How did the news of your father’s death, on November 26, 2008, reach you?
I was in Boston. It was the last weekend of November and the beginning of the Thanksgiving holidays in the US. It was also a big celebration for us as we had invited our cousins over. After my marriage I had settled in the US. The day began with all of us leaving for some sight-seeing. We had just stepped out when I got a call from my sister saying that papa is wearing a bullet-proof jacket and his clips are being shown on television. I immediately rushed home. I switched the TV on. I then joined a conference call with my husband, mother, sister and brother.
Then, I saw a ticker on TV, ‘Hemant Karkare injured’. I thought, okay, maybe it’s an injury… I mean, why will I think of the worst at all? Within minutes, the ticker changed to ‘Hemant Karkare shot’; then ‘Hemant Karkare shot thrice in the chest’… I was shocked. We disconnected the phone call… There was silence. Then, I received my sister’s message, just two words in Marathi, ‘Papa gele (father is gone)’. I asked her how can she be so sure? She said she had started receiving condolence calls. I checked my inbox, emails had started trickling in. I decided to travel to India, immediately. At the airport I was told all the flights to India through Bombay (Mumbai) were cancelled as a red alert had been declared. The siege was still on. We had to wait for two days. Soon, we got a call from the Maharashtra government. Our tickets were sent and we took a flight on November 28.
Once we reached, I saw my mother, sedated and lying in bed. But when she saw me, my brother and my sister sitting around her, she smiled at us. I could see she was in a deep trance because of the medication. The funeral was next morning.
I walked to my parents’ bedroom. I saw that my father had neatly hung the shirt which he had worn last, his pen still in its pocket. It’s when I saw that that I understood he will never come back… at all. I took a few books from his bookshelf and started reading to keep my mind occupied.
The funeral is still fresh in my memory. The rituals, the flowers… So many people walking with his body during the procession. I was numb with shock. I still couldn’t believe it. I remember seeing my father’s cold body when it was brought to the house. My fingers lightly brushed against his cheek. I could not believe that this cold flesh belongs to my father because, for me, he was always so vibrant. He was the life and soul of any gathering. He was always so jovial and animated. Here was this lifeless body… I could not believe it was my father. It all seemed unreal.
Do you remember the messages that you received then?
There was a large wave of empathy for our family. We received hundreds and thousands of condolence letters from all over the world as my father had also been posted abroad — as a diplomat in Vienna, Austria. Anyone who knew him, even slightly, wanted to lay a claim to him because there was so much pride in being associated with Hemant Karkare. People continued to visit us personally. My mother, despite the shock of having lost her husband, ensured that everybody who came was at least offered some tea.
I distinctly remember two messages. A letter came from his primary school in Wardha. He had topped the school in the fourth grade and moved on to middle school. He happened to go to Wardha when he was a police officer and made an effort to meet his primary school teacher. The teacher was touched. I received a photo of that school. It was a simple school and they said they would like to inaugurate a library in my father’s name, and that my mother should grace the occasion.
Then, there was a touching letter from residents of Malegaon. It was written in beautiful English, and it was signed by many Malegaon residents. I still have that letter. It was a lovely, heartfelt tribute.
Your mother wrote poetry. What are your memories of her last few years?
My mother loved writing poetry. It was her way of dealing with grief after my father’s death. Her name was Jyotsna but Papa had given her the name ‘Kavita’ after their wedding because of her love for writing poetry. They both were fond of books and reading poetry. They would read poems by the Marathi poet Kusumagraj together. They appreciated the finer things in life. After his death, my mother plunged into grief and it took her a long time to return to normalcy. Around 2014, she began teaching at her college, started swimming, she loved cooking… I was proud that she was slowly coming back to life… It was very shocking for us when she had a brain aneurysm which burst all of a sudden. She was a very healthy person. It happened soon after my father’s death. In a span of six years, we lost both our parents.
My mom had very beautiful eyes. After she was declared brain dead, the doctor told us that she was eligible for organ donation. Even without speaking to each other, we unanimously decided to go for it. Later, when we spoke about it, we all had the same thought, that she had very beautiful eyes… We haven’t met the person who benefited from her eyes… or other organs. Her eyes were very expressive and we wanted them to live on. We felt it was needed, this kind of thinking, of giving life. It’s still difficult for us to deal with her death…
How did you deal with it then, the loss of your parents?
