Docks Explosion (1944)

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The Mumbai Theatre Festival was supposed to start on 12 April 1944. Everything was ready. But on that very day, at around four thirty or five p.m., there was an explosion in the SS Stikine which was lying at harbour in the docks. The city was fraught with rumour and tension. That day’s show was cancelled but the next day, the house was full. Every seat was taken. The audience seemed totally involved in the play. The festival lasted for ten days. Mama Warerkar told us that the producers had made a profit of one and a half lakh rupees on the whole. When the explosion took place in the docks, I was acting in a Gujarati play at the Bhangwadi Theatre. We felt a huge thump. We had no idea what had happened. The audience was terrified and the show had to be brought to an end rapidly. Qasimbhai, the producer, sent someone to accompany me home. All down the road, there were clouds of smoke and a feeling of terror. It was only when I got home that Aai relaxed. ‘Gosh, Babi, the vessels I had placed on the shelf fell off on their own. I don’t know what’s going on,’ she said. Some people thought that Germany or Japan had attacked India. Slowly the news filtered out that there had been an explosion on board a ship. The areas around Mandvi and Masjid Bunder had taken a direct hit. Many ships had been totally destroyed. We heard that the cause was that the ship had been carrying explosives and cotton. By night, the sky was red. It did not seem odd then, that even while one area of the city had been levelled, the next day five thousand Marathi people should come to Chowpatty to see a play. But today, this does seem like something extraordinary. Should one say that it is a big city’s ability to overcome whatever calamity happens? Or could one say that it is simply an insensitive response? Do we simply not care as long as it has happened to someone else? Do we say to ourselves, ‘Let’s bother when it turns up on our doorstep’? Wadi Bunder and Mandvi were struggling desperately with the fire. Did that mean that Girgaon, Parel, Grant Road and Worli should stop whatever they were doing? There seems to be no sense in expecting that. One cannot stop the business of living. But must the show go on? When a calamity hits the city, is it right to have film shows or theatrical performances? When we were young we were taught that even a death next door was reason enough to cancel a celebration or a happy event like a Satyanarayan Pooja. But Mumbaikars seem to have slowly begun to forget their obligations to others.

Born Sushila Lolitkar, she stormed the Gujrati and Marwadi stage in the 40s before eventually retiring at 21. Twenty-two years later, after being christened Vandana Mishra from her marriage to actor writer Pandit Jaydeo Mishra, she returned to the stage as a respectable character actor.

The year 1944. All I remember of it is the explosion in the docks...

One evening, we were taking a dip in the sea. It was getting on; in no time at all, the sun would stumble off to bed. Suddenly, we saw flames leaping into the sky at the Colaba end of the city. It was as if someone had set alight a sea of petrol.Deafening explosions followed. We ran home. We took the train back to Kawakhana, taking Aaji with us; the only talk was about what must have happened. We got down at Bombay Central. There, everyone seemed to be trying to leave the city in whatever vehicle and by whatever mode they could. The air was filled with fear and rumour. No one knew what had really happened.  When we reached Kawakhana, we heard that there had been an explosion at the docks. All of us were very worried; both Dada and Tatya worked there. When they returned, they brought good news. ‘There’s a lot of waste metal at the docks. It’s a windfall for us.’ All of Kawakhana was abuzz with all sorts of rumours. Gold bricks had torn through the roof of someone’s house; someone else had found a treasure trove in the ashes. By the early morning, everyone had picked up whatever tools came to hand and rushed off to the site of the explosion. For the next seven or eight days, this became routine: scavenging for the re-saleable in the debris. No one found the smallest speck of gold but other treasures surfaced. One day someone brought back some huge rolls of white paper on a handcart. His face was aglow with the joy of an Ali Baba. What if the rolls were wet? Our walls, our courtyard were soon swathed in paper hung out to dry. Our homes were filled with the strange smell of paper. When it was dry, it was sold at a handsome rate to a nearby godown. I could have had no idea then that my life would be enjoined with paper.

Daya Pawar's autobiography Baluta (1978) is credited as the first Dalit autobiography and has inspired several another works in the genre.