City’s Neerja Bhanot, who died saving lives aboard a hijacked Pan Am flight in 1986 and now has become the subject of a critically acclaimed biopic, was the answer to her father’s long prayers for a daughter after two sons. On September 7, 1963, when she was born to veteran journalist Harish Bhanot, he was a Hindustan Times special correspondent here.
He was out on assignment when he received a call from the Sector 16 Government Hospital in Chandigarh, informing him of the good news. He couldn’t hold his joy and replied: “Double thanks”. In Mumbai, 23 years later, he was at a press conference when he got to know about the Pan Am hijacking in Karachi.
“She had written to me, ‘I will do you proud,” and the brave girl has kept her word,” reads a line from an article he wrote in HT’s Sunday Review a month after her death. Two days after the funeral, he was back at work in HT’s Church Gate office, where he became a bureau chief later.
Neerja’s mother, Rama Bhanot, found it much harder to cope with her loss. She was the one who accepted a posthumous Ashok Chakra awarded to her daughter. Neerja was the youngest recipient of the award. “As kids, Neerja and I would meet dad’s journalist friends at our home in Bandra. I have fond memories of playing together in the house allotted to HT in Sector 16 of Chandigarh,” said Neerja’s brother, Aneesh Bhanot.
Neerja’s bravery, courage to do her duty come what may, and the attitude of not tolerating injustice was because of her upbringing. “As kids, we absorbed what we witnessed — be it dad’s spending an entire night in a flooded local train on his way back from office or his being adamant not to send Neerja back to her husband after receiving a humiliating letter from him,” said Aneesh. Neerja confided the most in her Papa.
She was the family’s ‘Lado’, a name given to her by her father, who even in his last days spoke proudly of his “agyakaari beti (obedient daughter)” or DDD (daddy’s darling daughter) as Wendy Sue Knech, who was trainer and in-flight supervisor on the Pan Am flight, mentions in the book, ‘The Neerja I Knew’.
“No one in the house, not even Neerja, was allowed to touch the morning newspapers before my father had read them,” said Aneesh, adding: “If there were to be a quarrel, Neerja won her father’s support hands down, and he would motivate her dotingly to never give up, by saying, ‘Mera bahudar bachcha kaun (who’s my brave child)?”.
To honour her memory
After Neerja’s death, her parents put the insurance money and the contribution from Pan Am into making Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust, which instituted two bravery awards of Rs 1.5 lakh each. “My father refused to accept the sum offered by Pan Am, saying it was against Indian culture to accept any money from a daughter in her parents’ house, and that’s how the trust was born,” said Aneesh.
Harish Bhanot joined HT in Chandigarh in 1963. He then moved to Mumbai as special correspondent in 1974, went on to become bureau chief, and retired in 1993. Known best for political reporting, he also covered the 1971 war from Amritsar, the state elections in Maharashtra, and the Dornier air crash. He died in 2007 after a two-year battle with Alzheimer’s.