In the past, whenever Kalpana Shah (51) spoke to her 20-year-old son Sarjan, studying at the London School of Economics, she would ask about his studies, reminding him to eat well and keep warm.
Now, when she calls him, they talk business. What changed? Their world did, on November 26, 2008.
It was the day Shah, owner of the swish Tao Art Gallery in Worli, lost her husband Pankaj (60) as he dined at the Oberoi’s Kandahar restaurant; the day her children, Sarjan and Sanjana (14), lost their father.
“Before the attacks, I played the role of the mother. I saw the softer side of life. Pankaj was the discipliner to the kids. But all that has changed,” says Shah, as she sits in her apartment at Worli with the resolute poise of a woman forced to come to terms with life after 26/11.
There wasn’t even enough time to mourn the loss of her husband.
Less than two months after the terror siege, Shah was appointed chairperson of Satellite Builders, the company that was her husband’s legacy.
As Shah struggled to be both mother and father to her children, she says the bond with her daughter grew stronger. “She now sleeps with me in my room,” says Shah.
For the young man, she admits, it was difficult to see his mother as the new decision-maker of the family.
“Sarjan and I have minor conflicts about the way the business should be run,” she says. “I am more conservative in my approach, like Pankaj was. Sarjan is more dynamic and aggressive.”
They are on equal terms now, she says. “In fact,” smiles Shah, “he was surprised to hear that his mother was handling the business so well.”
The first time Shah’s composed façade gives way to her suppressed grief is when she talks about how the loss of her husband has affected their children.
It hurts, she says, that her 20-year-old son, now plunged into a world of responsibilities, can no longer enjoy the young, carefree days of college.
“He said to me soon after Pankaj’s death ‘Mom, I’ve grown 10 years older overnight’,” says Shah, her voice breaking. “My daughter is only 14. She pretends to be strong, but she is a very emotional girl.”
Shah is also aware that her equations with the outside world have changed: She is now the face of her family.
“As a single parent in the business world, I have to be more conscious of upholding the family name and maintaining social relationships,” she says.
She is grateful for the support from friends, well-wishers in the art world and Pankaj’s business partners.
“But no matter how many great friends you have, there is a void that can never be filled,” says Shah. “No one can replace your companion of 28 years.”