When well-meaning folk tell her, emptily, that this too shall pass, Shruti Kamble usually knows they haven’t the faintest idea what kind of challenges she faces, eight years since her husband, a staffer at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, died after taking a bullet to his abdomen during the 26/11 attacks. Shruti knows the truth is that the grief doesn’t pass. On Saturday morning, as on the morning of every 26/11 since 2009, she was up early. By 4 am, she had already spent an hour in the kitchen and was on the roof of her home in Gorai, nearly 50 km from South Mumbai, placing on a tray her husband’s favourite food, a cup of masala chai and a few squares of kaju katli, his favourite mithai, for the birds to carry away. “The pain is as fresh now, even eight years later,” she says.
But Saturday brought a rare moment of catharsis, and clarity, when Shruti met Bhisham Mansukhani, a travel journalist trapped in the Taj that night. Bhisham and Shruti’s paths may well have never crossed, their worlds far apart even if connected irreversibly by Rajan Kamble. “He was so brave. His bravery saved us that night,” Bhisham told Shruti soon after they were introduced at the inauguration of the 26/11 Stories of Strength exhibition hosted by The Indian Express. Bhisham was seated right across the couch where guests laid Rajan Kamble after he was hit. Bhisham narrated how his mother was sitting nearby, praying, while a doctor couple in the room tried to stanch the blood gushing from his gut. Three times Shruti asked, “Did he say anything?”
Between November 28 and December 3 when Rajan died, Shruti visited him in hospital everyday, but he couldn’t speak. The last conversations she had with her husband were by means of facial expressions and nods and grunts that he managed.
“He spoke only to give us the names of Taj staffers who had escaped and who we should contact, so they could send help to our location. Even though he was in great pain, he didn’t scream even once. At one point he was chanting god’s name,” Bhisham told Shruti. Wiping tears, Shruti told him she had waited eight years to hear this account. “Many people told me he had been brave, but this is the first time I am meeting someone who was with him then and saw everything that happened. I knew Rajan was completely selfless and courageous, and now I have heard first hand what he did.”
As a small group of survivors of Mumbai’s worst terror attack and families of victims gathered at the venue of the inauguration, it was clear that the significance of remembering, even eight years later, is in the re-examination of their personal tragedies through new prisms.
While Kia Scherr, 60, barely understands Hindi, she had no trouble understanding Shruti. Kia lost her husband Alan and daughter Naomi eight years ago, she knew exactly what Shruti meant when she said she’s still to find real closure. “This occasion to meet others will have a ripple effect, more of us will be able to share our journeys with others in similar situations,” Kia said.
For Anjali Kulthe, a nurse at the Cama and Albless Hospital that was one of the sites of the attack, being able to converse with the Chief Minister of Maharashtra about how she responded to the call of duty was an occasion to set right an oversight. “So many others who did what their uniforms demanded of them received no recognition, I was able to convey that to the CM sir, even if it’s been eight years,” she said.
Kundan Singh Kathayat, now 80 years old, is a former Naval submariner. “I am willing to do my duty for the country even today,” he said, eyes glistening, microphone in one hand and a tremor in the other as he gesticulated. “I was a jawan. I will fight for the country again if called upon.” But there was one thing he could not do, and he mustered enough courage to tell the CM that. His son Govind has mostly conquered clinical depression after being diagnosed with schizophrenia following a nerve-racking three days hidden in a Colaba restaurant while the siege of the Taj continued. “But wherever he goes for a job interview, they tell him he doesn’t have enough confidence. Could you please issue a circular instructing companies to consider and encourage him?”
The CM, having just watched a video clip of Govind shot as part of the The Indian Express-Facebook-Instagram Stories of Strength project, responded: “Nobody can say your son lacks confidence. I have no doubt companies will support him.” Overcome with emotion, Kathayat could barely say a thank you, but saluted before taking his seat.
Devika Rotawan, who was only 10 when a bullet hit her leg at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, was meeting Mumbai Police Head Constable Arun Jadhav in an annual tradition. He put an arm around her and asked about her studies. Jadhav was the sole survivor in a police Qualis ambushed by two gunmen that night. He, Devika and some other survivors have invariably bumped into each other at memorial events held until a couple of years back.
Meanwhile, Bhisham invited Shruti and her sons to an event in Panchgani in mid-2017; she accepted. “I feel a little guilty, I don’t know why I did not reach out earlier and talk to her,” he said. The Panchgani event is for youth to understand personal growth in the face of adversity, and Bhisham hopes to share his account of the night of 26/11 along with Shruti’s account, two narratives of loss, and of strength.