I normally like to be right in the middle of things, but I’ll make an exception for Sunday night. Friday afternoon, and email went out – “We have 10 tickets to the Make in India cultural events this week at the CLO office. First come, first served.” I immediately ran into the CLO office and picked up a packet of these sweet babies:
For those of you just tuning in or living outside Mumbai (or India for that matter), Make in India is a weeklong trade fair (think Hannover Messe) to promote business and manufacturing in India. As one of the largest areas with available landmass, structural support, business and banking community, and the most highly educated workforce, Maharashtra was chosen as the centerpoint. It was going to be a week of signed MOUs, cultural shows, and fun. Sunday night (which happened to be Valentine’s Day), was the first big cultural event, and I was SO excited. Crowdhating DiploDad, however, had to be convinced to cancel our reservations for dinner and go join in.
In kitchen, “negotiating” after DiploDad just came home from a 3-day business trip:
DD: Honey, I really don’t want to go. I’d really rather much take you out to dinner. Champagne, sushi, the works. Is that OK?
Me: Are you being honest with me?
DD: Yes, I am. Let’s be honest.
Me: OK, I’ll be honest. I don’t want to go out for Japanese food.
DD: You don’t?
Me: Nope, we’ve done that the last three times we went out.
DD: OK, then.
Don’t judge – honesty is key to any relationship. Eventually, we compromised. I would take DB2 out for the day and hang with friends so DiploDad could nap and hang out and read at home (read: get his introvert batteries charged before going to a large event), and he would go with me. We headed down and traffic was surprisingly light at Chowpatty Beach. The tickets we scored were awesome – third row!!
We settled in and right as the lights dimmed, a voice boomed loudly through the open air: “This is a very important announcement, so you must listen carefully! In case of any emergency, there are exits at . . . .” The voice went on and gave details on all of the exits, told everyone to keep calm in case of the evacuation, and then went on and repeated the entire announcement in Marathi. Wow, I remember thinking. I’d never heard this before. DD and I looked at each other, raised eyebrows (?) and nodded (awesome!). I briefly wondered why I’d never ever, EVER heard something like this before during a public venue.
The lights dimmed, and the first act began: The Incomparable Hema Malini. Hema Malini was a Bollywood star, the “Dream Girl” from the late 1960s and the 1970s, is a noted Indian classical dancer, and is currently a Member of Parliament. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hema_Malini She is also on the wall of my bedroom.
She’s still got it. She was graceful, expressive, and projected so much joy.
The coolest part of her performance was when a giant, multiple-part Ganesha came out and towered over the stage, moving about as the dancers performed. After settling in the center of the stage, a small child dressed as a mouse flitted out of one of Ganesha’s sides and ran to collect the modoks lined up at the font of the stage. OMG, the cuteness factor was at least a 9/10.
After her opening, several VIPs, including the Chief Minister of Maharashtra Devendra Fadnavis https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devendra_Fadnavis , the Shiv Sena Party Chief, Uddhav Thackeray https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uddhav_Thackeray , and noted (and sometimes controversial) Bollywood actor Amir Khan https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aamir_Khan .
After lighting the ceremonial diya and a few speeches, the diya was carefully extinguished and everyone took their seats again.
The next act was Amitabh Bachchan https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amitabh_Bachchan Honestly, the guy should need no introduction – worldwide. He’s a Bollywood icon, a supporter of many important social causes, and one of the Great Gentlemen of all times. Classy does not begin to describe him; having a “presence” touches only the tip of the iceberg when you try to characterize the hold he has on an audience. He read a poem of his father, Harivansh Rai Bachchan, who was a renowned Hindi poet. DiploDad, a poet enthusiast, has requested a book of his poems for his birthday. Anyone knowing where I can pick up an English translation, please let me know.
After “Big B”, a dance troupe came out and energized the crowd with a fast-moving performance full of variety. The dances and themes moved seamlessly, set off with pyrotechnics, smoke, and — SMOKE????!!
DiploDad and I were looking to the bottom center of the stage and we followed the smoke. At first, it looked like maybe it was part of the stage show – sort of like a little fireplace. Then, murmurs ran through the crowd, and it occurred to us this was NOT planned. The fire began to spread and the dancers, realizing something was definitely not right, ran off the stage as a few men rushed across it with fire extinguishers. People were filing out past DD and I at this point as we silently let them past.
“If we need to and people panic, upend the couch.”
“Wait, we’re fine still, just – ”
“Yes, let more people file by.”
After most of our row had filed out, we got up and followed the last person. By this time, the stage was up in flames and things were not looking good.
Organizers and police were directing people to the exits, telling everyone to be calm, keep moving, and exit the venue from any exit (ignoring the “ladies” and “men” signs). There were drummers in colorful turbans, dancers in nose rings and ankle bells and even horses (who were NOT happy) being led from the venue. I even ran into another lady from my apartment building and we joked about how I’d have to let my husband make the plans next year.
Out on the street, the Mumbai Police were lined up, directing people to keep moving, to cross to the other side. One poor dog was freaked out by the number of people and was spinning in a circle, looking back and forth, when a young policeman grabbed him, spun him around in the direction of the moving crowd, and smacked him on the butt to get him to move on. It was nice to see that someone took the time to do that – a lot of the time street dogs just get kicked, and this one really was in a panic. DiploDad and I moved up behind Wilson College. There’s a Starbucks right behind it.
“Hey – you want to get a coffee?”
Shortly after entering the building, we heard two blasts, that we realized later on were gas cylinders. Better stay under cover until THAT was sorted. We ordered our drinks and then sat down to send messages to the world telling people we were fine. DD on to the Consular side, me to the media side – I’d been posting from FB and thought I just might want to tell people I was OK. I knew at least my sister would freak out. Our phones rang with Consulate folks, local friends, and my WhatsApp lit up with friends and family across the globe. I had posted in my apartment ladies’ group that I was going, so when the news broke, they checked in on me. I felt so cared for at that point, I wanted to cry. For a while I could only get out with WhatsApp and so a friend in Australia posted that I was OK. Eventually, we left and headed down through Fort towards Balbunath Temple and DB1’s school, up to a junction and caught a cab back home.
There was, of course, much finger-pointing and blamestorming the next day. In light of that, I feel compelled to say a few things.
First, and most importantly, I cannot say enough good things about the Mumbai Police. They were organized, courteous, and helpful. The fact that security was tight and the evacuation went so smoothly is a credit to them, and to the organizers. I’ve never been in an evacuation that went that well. Second, whoever made the call to make the announcement prior to the start of the show about emergency procedures is a genius. It was made again when I went to the Textile Show three days later,
and those are the only two times I can recall such an announcement made prior to a large public event. It should be made before every one, everywhere, worldwide.
Finally, to the dancers, the producers, the directors, the musicians, and the choreographers who worked so hard and were not able to perform or to finish performances, I am sorry. What I saw up until the accident was wonderful. Beautiful. I loved every minute of it. I am sure that what was to come would have been mesmerizing and beautiful too, and would have showcased my beloved Mumbai and Maharashtra in a manner fitting its rich culture and history.