The last memory Bharat Gujar, a staffer at Leopold Cafe, has of the night of November 26, 2008 is of his colleague asking him to take charge of the billing counter while he took a quick 15-minute break.
“It was about 9.30 pm that night. I was waiting for my colleague to return so I could head back to the kitchen when I suddenly heard a loud explosion. I couldn’t see much as the tube-lights were destroyed and the room was filled with smoke. I heard continuous gunfire and all I could see was a hand lobbing a grenade towards us. I tried to hide behind the billing counter but a grenade fell nearby and the shrapnel hit me. I then lost consciousness.”
Gujar doesn’t recollect what happened in the cafe or in other parts of the city that night, but says he was in the ICU for sixteen days. “My sister and brother-in-law risked their lives and came looking for me. They went hospital to hospital looking among the injured. I was first taken to St George hospital where I underwent multiple surgeries,” he recollects, saying he had no idea the siege lasted three-days, as he lost consciousness.
“My wife had gone back to our village when the attacks were underway. She wanted to come back but I asked her not to. When she did return a fortnight later, she was shocked looking at what had happened to me. “My children, too, broke into tears.”
Now 40, Gujar’s life over the last eight years has been a challenge, one that has made him physically weak, he admits. His body still contains shrapnel from the grenades lobbed into Leopold that November night, that left eleven dead and several others injured. “It’s too deep within my body to remove it. I still have nine stones inside my body,” he says, pointing to his arm, chest and leg. “The doctor said if they operate my hand to take out the shrapnel, there’ll be a loss of strength. I can’t afford to let that happen.”
Post the attacks, Gujar resumed work in January the following year and now works as a kitchen supervisor. He has completed eleven years at the restaurant, a walk down from his home located near Colaba market. “To run a family you need money… you need to earn. I wasn’t afraid to go back, but I knew in my heart that what happened there that night was wrong.”
A father of two school-going children, and the only source of income in his family, his focus, now, is solely on ensuring that he can provide his children with the best education. “All I want is that they remain happy. I have to provide them a good education and help them move ahead in life.”
Gujar believes that much has changed since November 26, 2008, and that the authorities are now more responsive to the city’s security needs. “26/11 was a lesson for the Mumbai Police and the government. They are better prepared now… they’ve begun taking things seriously and Mumbai is much safer,” he says.
The memory of that night still comes back vividly every anniversary, he says. “It hurts, but that’s life. If we keep thinking about it, we can’t move on, can we?”