity of the attack.”
For the 50-year-old widower, S-6 is the closest to hell he will come in this life. “If there is hell, it was in S-6 that day. They were out to kill us.”
That is a hell he hasn’t escaped even now and has little hope of escaping as long as he lives. “More than anything else, it is self-hatred that troubles me. I left my wife alone. I don’t think there will ever be any redemption for me.’’