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Life finds a way

Bloodied by 26/11, mumbai is now defiantly on the road to recovery. for those who saw the carnage — and survived it — the routine is a refuge from the memories, report HT Correspondents.

india Updated: Dec 06, 2008 23:34 IST

‘November 26 is a day I will never forget’
Rajendra Aklekar

Back on his job of checking passenger tickets at Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) station, senior ticket checker R H Dubey is relaxed until he hears any mention of the horrific terror attacks at CST on November 26. Memories come flooding in — of shrieking passengers, bodies lying in a pool of blood and the deafening sound of gunshots that reverberated in the stately building.

“It feels good that things are back to normal. But November 26 is a day I will never forget. My thoughts had just numbed. I knew I had to help the passengers before the situation went out of control,” Dubey recalls.

A resident of Kurla, Dubey was at the ticket checking office on Platform One on the Harbour Line section of CST when the terrorists opened fire. The CCTV footage shows how Dubey helped commuters move out of the station even as RPF head constable Jullu Yadav engaged terrorists in a gun fire battle on Platform Three.

In the footage, Dubey is seen helping an old woman pick up her luggage, and escorting her to safety. “My duty was to end in two hours time when I heard loud bursts and cries from the adjacent outstation train terminus. I knew something was wrong. There was very little time and I had to move fast,” he says. Dubey had his back towards the terrorists even as he was helping passengers get out of the station.

“Dubey actually stood between the terrorists and the passengers as a shield without caring for his life,” a senior official who has witnessed the footage, points out.

“I could not think. I only knew I had to help the passengers to safety. It was all by instinct,” Dubey recalls.

His instinct saved many lives that fateful night. “As the terrorists ran towards the subway entrance, some commuters felt it would be safer to hide inside the train. But I asked them to move out of the station and escorted them through the rear exit,” says Dubey.

A father of three daughters, Dubey has been in the Indian Railway service for a decade. Central Railway General Manager VK Manglik gave an 'On-the-Spot' cash award of Rs 5,000 to Dubey for his exemplary courage.

‘I regret I could not kill the terrorists’

Rajendra Aklekar

Head constable Jullu Yadav is back at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus doing what he is trained to do — protect the commuters that pass through the heritage precinct every day.

Posted at the entrance of the Central Railway general manager’s office, his eyes dart from one area of the station to another as he instructs a constable. Many pairs of eyes are focused on him as he goes about his business. Yadav is a hero for his colleagues, the city and for the nation but he cannot fathom what the fuss is all about.

“I only did my job. Please spare me all this media attention,” says the 51-year-old head constable of the Railway Protection Force (RPF), who returned fire at the terrorists at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus on November 26.

Had it not been for Yadav engaging the terrorists in a daring gun battle, the official toll of 56 dead and 95 injured at CST would undoubtedly have been much higher.

The CCTV footage on the night of terror attack at CST shows Yadav running across a passage in full view of the terrorists, grabbing a rifle from a colleague too stunned by the attack to react, and opening fire at the terrorists. Yadav was the only security personnel who stood his ground when all others panicked and fled.

The moment Yadav sensed tension at the premises, he rushed to the main entrance of the building to lock the huge iron gates. After shutting the gates, an unarmed Yadav ran towards the terrorists, who were firing indiscriminately at hapless passengers. He flung a chair at them to distract them before grabbing a rifle from one of his armed colleagues to return fire.

“I opened fire at them, but they jumped between the train and the platform to take cover and opened fire,” Yadav recalls.

After a long night of blood and gore, Yadav returned home to his wife and three sons in the northern suburb of Dombivli. “It feels good to back on the job,” says Yadav, thankful that the city is slowly regaining its rhythm.

Central Railway general manager V K Manglik gave an ‘On the Spot’ award of Rs 5,000 and a commendation certificate while Railway Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav has announced a reward of Rs 10 lakh for Yadav’s bravery.

“I do not think I have done anything great. We are trained to protect people,” says the self-effacing Yadav.

Was he scared to face the terrorists? “Darr to laga tha. Par hamne toh training li hai (I was afraid but I have been trained to meet such situations),” says Yadav who last fired a rifle in January during his annual training at the Thane-Pokhran range.

“This was the first time I had an actual gun fight with terrorists since my last training session. My regret is that I could not kill those terrorists. They had sophisticated weapons,” Yadav says.

