[ Wee hours of Sunday morning, the 10th, April 2016.In a firework mishap that broke out in the Puttingal Devi temple at Paravur in Kollam district, Kerala, 110 people got killed and 400-odd injured. Display of fireworks was held despite a ban imposed by the District Collector. Pankajakshi Amma, an 80-old octogenarian made the ban happen through a complaint she has been making for years. She got the ban, but, unfortunately, couldn’t stop the temple authorities from displaying the fireworks.]
She is Pankajakshi Amma, a native of the Paravur village – a village in the news for all wrong reasons. An octogenarian, she is crestfallen. Still in the grip of shock waves, she mumbles: “Had the temple authorities honored the ban and heard my plea…” She sighs, lets out an air of helplessness as if she is the cause of the Sunday chaos.
Constantly in a stupor, she was not able to focus on her daily routine. For, her mind is still at the place where the tragedy happened. Restless, she speaks in a non sequitur. No one including Praksh, her son, can decipher her mawkish monologues.
For the first time in her life she prays to the Puttingal Devi to take away her life as the goddess did with the victims of the Sunday mishap. In fact, after the gory fireworks blast that put out 110 precious human lives and injured around 400 persons, she is praying rather vigorously for the last five days.
That the goddess didn’t bless the devotees at the end of the festival as per the prevailing custom make Pankajakshi miff at the Devi. ‘You didn’t bless them, Devi, but burnt them as if they were a bunch of match sticks’, she says to herself in a voice tinged with dismay.
A cold sweat popped up in her forehead. Her constant crying for the last five days dry her eyes of tears. She now wishes she were one of those star-crossed people who got blazed in the firework mishap. When she thinks about the death of Surendran, the contractor, and his competitors who were responsible for the tragedy, her stomach churns. She feels like throwing up. Surendran who got 60 per cent burns died on the spot.
“Surendra, please don’t break the ban. Your competitive pyrotechnic display of fireworks will end only in disasters.” She could now remember telling him all through the Saturday. But all her pleas fell on deaf ears.
Her heart beats fast. She knows all is not well with it since she had angioplasty and open heart surgery years back. Her breath becomes hard and she feels her emaciated body trembles often. The grisly incident she saw on the Sunday last still rattles her nerves and makes her forlorn. ‘Don’t lose heart, lady. You did what you could,’ she hears a voice speak from her head and try to console her embittered mind.
‘How can I pull my heart when I still hear the piteous cries of people getting hit by swirls of flames and burnt out so horribly,’ she moans.
She recalls a big blaze spread around a congregation and, in no time, the crowd got engulfed in flames. Their delight of watching the marvels of the firework soon turned into cries of death. Bombed by crackers and torched by balls of fire, they shrieked like hell.
Charred bodies lay strewn all over the temple premise. The air got polluted and there wafted a nauseating odor all around. Bodies mutilated beyond recognition gave gruesome sight. She saw flames and columns of fire rose on all sides of the temple ground, which looked like a war ravaged zone.
The power supply got snapped all of a sudden making it hard for the rescue team to continue their work. With the help of flashlights, all dead bodies got lifted to the waiting ambulances. Crowds of people were groping in the dark to find out their missing relatives/friends. Their heart piercing cries became unendurable when they identified their father or mother or sibling from charred or mutilated bodies. Shocked and shuddered, Pankajakshi covered her ears with the palms of her hands.
She cannot no longer stand. All the gruesome scenes of Sunday morning rush to her mind. They give her involuntary shudder. She feels a whiff of sea breeze brush her face. But it cannot repress the heat that is getting generated in her mind. Grabbing hold of her fast beating chest, she plonks on the pyol [platform built along the house wall that faces the street] that too got damaged in the firework disaster. The whole of the temple premise starting from her house is littered with heaps of papers – all remnants of burnt out crackers and, smoke is still billowing from them.
A week went by since the catastrophe happened. Another Monday now bloomed. The Puttingal Devi temple is open and the goddess, decked up with fineries, now waits for her devotees. Pankajakshi goes into the sanctum and stand before the Devi with her eyes closed. She then comes out and circumambulate the outer prahar thrice.
When she steps into the road, it’s like a graveyard and people milling the temple looks like mourners. Holding a big leather bag in hands, she walks down the road towards the bus station.
“Ma,” she stops when she hears Prakash calls out her. He must have run all the way home, following her “Ma, where are you going?” He asks her, gasping for breath.
“Trivandrum, my child,” she whispers, patting on his head. To get a ban on the ensuing display of fireworks at Thrissur temple, I am going to file a writ petition in the High Court. Hope, the Court will grant the ban after what we had in Paravur last week.” She speaks in her downright tone with her usual enthusiasm.
“Ma, for god’s sake, don’t do that.” Prakash gets scared. Fear lurk in his eyes. “Did you forget ruffians bullied us of dire consequences in the wake of a ban you got for the display of fireworks in the Puttingal temple festival? Now they may kill all of us if they know what you are doing. Ma, please don’t go…” His voice fades away as he sees his mom leaves him with a jerk.
Holding her head high, Pankajakshi walks fast towards the bus station. For her, the cause she is fighting for is more important than her survival or for that matter the survival of her family.
[This post happens when I begin to look at the tragedy through the eyes of the beleaguered Pankajakshi Amma. So, readers must not suppose the incident/conversations I have narrated above are true. A blogger, I dedicate this post as a tribute to the old woman and her continuing fight for a cause.]
Images courtesy: Google