Nine years ago, as Mumbai picked up the pieces in the days after the 26/11 terror attack, ‘Baby Sheetal’ received an outpouring of support. At three months, she was the youngest survivor in government-run JJ Hospital, nurses in the paediatric ward fussing over the infant as her mother recovered from a bullet injury. The family was waiting to board a train to Varanasi when terror struck at the train station in South Mumbai, and among the 58 dead was Upendra Yadav, Sheetal’s father.
Now nine years old, Sheetal is a shy child doted upon by her mother Sunita’s cousins, nieces, aunts, and even the landlady. Sunita, 30, who remarried last year, now has a second child, six-month-old Adarsh.
In her two-room rented accommodation at the Railways staff quarters near the Varanasi Cantonment Railway Station, Sunita (30), a Class IV employee at the Divisional Railway Manager’s office in Varanasi, says the tribulations of the last nine years were immense, but she’s happy things are a little more settled now. “In UP, in the neighbourhood or workplace, an unmarried or widowed woman’s life is hell. Bahut baat banti hai… After remarrying I am happy,” she says softly.
Fauzdar Singh, 60, a farmer from eastern UP’s Ghazipur district, says it was he who nudged his daughter to remarry. “How long could I have seen her live like this? I won’t be here forever to take care of her.” Sunita’s brother Santosh, 28, who also survived a bullet injury and shrapnel wounds in the attack, runs a photocopier and cellphone accessories store nearby “I won’t live forever to ensure that he takes care of his sister,” Fauzdar continues.
Though he’d planned to marry off all his children at the age of 18, Fauzdar Singh concedes he has had to revise his views on marriage. “People marry at 30 and 35. My son is 28, and he just got married. Sunita is young, she has the rest of her life before her. Why shouldn’t she marry?” he says.
Sunita’s husband Shivashray is a boyish looking man of 28, with an easy laugh, looking unburdened in sharp contrast to Sunita’s tired, shadowed look and the solemnity Santosh and Fauzdar Singh bear. Cradling Adarsh, he says, “I help Sunita with household chores. When she goes to work I drop Babu to school and bring her back. I’m starting a new family with her.”
“Babu’ is how he addresses Sheetal, who is visibly happy playing with her baby brother. “She always wanted a brother, she’d get angry about having nobody to tie a rakhi to,” Shivashray says, beaming.
Shivashray in fact first met Sunita in Mumbai, right after the attack. His brother is married to Sunita’s younger sister, and when news came that the family was injured, the brothers were the first to rush to hospital. While he had a job in Mumbai, he has now moved to Varanasi to be with Sunita, and works at a private milk cooperative in Varanasi. “She has a partner in him, he helps her with Sheetal’s school and doctor visits and daily needs,” Fauzdar adds.
But until she got decided to marry, it was Santosh, along with other relatives, who formed Sunita’s support system as she navigated single motherhood and her new job with the Railways. Santosh played guardian to Sheetal, nursing, feeding and teaching her while Sunita went to work. He tried landing a job in Delhi and Meerut, but kept returning after brief spells because their youngest sibling, Ashish, had to give up his education in Ghazipur to fill in for Santosh every time he left.
He’s now hopeful of searching for work opportunities elsewhere. Himself recently married, he’s set to bring his wife to Varanasi soon. “So I can’t always be assisting my sister now. She needs to have her own partner,” he says matter-of-factly.
Almost killed, Santosh played dead during the rain of bullets and grenades on the night of 26/11. The injuries he sustained left him unable to return to his previous employment in Gujarat or to Mumbai. “Haath mein jaan hai toh kaam hai. I cannot lift heavy loads or do physically stressful work. After the incident decided to re-educate myself because I couldn’t find suitable jobs in Varanasi. I studied animation and design and began printing and publishing. I want to buy a camera and take up photography now. But I don’t have the money,” he says.
The bitterness at losing Upendra and subsequent disputes over monetary compensation that Sunita received drove an irreparable schism between Sunita and her parents-in-law, Fauzdar says. But Sunita, Shivashray, Sheetal and Adarsh now stick together like a single unit, all at ease with one another.
Sunita and Santosh say they have moved on but the incident lives on in them. For instance, Sunita says glass shards and shrapnel are still lodged in her head, and in Sheetal’s too. Surgery is a dangerous option for little Sheetal, doctors have said.
“The JJ Hospital in Mumbai has stopped treating us for free. I am always worried about Sheetal growing up with glass in her skull. Every time I have a headache or bodyache I fear it’s because of the glass shards inside me,” says Sunita, putting forward her right thumb to display a hard protrusion that she says is glass lodged in the bone.
Sunita is also frightened of the dark, and needs another adult in the room when she’s sleeping. Santosh avoids crowded parts of Varanasi and stands at the farthest ends of crowds or gatherings.
Both remember that night with clinical precision, the details of the train, their wait, even what they ate for dinner. Sunita says, “How can we forget? Does one forget these things? How can I forget my husband? He wanted Sheetal to be a doctor and I am going to make his dream come true.”
Sheetal shakes her head. She says she wants to be a teacher when she grows up, because she wants to teach other little children.