Her hands, in white gloves, are a stark reminder of the burns. Next week, when Nidhi Chapekar (42) visits Brussels on the invitation of King Philippe of Belgium, she plans to visit her doctors, nurse Marc Hermans, police officer Alan, Indian embassy official Sudeepta and a phone booth owner Shabbir bhai.
“All of them were there with me,” says Chapekar. When she lay in hospital, Sudeepta would bring her homemade khichdi, and Shabbir bhai was the first one to reach there and take a picture of the bandaged Nidhi, unsure if it was her, to send to her husband Rupesh in India. Nurse Marc was the one she interacted with the most in hospital, and officer Alan kept talking to her for 20 minutes at the airport to comfort her after two blasts ripped through Zaventum Airport in March 2016.
Now, with an almost-ready book to recount her experience during the Brussels attack, Nidhi says her question to doctors at St Augustine Hospital, Brussels, where she was rushed from the blast site, was, “Is my face burnt?” They had answered yes. In that moment, she did not want to live. “You see this in movies. I didn’t want pity from anyone,” she says. A cabin manager with Jet Airways, she had reached Brussels airport before 8 am for her flight duty to Newark, which would begin at 10.15 am. She had taken an escalator to level 2 when the first bomb exploded. Colleague Amit Motwani steered her the other way. She had just turned left when an abandoned bag exploded in her face.
Now, she feels her viral picture — in a torn yellow blouse, burnt hair, blood-smeared face, and a shocked look directed straight at the camera — was a ‘life saver’. At least her family knew she was alive. Though she adds that her pictures may have reached rural parts of India. “With our culture, I wish they had blurred it a bit, showing my face was okay.”
Post attack, she kept telling the police not to let her lose consciousness. “I wanted to see everything, to be able to give an account later,” she says. This is when officer Alan kept talking to her as they carried her out of the airport. Shabbir bhai, a phone booth and convenience store owner, had befriended Nidhi during her routine visits to Brussels. After the blasts, he took his car to look for her. Finding her bandaged head-to-toe in hospital, he took a picture for Rupesh.
Rupesh, who later flew to Brussels, hardly believed it was her in the first few days after the attack. “I had doubts Nidhi was still out somewhere,” he says. She spent the next 25 days in an induced coma. When she did open her eyes, he asked her whether she knew who he was. “I couldn’t understand initially,” she laughs, adding she had weird dreams of solitaires, old age homes and of her being stuck to a glass. “I would recount my dreams, and everyone would laugh,” Nidhi smiles. She had 15 per cent burns, multiple fractures in the legs, an ear injury, and a burnt face. Her right heel had a cavity where a metal piece had ripped through. Forty seven shrapnel were removed from her body in a series of surgeries. She underwent skin grafting and later plastic surgeries for face and body. Her hand still has scars, and she keeps them tucked in gloves at all times, with a coat of cream.
In 2016, she returned to Mumbai after over a month for her children, aged 15 and 11. “My son never cries, but he cried when he saw me,” she says. Relatives would take turns for 15-20 days to look after her. By sheer will power, she attempted to move out of bed after two-and-a-half months. She started changing, dressing herself, taking two hours to do so. “I wanted to be independent. I did not like crawling, needing help,” she explains. She and Rupesh had a love marriage, and he knew she would come out of this. Her children would call her a tigress.
In a year, Nidhi’s once burnt hair has grown to a wavy brown neck-length crop. Her skin has cleared. And her walk seems normal. She may require two more surgeries for ear and leg following a check-up in Brussels. In the past one year, she has attended all family functions to make use of time. Her children, all this while, never missed school, except for one badminton session on the day of the attacks.
She is a proud mother, and a more satisfied person. The attacks and months of home rest have made her reflect on humanity and the growing need for it. “Terrorism can’t finish everyone, right? Humanity will survive,” she smiles, keen to fly again. Her medical papers will soon be sent to the Director General of Civil Aviation for permission to fly. If not that, she will work as ground staff.