On 14th April 1944 a ship in the Victoria Dock of Bombay, now Mumbai called the SS Fort Stikine exploded. It was carrying a mixed cargo of cotton bales, gold bars and 1,400 tons of explosive ammunition. Two blasts from the ship scattered debris and sank surrounding ships as well. About 800 people were killed in the sea and on land.
Flaming pieces of the wreckage flew in all direction and rained fire on Mumbai. All buses and trains stopped. People were stuck without public transport and a whole lot of children from the JB Petit School for girls were among them. With the city in flames around them the girls all cowered together wondering how they were going to get home. Amongst them was a 16 year old girl by the name of Naju Jijicawna.
The girls knew that no one would be coming to fetch them. They used to take the bus to and from school on their own. A group of them lived in the same colony at Mazgaon Docks. Now with no buses running and no adults to help they wondered how they were to get home. The streets were full of people running from the flaming debris that was flying all over. No vehicles were moving at all. Naju’s younger sister Sillo began to cry.
That’s when Naju decided that she needed to get her home. She realized that trying to follow the roads back to the colony was not going to be easy. She then said to the rest of the girls that the easiest way to find their way back home would be to follow the rail tracks from Fort station to the Mazgaon station. She took her little sister’s hand and began the long march back home.
The worried mothers were all wondering how they should bring their children back home from school when they saw the line of children appear before them. The line of girls went through the burning city till they hit the railway tracks. Then they walked back all the way home following the tracks till Mazgaon before they detoured to hit the colony.
That 16 year old girl who led the entire gang to safety and home was my grandmother. Years later I heard the story of the walk she took through a burning Bombay when I visited her home town for the first time at age 7. She was smiling when she told her story at the memory and her mother, my great grandmother was shaking her head at the memory saying, “Ajab tari himat” (what courage she had).
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