Those days, I could not believe that some people were saying that my father went without planning (for the 26/11 operation). It’s not possible for a person like him. I will always have gratitude for Vinita Kamte, who invoked RTI to find the truth behind the counter attack.
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Even now I have the audio recording of the conversation between him and the control room. Papa had actually requested for reinforcements, for more personnel to encircle Cama Hospital (outside which Karkare was killed). For some reason that did not happen, and (Lashkar-e-Toiba terrorists Ajmal) Kasab and Ismail (Khan) escaped. I have always wondered why his orders were not obeyed. What was the reason? I still listen to those audio recordings. I listen to my dad’s voice. It has him giving instructions, requesting to call the Army. He can be heard speaking of firing, grenade blasts… I play them on loop. Those last words he spoke at 11.28 pm on November 26 — ‘ATS and QRT teams are here at the rear gate of the hospital, and so is the crime branch team. Therefore, we need a team from the front side. We need to ENCIRCLE the Cama and surround it’. I am never going to recover from it.
When I see people do simple things, like children talking to their parents over the phone… I will never be able to pick up the phone and talk to my parents. It’s a simple action, picking up the phone and dialling the number. It is not going to happen for me. Those instructions… those were his last words. I like to listen to them, listen to his voice. Things could have turned out differently. I also have the transcripts of the audio clips. I read them often. In the records, he was last alive between 11.24 and 11.30 pm on November 26, 2008… Then the communication ends.
Initially, we decided to keep our grief to ourselves. We (the three siblings) decided not to speak because there were far too many controversies. My father was a public figure but we were not. We were ordinary civilians. We had no experience of talking to the media. I was 27 then, my sister was 21, and my brother 17. We also wanted to shield our mother from the controversies. We knew that nothing would bring our father back. But my mom, she wanted to talk to the media. She was the ATS chief’s wife. So many people had lost their lives and she wanted the government to take heed. She had that motherly instinct, that quality of a leader.
I have visited Bombay with my daughters (who were born after Karkare’s death). I once stayed for four months in the city when my younger daughter was four months old and the elder one was three. I took them on a ride around the Taj Hotel. We then stopped to have pastry at The Taj. I was aware of the setting. It was a place that the terrorists had touched… The city is not the same without my parents. It brings back memories. It was largely because of my children that I was able to recover from the shock. I could deal with things in a more positive way because of my children.
At home, I have a few wooden artefacts that my father made with his own hands. There is a framed photograph of him receiving the police medal from (then prime minister) Atal Bihari Vajpayee in my living room in Boston. I want my daughters to know their heritage. At times, when I miss him the most, I also open his copy of William Somerset Maugham’s short stories… My mother’s poetry gives me strength. She wrote one on martyrs soon after my father passed away.
What does ‘Bombay’ mean to you, the city where your father lost his life?
When I say ‘Bombay’, what instantly comes to my mind is building sand castles with my siblings and cousins on Chowpatty, collecting seashells at low tide — which meant waking up at the crack of dawn and going to the beach on time to see the receding waters and bringing home buckets full of smelly seashells and storing them in my uncle’s balcony until he was tired of the smell and threw them out. However, little did I know that, all the innocent memories from my childhood, of the seaside in Mumbai would now bear the dark scar of a terror incursion.
Did your father ever discuss the Malegaon case with you?
Those days, even speaking with him for two minutes was a rare occurrence. He was completely occupied with the case. My mom was very worried about the case and its implications. Since childhood I believed that my father was infallible. When he was the Superintendent of Police in Chandrapur, a Naxal region, he would travel long distances in the sensitive terrain to meet Adivasis and take them into confidence. I always thought nothing could happen to him. It is like a small child thinking of their father as a superman, a hero.. or better a He-man! Till the night of November 26, 2008, that is how I thought. My mom, however, always feared for his life. She kept telling me of the terror attacks… It could be a wife’s sixth sense.
On the case, I fully supported his findings. I knew whatever he did would be correct. He was an officer who went by the book. I know him as a daughter… A person like him would always ensure justice. It was always obvious for me… I never vocalised it.