What Yadav lacked by way of equipment he compensated with his presence of mind and grit. As his boss and senior RPF inspector Sandeep Khiratkar says, “Yadav is as small as an AK-47 gun, but he was the bravest among everyone his age.”

Dal, rice and a new beginning
Neha Bhayana

It was a simple fare of dal, rice, chappatis and bhaji served in a steel thali. But Anamika Gupta (26) was thrilled when a nurse laid it down in front of her on Thursday afternoon.

Gupta, a beautician, had been shot thrice in the stomach in the firing at Leopold Cafe on November 26. The bullets were surgically removed at St George Hospital just hours after the incident.

She was moved to JJ Hospital the next morning and was kept on a dose of glucose-water.

A complete chatterbox, Gupta was quiet for once as she relished her first meal since the fateful day when the urge for Chinese food had landed her in the line of fire.

Gupta had moved to Colaba just a month ago to start her own parlour. She and her friends Rashika Sawant and Sarika Upadhyay had been shopping for Gupta’s brother’s wedding on December 12. They were exhausted and famished so they decided to go to Leopold, their favourite hang-out.

“We had ordered fried rice, vegetable manchurian and noodles but the food had not arrived so we were busy checking out boys,” says Gupta. Of all the boys in the cafe, two sitting on the table next to theirs caught Gupta’s attention

“They were so good-looking. Both were wearing cargo pants and had sports bags slung across their shoulders. One of them had a beige shirt on,” she says.

Little did Gupta know that the two “mysterious men” she was ogling at were terrorists. Moments after her eyes first fell on them, one stood up and threw something, possibly a hand grenade, at the manager’s desk and the lights went off. Gupta and her friends thought it was a short circuit but then they heard firing.

Gupta’s friends ran out of the cafe but she froze. “I couldn’t take my eyes off them. I wanted to reach them somehow. I felt like kicking them, making them stop but I couldn’t move,” she adds.

The next thing Gupta remembers is a doctor saying: “You are a lucky girl, Anamika. You are the first one we operated on.”

Gupta knows a social worker called Francis had brought her to the hospital. Ten days after the attack, Gupta is the most cheerful patient in JJ’s Ward Number 11

But behind Gupta’s smile, lies the trauma of one who was seen the face of death. “Every time I close my eyes to sleep, I can see their faces. I can hear the sound of gunshots and the screams. I prefer staying awake,” she says.

Gupta plans to go straight to her rented flat in Colaba when she is discharged. “I am dying to play with my cats – Jimmy and Maria. They must be missing me,” she says.


Marathon healing
Snehal Rebello

He goes to bed only after 3 am. But Bhisham Mansukhani wakes up with a strange chill every day. Often, he has nightmares of being back in the Taj Mahal Hotel and Towers.

“There are manifestations of fear. There is a subconscious reluctance to sleep. I have to hold myself together and calm down,” sayMansukhani who was at the Taj Hotel on the night of November 26, as four terrorists sprayed bullets and threw hand grenades.

When Mansukhani got out of the hotel after a 12-hour ordeal, he thought it would not be “difficult” to cope with all that he had encountered and been through. He was wrong. “Despite not having slept for 24 hours, I still couldn’t sleep,” says the 31-year-old journalist writing for Time Out magazine.

A chat with a clinical psychologist friend was comforting. “But I don’t know how to deal with this,” said Mansukhani who has been relying on his friends. “I call and meet them everyday. I can’t get back to being normal.”

The day after the attack, Mansukhani was at work. “I was asked to write my account in a chronological order to tell my story. But it was a lot more difficult to write it out. I struggled with it.”

Helping him to get some semblance of normalcy, relatives and friends have been asking him to turn to spirituality and religion. But he is an atheist and will retain that, he says. Instead, with elections not too far away, Mansukhani wants to be a part of some initiative to working towards government accountability, especially in the context of 26/11. He is even considering working towards helping people who have undergone similar experiences.

Mansukhani was attending his best friend’s wedding reception in the Taj Hotel’s ballroomwhen terrorists struck.

For now, he has decided to take a friend’s advice to focus on training for the Mumbai marathon in January. “Exercising is a non-logical and non-rational way of dealing with things,” says Mansukhani.

‘We must overpower terrorism, not terrorists’
Soumitra Ghosh

As Eric Anthony, the 33-year-old manager of Leopold Café pushed past a crowd to walk back into his workplace of ten years on December 1, he felt an acute sense of violation.

