Chinmaya remembers the bombing of the German Bakery in Pune, India, a popular meeting point of sannyasins, and his Jhuni Benefit Concert that happened at the same time.
A bunch of people swear that they owe their lives to the concert I organised. When that bomb exploded at 7.15pm on the 13th February 2010, I was just about to go on stage, while they were sitting in the audience, a comfortable half-kilometer from where they might well otherwise have been.
The German Bakery was a Koregaon Park institution. Just down the road from the Osho Commune, conveniently placed either for a quick cup of coffee before or after a meditation or therapy session, or alternatively for a leisurely and cheap meal plus gossip session in the company of the most eclectic collection of locals, travellers and spiritual seekers in India.
7.15pm was a popular time in the Bakery. The Commune’s gates had closed at 6.40 for the evening meditation, so if you weren’t attending that and you didn’t feel like staying home, you could join the crowd and take a chance on bumping into someone interesting.
Seventeen people died and a further 60 were injured that particular 7.15pm.
I’d passed by to buy a loaf of bread that afternoon, maneuvering past the usual crowd of touts, beggars and rickshaw drivers clustered outside the Bakery’s cheap bamboo walls. A quick ‘Hi’ to a couple of friends who were passing the time of day with some young Indian students (tables were tiny and few, so you ended up sharing closely with strangers) and I was winging my way back to the concert venue for the set up.
The event was a benefit concert I’d arranged to raise funds for establishing solar lighting in the Himalayan village of Jhuni. The project was being implemented by friends who run a local NGO Avani, which brings electricity and livelihood opportunities to other remote villages in India’s Kumaon Hills. I’d formed a band and set up a video showing of the documentary about Avani that I’d recently completed and my Smiles From Off the Road in India film starring the villagers of Jhuni. Plus Rashmi Bharti, Avani’s co-founder, was to give a talk and there was a big display of their textile products for sale. It was hosted in the lovely Koregaon Park garden of Sanskriti Lifestyle boutique run by wealthy locals who knew Rashmi well.
Dusk after a hectic day of arrangements; the band ready on stage; the mixed audience of Osho sannyasins and middle-class local Indians settled back in their chairs after a break following the film and Rashmi’s presentation. Suddenly we heard from afar an ominously deep and rumbling boom. Probably another gas cylinder exploding somewhere, we re-assured each other (a not uncommon accident in India). But just as we were about to play I noticed our hostess clutching her mobile and frantically signally to me. “There’s been a bomb at the German Bakery”, she whispered to me when I went down to her. “We don’t know more.”
A bomb? I cast a glance back at the band, ready and eager to play and then over the audience, looking calm and unruffled (it’s perhaps difficult in today’s wired world of Twitter, etc, to imagine that just eight years ago, people didn’t expect to be checking their mobiles every few seconds). I realized that my hostess and I were the only two people present who knew. ‘The Show Must Go On’ reverberated in my head and without further hesitation I got back on stage, picked up my sarod and gave the cue for the opening number.
To be honest I don’t remember much about the music we played, but I must pay tribute here to the other musicians, all good friends, who performed for free: Karunesh, Ramadhan (Rama Meir Suissa), Bikram Singh, Avinash Jagtap and Amano Maneesh. The rest has all been erased from my memory by the vividness of the chaos that ensued an hour later once our set was over. We came off stage to find everyone now anxiously glued to their mobiles; and to hear the sirens ringing in the surrounding streets. We learned that there had been fatalities and heard rumours that Koregaon Park had been sealed off. Nobody knew if they could safely leave the venue; everyone milled around exchanging worried speculations.
Selfish considerations took priority in my mind. I was sure that my partner Naveena and our just-born daughter Koyal would be safely asleep at home in Goa and wouldn’t hear anything to make them worry until next morning. But my sister in England is an avid news-watcher and knew I was in Pune. I took myself into the darkness on the edge of the crowd and struggled to get a connection for what seemed like ages before hearing a voice from what felt like another planet.
Re-assurances complete I had another urgent responsibility to attend to: I had personally invited Jeevan, an 86-year old lady friend, to the gig and arranged for Kristanand, a reliable rickshaw driver, to get her there and return to pick her up at the end. Where was she in the melee? Had Kris managed to get back to the venue to pick her up? As I searched the crowd, I noticed a few well-off Indians with their own cars beginning to drive off into the night, presumably trusting on luck to get them home, while most of the Osho sannyasins were taking advantage of the unexpected opportunity to do some more catching up. After all what more could any of us do? There was no sign of Jeevan, and I couldn’t get a connection again on my phone to call Kris. In fact it wasn’t until when I finally got through to him the next day that I learned he had played a hero’s role. Somehow he had not only got his rickshaw through all the police road blocks to the venue, but by a long and fiendishly clever detour he’d got Jeevan safely back to her home not far from the German Bakery itself!
As the night wore on more and more people drifted off to see where their legs might get them, needless to say there was none of the usual patrolling rickshaws to drive them. Rashmi, the band and I were the last to leave after clearing up. My car piled full of equipment, I crossed my fingers and set off into the midnight streets, eerily deserted and (as ever badly lit). The main roads were a mess of barriers and huddled groups of policemen; there was no other traffic so they paid me not the least attention when I skirted their roadblocks and drove the wrong way down the dual carriageway. I was also staying just off German Bakery Lane, but knew better than to try to approach it via the Bakery end. In any case I was afraid of what I might see there.
The scene very early the next morning was the same, empty streets, grey fog and a sense of the day after doomsday hanging in the air. I had only one thing on my mind: to get back home to Naveena and Koyal as soon as possible. Giving the crime scene a wide berth again, I headed out of Pune on the expressway for the start of my nine-hour drive, Goa bound. My mind was churning: our safe little spiritual nook in India had been thrust into the world of terrorist atrocities. I knew it could never be the same again.
Over the next few weeks the calls and emails started coming in telling me variations on the same story: ‘You saved my life, man! I had been planning to go to the Bakery as usual, but went to your gig instead…..’
The role of casualties ended up containing just three Osho sannyasin names. The rest were young Indian students, out for an evening in bohemian Koregaon Park; plus several of the unfailingly cheerful (and also mostly young) Nepali staff of the Bakery. Arrests took many years of investigations to achieve. Murky prosecutions of members of a group calling itself the Indian Mujahadeen followed. It was possible that the Osho Commune had been the intended target (David Headley, arrested in Canada a couple of years later, and charged with scouting targets for Al Qaeda, was found to have visited the Commune twice). There were also indications that the bomb was supposed to have been deposited at the Israeli Chabad House (a rescue center for flipped out Israeli travelers) just across the road from the Bakery.
They were details that would only really have significance as resolution for the innocent victims and their families, for the rest of us, used to innocently indulging in our spiritual getaways at the Commune. It was the end of an era. Checkposts were erected on the road outside the gates, manned by armed police, while the Commune’s ramshackle outer walls were replaced with four-meter high steel panels. The outside world had invaded our little haven and would not be going away. It was a rude awakening to a brash and dark new India that had in fact been mushrooming outside those walls for years.
For me it was that decision to get back on stage as if nothing had happened that has stayed with me. ‘The show must go on.’ Spreading joy through music is a mission that may only incidentally counter extremism, prejudice and superstition, but it is the only tool I have.