Arm around her younger sister, her face solemn, 16-year-old Anjali Gupta says, “I’d like to make sure she’s settled first. I’ll get married afterwards.” With her bright pink nails and a faux silver necklace, she’s like any teenager. Until she begins to talk about life after November 26, 2008.
Her father Vinod Gupta, then 31, was dropping his mother off at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus from where she was to board a train to Patna. When the terrorists opened fire, one bullet pierced his heart. His mother Malathidevi suffered bullet injuries to her waist and a leg.
Nine years later, in their home in a chawl building in Pantnagar in central Mumbai’s Ghatkopar suburb, Anjali says, “Earlier, my life revolved around toys and studies. After his death, my priorities changed, to studies and my career.” Very clear about her ambitions — she wants to be an engineer — Anjali says she once wanted to be a singer, “but that needs time and luck”. Keen now to take on some of mother Savitri’s load of responsibilities, she says she wants to prove to be a better daughter than the son families hope for. “Log sochte hai beta hota to acha hota. (People think her life would have been better if she had a son.) I want to be better than a son. Even if I myself don’t get married, I want to support mum.”
Anjali was seven years old at the time of the attacks, her younger sister Nikita one.
Anjali remembers the night clearly. Their father, a garage mechanic, had returned home, eaten dinner, and had then taken a local train to CST with Malathidevi around 8.30 pm, carrying her two suitcases. Savitri was watching news on television of a terror attack at the Taj Mahal hotel, oblivious that CST was under attack too, when Vinod’s sister called from Kolkata saying she was unable to reach him. Savitri went to a local telephone booth and returned home crying. “Someone had answered my father’s phone and said he had been shot,” Anjali says. Around 4 am, the family could confirm that Vinod was dead.
For a month, Anjali spoke little. “During that period, I realised I have become the man of the house,” she says. She stopped playing, asking for toys and chocolates, and began to think seriously about a career.
Savitri, now 44, remembers she had Rs 3,000 in her bank account that night. The couple had just moved out from the Ramabai Nagar slum into a rented space in Pantnagar. The cash saved up was for furniture and utensils.
As Nikita grew older and asked about her father, it was Anjali who explained. “We feel bad seeing the fathers of other children. But now we are used to it. For us, our father and mother are both in our mother,” she says.
Five years ago, Savitri reluctantly spent Rs 9 lakh of the Rs 10 lakh compensation the family received, for a neck surgery following an accident. Meanwhile, she continued to work with the Central Railway as a sweeper and was attending night school to complete her Class X boards and be eligible for a promotion. She now earns Rs 18,000 a month, and is awaiting that promotion.
Savitri has occasionally considered getting married again. “But what if the man is not good to my daughters?” she says.
At eight, Nikita is only interested in sports and wants to become a football player. “But I can make chapattis and sweep and mop,” she says, twirling a friend’s hula hoop around her waist.
Nikita does not remember her father, but Anjali has made sure she takes on the role of father figure for her baby sister. “I will earn enough to let Nikita do whatever she wants in life,” she says. “Khud ko daba kar isko uthana hai. I will put her needs before mine.”