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An old man, an Ima and 'green chili pickle' woman
The images of the Mumbai horror may have faded away from the television screens but the same cannot be said of the images that plague the hearts and minds of the people who watched the nation's agony for over three days
WEEKS HAVE passed since the horrific attacks on Mumbai’s heart and soul. From the very moment that I first caught the ’breaking news’ on television, on the night of November 26, things seem to have been both frozen in time and also ironically, in fast-forward mode.

As a nation we were forced to do everything simultaneously; grieve the lost ones, worry and pray for those trapped inside the hotels, tend to the injured, conduct the last rites of those that fell to the terrorists bullets, keep a vigil in front of the attacked hotels and Nariman House and all this while the nation’s best were still engaged in a bloody struggle with the terrorists holed up inside the hotels, with the hostages.

So much has happened over those three agonising days and night and so many heart searing images flashed on the television screens, the Internet and the newspaper that it seemed the only way to cope was to keep the grief and the shock on hold and concentrate on getting through the tragic days. This seemed as true for Mumbaikars as it was for those of us who watched the horror on television. Ordinary people pitched in to help in any way they could to help the security personnel and the media. Those far-away blogged, held vigils, and prayed to show their solidarity with their stricken brethren in Mumbai.

Some of us, far-away knew a person or persons who were directly caught up in the Mumbai horror and therefore, were intent on catching every little bit of information we could find. Even if we didn’t, we just prayed for everyone from the families of the fallen police personnel to the injured of the Chhatrapati Shivaji terminus and the trapped hostages of the Taj and the Oberoi. We prayed for the Jewish people at Nariman House and we prayed for the safety of our NSG commandos.

Then after almost 70 hours of trauma, broadcast live to us, there was an almost eerie silence as the nation counted its dead and the lucky survivors rejoined their loved ones. The next two weeks went by in a blur of protests, candlelight vigils, emotional placards, TV debates and soul searching by everyone.

Now the wheels of diplomacy, military options and politics are churning overtime as our nation’s leaders try and decide how best to get the message across to Pakistan that they may be okay with Talibanisation of their society but it is not an option for the pluralistic ethos of India and that we will do whatever it takes to turn back the tide of this religion-based fanaticism that Pakistan has been nurturing in the hope of using against India.

As an ordinary individual, who was a witness to this national crisis (even though via the television), I am done for the moment with it all. There is weariness to the soul and those images that seared my heart and mind for 70-long hours are now clamouring to be understood and their significance internalised and understood. But which image do I pick?

There is this vast montage of horrifying images that plays continuously in my brain. What do I pick out of the lot? The flames and smoke spewing out of the Taj dome, the blood spattered floor of the Shivaji Terminus, the people tripping and falling on the road outside as they tried to take cover from the bullets, the taxis blown to smithereens, the ghoulish image of Kasab caught on CCTV, in which he seems to be grinning as he rains death on innocent people, the inconsolable mother of police cop, Salaskar at his funeral, the quiet dignity of Karkare’s wife, the forlorn young widow with an injured three-month baby (Sheetal) in the hospital, the agonised faces of relatives as they waited for news of their loved ones held hostage inside? What do I pick out of this and try to understand?

As I struggle with this montage, three images keep jumping out at me again and again. These are pictures that everyone of my fellow citizen’s is sure to have seen. First is the image of a policeman holding an old man’s hand and leading him to safety across the blood and baggage strewn floor of Shivaji Terminus. The man is old and walks with a stoop. In the shot we just see his back but that one picture captures both the good and the ugly of this incident and our nation. We, in this nation, largely respect and look after our old people and this act of the cop of leading a frail old man to safety captures that aspect of our ’Indianness’ as nothing else could. That the floor is blood spattered, tells the story of our country’s troubles at many levels.

The second image comes with a heart rending wail. It is the image of the Israeli child, Baby Moshe, in the arms of his Indian nanny, Sandra at the funeral of his parents both of whom were tortured and brutally killed by the terrorists at the Nariman House. As his grandfather begins to say the Jewish prayers, Moshe breaks into a plaintive cry, “Ima, Ima” (’mummy’ in his language). The gathered crowd goes silent and not a single eye remains dry. They collectively grapple to understand the turn of events that has dealt Moshe with the cruelest of all blows; the loss of both his parents at the tender age of 18 months. He is soothed only when his nanny hugs him even tighter and covers him with comforting kisses. Here again the evil of this world is juxtaposed against the total devotion and unconditional love of Moshe’s nanny. Love prevails, love heals, even if slowly.

Last, I come to the ’green chili pickle’ woman. Many months ago I had watched a short cookery programme on an Indian channel. It was just a short clip between programmes but what caught my imagination was the joie-de-vive of the cook as she demonstrated how to make a green chili pickle. This was no ordinary cook making an ordinary pickle in modest quantities. This was a vivacious woman with large kohl rimmed eyes who was mixing all sorts of fiery ingredients in the largest kadai I have ever seen on a cookery show. She laughed and joked in a self-deprecating manner with the hostess of the programme and her love, for all things edible, shone in her eyes. Although I did not know it then, this was Sabina Sehgal Saikia, The Times of India food critic who paid the ultimate price on the 6th floor of the Taj Hotel.

Over the next two days as the media reported about her family’s frantic search of hospitals and morgues to trace her I came across her picture and knew she was the ’green chili pickle woman’. She was one amongst the hundreds caught up in the dreadful events but my mind chose to focus on her image as I prayed for all of them. I kept praying that she would come out of this alive and return to give me one more recipe in her inimitable style. Somehow, I felt that if I kept it simple and prayed hard enough all would turn out well. It was not to be so for Sabina and her anxious husband, brother and children were left to face the dreaded reality of her joyous life snuffed out. Sabina is gone now but from the tributes given to her by those who knew her, one comes to know of a woman who loved life in all its hues and who spread cheer wherever she went. For me the smile of the ’green chili pickle woman’ lives on through the pickle I made last week from her recipe. The spice brings tears to my eyes and the taste makes me smile through those tears.

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