26/11: In pain, these survivors found strength to move on

Mumbai: The 26/11 attacks tore apart countless families, leaving behind survivors with deep emotional scars. It was easy to become bitter and look back in anger. But Manoj R Nair and Yogesh Pawar found many who have channelised their grief into a positive wave of effort to improve the lot of others:

There are documents strewn all around. An insurance agent explains things “in an easy way” for her to understand, but Ragini Sharma’s eyes glaze over. She stops midway and stares into space. Two years after her husband and head ticket inspector Sushil Kumar Sharma fell to bullets fired by militants on her son’s birthday, she admits she will always be “the unwilling working mother”.

Her husband’s death changed Ragini’s life forever. The former housewife has been given a job by railway authorities at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus station, the same place where her husband was killed.

“When he was alive, I barely stepped out of the house. I only had to say I need something for the house and he would go out of his way to get it. But now I have to attend to all the procedures and paperwork,” she said, exasperated. As her family gathers around, she dabs her eyes and forces herself to smile at her younger school-going son Aditya.

Yet, Ragini is not weak; far from it, in fact. She has used this pain and bereavement to fuel her desire to reach out. “The Railways could offer me a job on compassionate grounds only because I am a graduate. I realise the value of education and feel this is of utmost necessity,” she said.

It was with this realisation in mind that she started a foundation in her late husband’s Sushil Kumar Sharma’s name. “We have always been a working class family. Our needs are few. Thanks to the job and some support from the extended family, we’ve been able bear the children’s education expenses,” she explained, adding, “We just pooled all the compensation money that came in to create a corpus. I was thinking of a noble cause to use the money for so that he will be happy, wherever he is.”

Last year, the foundation began funding students from marginalised and poor backgrounds. “We have decided to implement this project for rural children from Gwalior, where we hail from, and those in Kalyan, where we live,” she told DNA. The foundation has funded the tuition fees of over 30 students so far.

American mid-western housewife Kiia Scherr, who started a self-help and support group One Life Alliance, along with other 26/11 survivors, empathised with what Sharma is going through. Scherr lost her 13-year-old daughter and husband in the attacks.

“Being there for others when they need support connects me to them. It may not bring closure, because I don’t think that will ever happen. But I know that wherever they (her family) are, they would want me to do this,” said Kiia. She still remembers the last time she spoke to her daughter Naomi, who had called her to tell her about the new nose ring she had bought.

The 13-year-old sent her mother a picture before she and her father Alan were killed at the Tiffin restaurant at the Oberoi hotel. The Scherrs, readers may recall, were two of the six Americans who died in the 26/11 attacks.

“I have steeled myself into accepting it. Otherwise, life is too miserable. So, I have to accept it, because I don’t want to crawl into a dark hole for the rest of my life,” said Kiia.

Kiia, who has been in Mumbai since American president Barack Obama’s visit, met Obama at the Taj on November 6, along with other survivors of 26/11. “I thanked him for the condolence letter he wrote to me after the attacks,” said Kiia, who has given ‘moving on’ a completely different meaning by asking that gunman Ajmal Kasab not be given the death penalty but life imprisonment instead.

Scherr has met families of those who lost their lives in the attack. “I have never favoured the death penalty. More killing does not solve anything. Kasab should remain in the Indian prison system for life. I will always favour rehabilitation and education,” she insisted.

Other survivors of the terror attack, like travel and hospitality writer Bhisham Mansukhani, feel the tragedy was a life-changer. Mansukhani was attending a wedding reception with his mother at the Taj on that fateful Wednesday night when the terrorists entered the hotel.

The electricity was switched off and the guests huddled in the darkness. In the early hours of Thursday, when the group tried to leave, they were shot at by the terrorists. A man was badly injured, and while a doctor bandaged him, there was nothing more they could do than watch him bleed.

“In the past, when things went wrong, I would dwell into the reasons. Now, I prefer to think that is how things were meant to be. Had any of the random decisions I took that night been wrong, I would have been dead,” he said.

Mansukhani has begun work on a pressure group to lobby for an emergency management system for victims of terror attacks and other such situations. He says that while traumatised survivors from such tragedies in other countries would be given medical checks and counselling, he and his old mother were made to a wait at a police station after they were rescued.

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