“Just days before, the terrorists came to our café, ate at our tables and then opened fire at our guests. I wanted to scream and protest loudly but after a moment, as we resumed our services, I felt like we just need to pick up the pieces and move on,” said Anthony, who escaped a bullet on November 26.

“Since the attacks, I’ve had the same dream thrice — that Leopold is safe, and no terror attack took place. But every morning, I wake up to the reality — two of my boys, Peeru and Kazi, dead along with five of our customers. I remember showing the table to the foreigners who were shot dead along with three Indian customers,” recalled Anthony, who lives in a room at Colaba.

The day after Leopold opened to much media attention, a couple, both foreign nationals, walked in.

“It reopened my wounds. I couldn’t help but recall the horror of that evening. I couldn’t speak and managed to only signal them to a table,” said a visibly shaken Anthony, recounting the deaths of his peers.

“I ran outside the café with a slight bruise as a bullet whizzed past me, and Peeru tried to follow me but was hit and fell to the ground bleeding profusely. Kazi came rushing to help me pick up Peeru but he felt giddy at seeing all the blood. So he went across the street to call for help but got shot.”

But he is already seeing signs of normalcy: Customers walking in without fear, prayers being said, staff filling in for the deceased, Peeru and Kazi.

“We’ll recruit new staff members soon and replace our broken cutlery. Customers are showing their support by visiting our cafe, but I don’t know if that’s called getting back to a normal life. I’m waiting for the day I can go back to my room, put on my sound system and sleep.”

Anthony's colleague, 25-year-old Thomson Fernandez, captain of Leopold, was manning the cash counter on November 26 when the terrorists opened fire and a grenade went off under the table in front of him.

"Before Leopold reopened, I felt immense hatred towards the two terrorists. I had a lump in my throat as I entered the café the day it opened. The horrific events of the night of the 26th flashed before my eyes: the terrorists with guns, the firing, the bodies we put in the ambulance, the mayhem. I couldn't look away from the spots where Peeru and Kazi collapsed, where the bullets were sprayed. But as we reopened, with support from guests and peers, I felt a transformation taking root within me. It's time we overpower terrorism rather than just those two terrorists."

Fernandez, who has worked at Leopold for three years, believes the day of the reopening was not just a symbolic victory but also the most meaningful day of his life.

"The whole atmosphere was electrifying - The tables, chairs, counters, cutlery… everything seemed to have new life. It's as if the objects, along with the people, were saying, 'Look, we are back.' I silently thanked Jesus and made a silent resolve. For the last three years, I only did my job but now on, as long as I work here, I will help represent the victory of life over terrorism," he declared.

‘I cannot stay alone in the house at night’
Mini Pant Zachariah

The patients who call on Dr Suresh Agrawal at his clinic in Colabawala building nowadays are more concerned about his health than their own. Dr Agarwal’s clinic is in the same compound as Nariman House, which was under siege from November 26 to 28. When he draws the curtain of a bullet-hit window in his sixth-floor flat, I can see the building is barely 20 feet away. And just 50 minutes before all hell broke loose, Dr Agrawal had passed the Nariman House on his regular shortcut to the Colaba market.

“My practice is down to 20 per cent as there is police deployment outside the building but life is slowly getting back to normal,” says the soft-spoken Dr Agrawal. With one exception, says his wife Kalpana: “I cannot stay alone in the house when night falls. I just leave the house and go downstairs.”

The Agrawals were in the house with their son Aditya (24), daughter Priyanka (22) and 75-year-old mother Shantidevi when they heard the sound of gunshots at around 9.50 pm.

Aditya, who has just completed his MMBS, rushed his family and neighbours to Colaba Court, a residential building across the street. They stayed holed up in a friend’s flat till Thursday night. On Friday, they shifted to another friend’s house in Cuffe Parade. On Saturday, when the siege was over, they returned to their flat to find windowpanes shattered and bullet marks on their walls. A frame of Srinathji’s picture, the family deity, remained untouched on the wall.

Some of the images that will stay with all who watched the terrorist drama unfold on their television screens was of the commandoes descending on Nariman House, the bloody battle that ensued and finally, the NSG commandoes who were greeted by a gratefully citizenry.

For the Agarwals, and many like them who lived in the vicinity of Nariman House, the memory is not just visual. It is the memory of 30 people from different families sitting huddled in a friend’s flat, horror and terror writ large on their faces. It is the memory of explosives going off with deafening regularity and threatening to shake the foundation of the building.

First Published: Dec 06, 2008 23:29 IST