Almost a decade since he spent two terrifying nights in a little restaurant outside the Taj Mahal Hotel that was under siege, Govind Singh Kathayat (40) welcomed his baby boy, Chaitanya, into the world earlier this year. It was a major breakthrough for Govind, who struggled with mental illness for years after the trauma he suffered during the 26/11 terror attack. He turned a decisive corner. “I didn’t imagine this much for myself,” he told The Indian Express about the early years after the incident.
Govind’s story may never make it to the complex trajectory of news stories around 26/11 and state-sponsored cross-border terror, but his and the personal histories of several hundred Indians form an important narrative of healing and resurgence in the years since the financial capital was held hostage by ten heavily armed terrorists. Ten such personal accounts, of survivors and families overcoming grief and anger, come together in 26/11 Stories of Strength by The Indian Express, published by Penguin Random House and presented by Facebook. You can purchase it here
In his foreword to the book, Amitabh Bachchan writes that moderates, the prime victims of terror and also 70 per cent of the nation, have a key role in the war on terror. “And as moderates, we must recognise that to vilify a foe is no victory at all, but to understand a foe is the first act of strength in resistance. And to understand a foe, one must first understand oneself. To understand ourselves, we must ask not what we are against, for that is defining ourselves by the ideas of our foe, by their power. Rather, to understand ourselves, we must ask what we are for. We can only understand ourselves together. To understand ourselves as a collective is to find the time for debate, discussion, argument, listening to each other, trying to understand differing points of view, engaging, challenging our ways of thinking and honouring each other with compassion. These are the answers to violence and death.”
Dipping into ten years of reportage by The Indian Express, especially for the newspaper’s Stories of Strength project over the last two years, the book offers a long, gentle look at the personal struggles that continue long after the newsmen’s cameras have left the bloodied sites of the attack.
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Unwilling to let grief consume their lives after losing their only son, Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan of the National Security Guard, at the Taj, Dhanalakshmi and K Unnikrishnan have made it their life’s mission to make sure the country values its martyrs. What started as a pilgrimage of sorts to all the places, beginning with his alma mater, that had been key to making the man who would be a national hero, turned into a continuing journey to ensure that their son’s sacrifice is remembered, valued.
They started the Sandeep Unnikrishnan Memorial Trust, which earlier offered aid, including for medical emergencies, to those in need. Over the years, the couple has begun to focus the trust’s activities on helping meritorious girl students get a little push ahead, something Sandeep would have done. Dhanalakshmi told The Indian Express the couple, now 66 and 70 years old, draws meaning and purpose in life from the average Indian’s respect for their son’s martyrdom. “He is in people’s minds even now. That’s all we live for,” she is quoted as saying in the book.
The accounts are as varied as the survivors. Sadashiv Kolake, a migrant from Kolhapur who runs an ‘egg-bhurjee’ stall in a major commercial hub in Central Mumbai, suffered injuries at the train station that night ten years ago. The near-death experience left him shaken and traumatised, but he doesn’t have the luxury of leaving the city — he continues to work and live on a Mumbai pavement to make sure his children, now in English-medium schools, have a shot at a better life.
Several survivors who lost family members at the train station that night were rehabilitated by the Railways, which offered them jobs on humanitarian grounds. Hearteningly, these include several women who not only became bread-winners for their families for the first time but also went on to educate themselves to compete for promotions and better prospects.
Then there is Kia Scherr, who lost her daughter and husband in the attack at the Oberoi Hotel and later went on to establish One Life Alliance, which dedicates itself to spreading the message that the correct response to hate cannot be more hate. The book also includes a rare account of residents of Kedambe, a village near Mahabaleshwar in Maharashtra, where martyr Tukaram Omble was born and spent his formative years. The assistant police sub-inspector’s bravery that night led to the capture of Ajmal Kasab, and the joining of dots of a conspiracy in Pakistan. In Kedambe, he remains an ever-present force, still inspiring children and adults alike.
“He was the first policeman in our village,” Prakash Omble, deputy sarpanch of Kedambe and the martyred policeman’s first cousin, says in the book. “Since 26/11, there have been 13 others. Six are posted in Mumbai, four in Pune and some others in the Border Security Force (BSF) and the Indian Navy. A memorial to him in our village continues to inspire the youth.”
To be released on Monday, the tenth anniversary of the attacks, 26/11 Stories of Strength is an attempt to recount the stories of resilience that survivors and families affected by the attacks have shared. Their accounts of dark struggles with rage at the suddenness with which loved ones were snatched away are plentiful too, but these are stories of overcoming anger, to respond to violence with humanity.