26/11 anniversary: Fate and freedom

On 26/11, I lost my father. I was 19 years old at the time. My sister Sanjana was only 13 and mother, Kalpana P Shah, a vulnerable, hopeless romantic.

November 30, 2018 12:14:49 pm

It has now been 10 years and two days since my father was gunned down inside one of the two iconic Mumbai hotels attacked by Pakistani intruders on that fateful Wednesday evening, November 26, 2008. I was 19 years old at the time. My sister Sanjana was only 13 and mother, Kalpana P Shah, a vulnerable, hopeless romantic. It has been hard for each of us to pick up the pieces of our lives and rebuild something that is filled not just with meaning, but also excitement and ambition.

My upbringing, in a household that was lightly religious, had always offered me a free rein intellectually. I could question God, politics, religion and community, and even my own eating habits. All it would lead to were deeply contemplative conversations with mum and dad. As such, I grew into a very strong-headed, independent young man with serious convictions about life. I had no interest in the family business. I wanted to study international politics, European history, military affairs, philosophy and the law. I wanted to be a public intellectual, perhaps join the armed forces or the civil services. Perhaps I wanted to live abroad and write. Soon, I got admission to the London School of Economics to start my undergraduate degree, in 2007.

By the time my second year at LSE had started, I had begun to study histories and theoretical frameworks on the origins of terrorism, the current dynamics of Islamist movements and the peculiarities of the India-Pakistan equation. I had also convinced myself that God doesn’t exist, religion is nothing but another form of socio-political control (an insidious one at that) and us “intellectuals” were safe in conducting our debates in the grey classrooms of rainy London.

As I sat inside a small café in the Covent Garden area on November 26, my phone buzzed, and at the other end was one of my hometown friends who also studied in London, sounding panicky. I quickly surmised that some sort of incident had happened in Mumbai and that I should check in on everyone back home. By the time that phone call ended, my life had already changed in one of those sudden, dramatic and permanent ways. The way in which only the early death of a parent can manage to jolt you. My father, Pankaj S Shah, was killed on the first night of the attacks, gunned down at point-blank range with a group of diners from the Kandahar restaurant at the Oberoi Hotel.

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We didn’t find anything out until almost 48 hours later, when the siege had come to an end.

Within a few hours of my landing in the city, when I reached home, I found the house in chaos. Hundreds of friends, family and well-wishers had gathered, mum was looking lost — crying, impatient and disbelieving reality. Sanjana was too young to even fully comprehend what had happened. I walked straight up to one of the “adults” in the room and asked him if we knew for sure that my father was indeed no more. I remember that next moment clearly. I turned around, grim-faced and robotic, requested some privacy for just the three remaining members of the family, hugged my mother and sister tight, and said: “Dad is no longer with us, but don’t worry. It’s all going to be fine.” I didn’t “know” whether anything was going to be fine. There was a real estate development business that I knew literally nothing about, there were general family finances that I couldn’t even begin to comprehend, there was the matter of bringing his remains back home, the cremation to be organised, the prayer meeting to be arranged. The list buzzed through my head.

I don’t know how I managed the courage to find out the news on Friday, November 28; cremate my father on Saturday, November 29, hold a prayer meeting on Sunday, November 30, and, sit down at his desk in the office on Monday, December 1, 2008. I don’t know how I managed to hold my mother and sister tight, motivate our staff and employees to work harder than ever, bind investors, bankers and customers to the business as if nothing had happened, and, complete a slew of personal aspirations at the same time.

But a combination of self-belief, a real support system, and, a journey of reflection and eventual embrace of fate, has left each of us stronger, more resilient and more mature than ever before. At 29, I have now been CEO of a large business for 10 years, graduated from LSE, Cambridge and Harvard, built some outstanding relationships across the world, and yes, lost a lot of hair, too!

From Aurelius, the Roman emperor, and Nietzsche, the philosopher, to Ray Daalio, the soothsayer of modern investing, we learn one thing: There is no growth without pain, struggle and challenge. Comfort, safety and a “positive environment” are, according to some of these great thinkers, overrated and even counterproductive. The only way to navigate life is to always keep doing, without resenting, regretting or rejecting the challenges that life will inevitably throw our way.

And, perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learnt is: Given a choice, I wouldn’t have it any other way. My specific experiences are what have moulded me into the man that I am today. And, in any case — what could be more freeing than the knowledge of our fatedness?

The author is an alumnus of London School of Economics, Cambridge and Harvard, and lives and works in Mumbai