Neerja Bhanot: Her dad’s Ladli and an answer to his prayers
Days before Sonam Kapoor-starrer Neerja comes out, we take you back to the real Neerja Bhanot, a dad’s favourite who gave up her life so that 359 people could be saved on-board an ill-fated Pan Am flight in 1986. She was posthumously awarded Ashok Chakra, India’s highest peacetime gallantry award.
We only knew her as Lado. When Neerja Bhanot was killed in the Pan Am hijacking in 1986, my parents weren’t sure if it was her. My father called up Uncle Bhanot in Bombay and asked, “Is everything ok?” He said, “No. Lado is no more.” And put down the phone.
My parents and the Bhanots became friends in the 1960s in Chandigarh. Over the decades, my parents always remembered how Lado was her dad’s darling even before she was born. She was the Ladli whose name he’d chosen months before she arrived into this world. “If it’s a girl, I am going to name my daughter Lado,” Uncle Bhanot told my parents as he and his wife, Rama, excitedly awaited her birth.
Lado’s birth brought boundless joy to her father. My parents say he was beside himself with excitement at her birth.
“Neerja was a fruit of our long prayers for a daughter. We had two sons and were longing for a daughter. It was September 7, 1962 at Chandigarh - where I was posted at that time. The maternity ward matron rang up to inform me that we had been blessed with a baby girl,” he wrote in the Hindustan Times a month after she died.
“I was very happy to hear this and gave her a double thanks. She thought I had got her wrong and so she repeated ‘It is a daughter’. I explained to her the daughter had already two brothers and that is why it was an occasion for double thanks.”
It was a joy they lived every day for the next 23 years. Until Neerja Bhanot, a senior flight attendant with Pan Am airlines, died on September 5, 1986 just two days short of her 24th birthday. She was the senior crew of Flight-73 from Mumbai to New York that was hijacked at Karachi airport.
The terrorists wanted to fly to Israel and crash the plane against a building. Soon after the aircraft was hijacked, Neerja Bhanot alerted the cockpit crew and, as the plane was on the tarmac, the three-member crew of pilot, co-pilot and the flight engineer fled the aircraft. Neerja Bhanot, being the most senior cabin crew member remaining aboard, took charge.
The terrorists instructed her to collect the passports of all the passengers so they could identify the Americans. The terrorists wanted to put pressure on America by identifying and threatening the Americans on the aircraft. Bhanot and the other attendants under her charge hid the passports of the 41 Americans on board; some under a seat and the rest down a rubbish chute.
After 17 hours, the hijackers opened fire and set off explosives. Bhanot opened the emergency door and helped a number of passengers escape. She was shot while shielding three children from a hail of bullets fired by the terrorists.
Uncle Bhanot’s grief at Lado’s death was unimaginable.
Lado was a source of total joy for her dad – my mother says he loved hearing the pitter patter of Lado’s feet when he worked from home in Chandigarh in the early 1960s. “I like having her around. She doesn’t disturb me,” he told my mother as Lado played around him.
“In the normal course of events, Neerja would have been back in Bombay on Sunday, September 7, her birthday. But instead of that we collected her coffin from the airport. She, who died so that others could live, was cremated the following day at 11 am amidst chanting of her favourite mantras as we said ‘Goodbye darling, please keep coming’,” he wrote after her death.
A devastated Uncle Bhanot set up a bravery award to honour the memory of Lado who saved more than 300 people. “She was a kind-hearted girl,” remembers my father. “She lost her life because of her kindness.”
(Sugita Katyal works as an editor with HT)