Just when, and how, do you tell two growing boys that the world is not really a fair place, that they have got to, like their father, sprinkle random acts of kindness around even if all that got him was a spray of machine-gun fire? Shruti Kamble, 44, has wrestled with that question over eight years, without finding a convincing answer.
Watch Video | 26/11 Stories of Strength: Shruti Kamble
By all accounts, Rajan Kamble was an unusually kind-hearted man. Of unremarkable means himself, the staffer at the Taj Mahal Hotel once carted a pavement dweller’s ailing baby to hospital. He would generously dole out cash or assistance, even to acquaintances on the suburban train system.
On the night of November 26, 2008, however, the maintenance department staffer was herding a line of guests to safety when a bullet hit his abdomen. A doctor among the guests tried to staunch the flow of blood from his ripped intestines until 8.30 am when they were finally rescued. Seven days later, Kamble died in hospital. He was 47, married to Shruti for 11 years, and among the 166 killed in the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks.
”Nothing has changed in my life,” says Shruti, in the Kambles’ little home in Gorai, a suburb nearly 60 km from the iconic Taj Mahal Hotel overlooking the Gateway of India at Apollo Bunder in South Mumbai. She’s surprised any change is even possible. “I am exactly where I was eight years back. Yes, the children are growing, but I just got left behind,” she says.
But Shruti concedes that the tragedy taught her some bitter lessons, mainly that those you count on may not be up to the challenge. Today, the three of them are a very tight unit, rarely visiting anyone or going anywhere.
Shruti says the boys’ paternal grandparents have mostly stayed away, the dregs of unhappiness from Rajan and Shruti’s inter-caste marriage still weighing down relations. “We visit my family in Karjat once a year in the summer holiday, but never stay more than two days. The boys don’t like it, the power keeps going off and there’s nothing to do. We just stay home. Go to school, market, back home,” she says.
Rohan, now a 17-year-old in Class 12, has had to adjust his plans. While his father and he had together considered a career in the armed forces, he dropped the idea of Sainik School because it was important to stay close to Shruti and Atharva, 10. He now wants to study hotel management and look for a job with the Taj group.
Three years ago, the family found out upon actor Farooque Shaikh’s death that he had been their anonymous benefactor since Rajan’s death, sponsoring the kids’ school fees — the Taj group has been supporting the family, too.
Rohan appears to grasp the nuances of adult decisions. “Mummy never refuses me anything, recently she bought me sports shoes of the brand I wanted. They cost Rs 4,000. But I also know not to ask for needless things,” he says. Rohan had been sent to school the morning Rajan’s body was to be brought home from the hospital. A neighbour interrupted drawing class to bring him back, to a home full of mourners. “That’s when I realised Papa off ho gaye hain,” he says.
There’s nothing dramatic about Shruti’s declaration that the boys looked after her. “I’d have to leave them at home alone every time I went to complete formalities, paperwork, or even to buy groceries. Rohan looked after himself and Atharva who was then only two years old. One never expects that you’ll suddenly be a single mother, so there’s nothing that prepares you for it,” she says.
Atharva was a sickly child for nearly two years afterwards, and she herself had to undergo a biopsy for a lump on her chest, although it turned out to be just a scare. “That episode shook me all over again, I had to be there for my children,” says Shruti.
After the initial high-strung years, Shruti sleeps better now, but occasionally finds herself awake around 2 am, when Rajan would return from night shift. “He’d come and ask for a cup of tea. I’d get out of bed and we’d chat about his day at work while he sipped the tea. Chai was something he could have at any time of the day, or night,” she says.
Although Rajan died a week after 26/11, on every anniversary of the terror attack Shruti starts her day a little earlier than usual, does pooja — worship used to be Rajan’s responsibility — and places a garland of flowers on a large photograph of her husband. “And I place in front of him something he used to like, maybe kaju katli, or chai,” she says.
Over the years, Shruti has made sure Rohan and Atharva know just how brave Rajan was. They are able to immediately recollect the name of the doctor who used hotel bedsheets to try and stop the blood that night, the other guests who called and thanked her profusely for Rajan’s selflessness that night, his conversation on the phone that night saying the call of duty was his first love, and that last phone call when he whispered he was alright.
”Sometimes, Atharva asks about his father, especially when he sees other kids his age doing things with their dad,” says Shruti. “But he’s growing up, too, and we just make sure we are there for one another, the three of us.”
Milestones since 26/11
* 2009: The road outside their home is named after Rajan Kamble.
* 2010: Shruti undergoes a biopsy, but it’s only a scare.
* 2013: Rohan decides he will study hotel management and work at the Taj Mahal Hotel.
* 2013: They find out upon actor Farooque Shaikh’s death that he had been sponsoring the kids’ school fees.
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