Sardarji, who was standing nearby, looked at me, our eyes matching the panic that was spreading through the railway station. The homeless had started gathering their meager belongings, while others were standing up, moving, looking around, asking questions, trying to find out what could be done. Soon it became unbearable and the exodus began. People started to clamor to get out of the station. The entrance was jam-packed; heaving bodies slammed against each other as they tried to squeeze past the small entrance to save their lives. Some people jumped across the tracks to get to the other platform and look for an exit from there. People were everywhere, like scrounging ants looking for food.
"Taxi, Memsaab," Sardarji cried out as he came toward me.
I didn't question his generosity and picked up my suitcase and started to run along with him to the entrance. Our bodies joined the others as we looked for a small hole, a pathway, out of the railway station. People were running helter-skelter, trying to breathe. Something is wrong, I thought again, this time in complete panic, something about the air in the railway station is very wrong.
The struggle to get out of the station became harder because no one could breathe. My lungs felt like they would implode and even though I tried to suck in as much air as I could, it was not really air that I was breathing. It was something toxic, something acrid, something that was burning my insides and scratching my eyes. Each breath I took made me dizzy and the burning sensation, that terrible burning sensation, wouldn't go away.
My suitcase and purse got lost somewhere in the crowd, but I was half-crazed with the need to breathe and forgot about them.
Sardarji was having trouble breathing as well. His voice was high-pitched and shaky and I could hear him hiss as he tried to breathe. He pointed in the direction of his taxi and we started running, pushing past people who just like us were trying to find a way out. It looked like every automobile in the city was out on the streets. The sound of honking vehicles mingled with the cries for help, while the city stood bright, lit up with car, scooter, and auto rickshaw headlights, like a bride covered in gold and diamonds just before her wedding.
"What's happening?" someone screamed.
"Run, out of the city, out of the city!" someone else cried out.
We reached the taxi and as soon as we got inside, people clamored and banged at the car windows.
For once, compassion failed me. "Drive," I said through my misery, and the engine mercifully started.
Navigating the taxi out of the crowded parking lot, where cars lay haphazardly like dead and wounded soldiers in a battlefield, proved to be difficult. Sardarji tried his best. The honking of his taxi joined the sounds of other impatient cars. It was getting increasingly difficult to drive. The crowds were blocking the way and our inability to breathe was not helping either.
I held the edge of my sari to my nose, hoping to dissipate some of the spice in the air, but nothing would make the air clean.
A few cars moved and we managed to get to the road, which could just as well have been a parking lot itself because the cars were not moving. As I struggled to stay alive, a new fear gripped me. Was my husband caught in this? I shuddered at the thought and prayed he had indeed forgotten to pick me up. But if he had come and picked me up when my train arrived two hours ago, we would have been safe. I would have been safe, my mind cried out.
"Memsaab, we will never get out of here," Sardarji said, stumbling over the words. "Maybe we should get out of the car and run."
"Run where?" I asked, hysteria sprinkled over my voice. "Where would we go?"
When he didn't answer, I turned to him and saw him lying on the steering wheel. I shook him hard, screaming for him to wake up and drive us out of there.
Excerpted from A Breath of Fresh Air by Amulya Malladi. Copyright 2002 by Amulya Malladi. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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