NEERJA LIVES on in the hearts of her family, friends, colleagues and many who are touched by her courage, selflessness and commitment.
These precious memories were recalled and relived, as a coffee table book, The Neerja I Knew, was released on Wednesday, as a tribute to Neerja Bhanot, a senior flight pursuer, who sacrificed her life while saving many passengers from terrorists on board the hijacked Pan Am Flight 73, on September 5, 1986.
Posthumously, Neerja became the youngest recipient of India’s highest peacetime military award for bravery, the Ashok Chakra.
“This book is a tribute to my younger sister Neerja, who showed the world the true meaning of courage, commitment and compassion. There are 11 chapters in the book with each chapter written by people who knew her and have related many incidents and delightful experiences they had with Neerja,” said Aneesh Bhanot, Neerja’s brother, who has conceptualised and compiled the book.
Aneesh maintains he did not want to do a biography, but a book which would bring out the many aspects of Neerja, her life, personality, relationships. Six of her school and college mates — Vrinda, Sunita, Eli, Naomi, Jabeen and Shantala — have written a chapter each. Wendy, who was her trainer at Pan Am and gave her anti-hijack training, too, has written.
Dharmendra Shah, who was a passenger on the plane and survived the hijack, Akhil Bhanot, Neerja’s elder brother, Atul Kasbekar who has produced film Neerja, have all written a chapter each.
“One chapter is an article written by my father Harish Bhanot in 1986. There were so many beautiful incidents I came to know about Neerja, when I got a response for the book. I made no changes, I let each person share his or her memories and feelings. She was the youngest, and the darling of the family. Our memories are simple and beautiful and this book is the work of the heart,’’ said Aneesh, adding that it took a lot of time and effort to contact people who would share their memories.
The book has a number of photographs of Neerja, and Aneesh hopes that both the book and the biopic Neerja, which releases on February 19, will be an inspiration for the youth, for Neerja stood for principles, never feared anything or tolerated injustice, and gave up her life for what she believed in.
“One of the passengers recalls how and when the four heavily armed hijackers took over the flight, Neerja transformed from a girl to a woman. Setting aside all concern for her personal safety, Neerja identified herself to the terrorists as the crew member in charge. Neerja was a picture of calm, confident leadership. After 17 hours, the hijackers opened fire and set off explosives. Acting quickly, Neerja opened the emergency door and helped the passengers escape. She gave her own life while shielding three unaccompanied American children from a hail of bullets,” said Aneesh.
Meanwhile, a portrait of Neerja, painted by an accomplished artist, will soon be part of the art gallery of the Punjab Kala Bhawan. Neerja will continue to inspire.