Have you heard about the statement made by the 2008 Malegaon terror-accused Pragya Thakur?
I saw it on social media. My interest piqued because of my father’s name. I would not have probably paid attention to the clutter if my father’s name wasn’t dragged into it. I started reading the responses that came from many quarters… I felt that, not just because Hemant Karkare is my father, but even otherwise, martyrs should always be respected.
He was a straightforward person. In his career — be it eradication of drug use or fighting Naxals — he believed in a grassroots-level approach. In his fight against Naxalism, he believed bullets would never end the problem. He taught us that terrorism has no religion. No religion teaches anyone to kill each other… it’s the ideology that has to be defeated. In his life, in his 24-year career in the police, he helped everyone. Even in his death he was trying to save his city, his country. He loved his uniform and placed it before us and before his own life. I just want everyone to remember that.
I do not want to comment on her (Thakur’s) statement. I do not want to dignify her or her statement. I only want to talk about Hemant Karkare. He was a role model and his name should be taken with dignity.
What do you tell your two daughters?
One day my eight-year-old daughter came home from school holding a printout. It was a picture of Martin Luther King’s granddaughter holding a picture of her grandfather. It was titled, ‘My grandfather was a hero’. I told my daughter that your grandfather was a hero too. I showed her papa’s photographs in uniform. I told her he was a famous police officer. I told her he was very brave. I also showed her some news clippings. I have not told her yet about the terror attack. She is too young to understand it. When papa was posted in Vienna, he and us, the family members, had a red diplomatic passport. I showed her those. I am showing her things which are tangible and which she can touch and understand.
Tell us about Hemant Karkare, the father.
Growing up, I was always the daughter of an Indian Police Service officer. There were frequent transfers, I studied in 10 different schools all over Maharashtra… When I complained about the constant uprooting, my father said that being adaptable was a big asset, which would help me in the future.
Even as a child, I knew his profession was his first calling. I yearned to play an uninterrupted game of chess with him but there were so many demands on his time. However, he always showed up for important occasions such as annual functions at the school. Once, I remember, he was in the middle of an important meeting and was not there when the function started. But when the play I was acting in began, I was heartened to see this tall uniform-clad person in the back of the auditorium. That was my father.
I was surrounded with books while growing up. Once papa got Arthur Koestler’s The Trail of the Dinosaur — Reflections on Hanging home. The book discussed whether capital punishment should be banned, as one could not ignore the chance of an innocent person getting killed. We loved discussing books of all genres. My father was a sensitive man. He thought of things from all angles. He believed in rehabilitation, and our discussions always proved that he believed in second chances.
At home, he was particular about the smallest of things, like exercising every day, even if it was for 15 minutes. When we stepped out of the house, his shirt or trouser didn’t have a single crease. He was always well-dressed. No a single hair was out of place. I learnt that from him — no matter how busy you are, you can always make time for doing things that are important.
Not many people know that he was interested in interior decoration. He liked to arrange things in a certain way, he had a sense of aesthetics. When he was posted in Vienna, he would collect different crystal showpieces. I remember his excitement when he told us about a big Swarovski crystal factory there. All this stemmed from the fact that he had very humble roots and couldn’t buy expensive artefacts then… During his posting in Chandrapur he started learning wood art and created wooden artefacts with his own hands.
But his eternal love was always books. He was the son of a teacher. As a child, he would go to the Ramakrishna Math’s library every day to study. This was a habit he started when he was eight years old. He was a scrawny boy then and once the librarian, a swamiji, didn’t notice that a child was still inside and reading a book. He shut the library and left. My grandmother knew that her son would still be at the library. She went to the Math and got the swamiji to open the library. We still remember her telling us about how ‘this scrawny little boy’ was still sitting there and reading near a light when she came to get him.
My father made sure that all of us read the classics to improve our English and increase our love for literature. My father and I spent many evenings discussing Around the World in 80 Days. His second love was Marathi literature. His education was in the vernacular medium and so he wanted his children to pick up reading in both languages early on. He painstakingly moulded himself to become what he was. He was not born with a silver spoon and he was aware of that.