Mumbai 26/11: Can never forget the day I lost my dad, says martyr Pankaj Shah’s son Sarjan

thumbTaj hotel on fire after terrorist attack on November 26, 2008. (TOI photo)
November 26, 2008:

Wild gun shots that come nowhere strike Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the Oberoi Trident, the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower, Leopold Cafe, Cama Hospital, the Nariman House Jewish community centre and the Metro Cinema. The policemen lean out long enough to fire grenades into the air above the street, this time the pickup trucks are loaded with policemen and the casualties, but nothing can be seen. Why are the sounds of the bullets and grenades and uncontrollable screaming and crying of people gracing my ears with a fierce hum? The city is lying in a pool of blood with bodies of citizens and martyrs who laid down their life in the service of this country.

November 26, 2016:

The shrieking terror of rage and wrath that assailed the city this day eight years ago, is deeply etched into the memories and hearts of a billion people. The dreadful attack will neither be forgiven nor forgotten. The best of words cannot express our feelings, such was the palsy of terror.

On the tragedy’s eighth anniversary, Mumbai Mirror spoke to Sarjan Shah, son of Pankaj Shah, who was found dead at Oberoi. Shah’s wife Kalpana runs Tao Art Gallery at Worli. As per reports, Pankaj, who owned the real estate company Satellite Group, was not even scheduled to be at the hotel. He was on his way to Delhi but turned around from the airport as he was asked to be an arbitrator for a property dispute and the conference was held at Oberoi. Pankaj is survived by wife Kalpana and two children son Sarjan and daughter Sanjana.

Sarjan Shah, 27, recounts the pain and how his family has tried to come to terms with the loss. In his own words:

The leavings of a forgotten tragedy are often insidious rather than obvious, its effects subtle, pervasive and largely life-altering if unobtrusive. I haven’t been able to forget 26/11 for a single moment in the close to 2,920 days that it has been since ten Pakistanis began their merciless slaughter in Mumbai. Losing the pillar of strength of our family – our father and husband, breadwinner and guide – was too much of a shock in and of itself for the three of us to bear.

In the years between 2008 and 2014, I remember feeling not only the personal angst of a young man rudderless in a tough world, but also the collective angst of a country bereft of leadership due to corrupt and ineffective governments in both centre and state. I could see and feel that nothing had changed, that if the Pakistanis really wanted to they maybe just needed to get back on a dinghy in Karachi and motor their way across to our western coast in order to strike once again. It galled me. It seemed as if Dad’s personal loss was to be in vain. Perhaps things have changed in the last two plus years.

On the personal front, my sister was only 13 when she lost her father and has found it incredibly challenging to accept life in an even smaller nuclear family – being the youngest one, Mum and I had to often keep her in the dark about the challenges we were facing in the aftermath of the attack and she’s ended up becoming incredibly strong and independent at a very young age. I wish I could give her a happy teenage back, I know I never can.
I was 19 and I’ve lost eight years of my life (I’m 27 now) in trying to protect my father’s legacy instead of focusing on my own career or pursuing my own goals. When 26/11 happened, I was an undergraduate student at the London School of Economics and there were ‘friends and well-wishers’ who also had interests in Dad’s business who were quick to advise me to forego returning to college to graduate and instead immediately join the family business. Fortunately, Mum was like a rock on that point and was insistent I complete my education. Today, eight years later and despite having put all of my plans on hold, there are so many pressures on me to ‘be’ my father, and to continue to operate a business that I little understand – it is as if everyone’s forgotten that the only reason I took on the mantle of responsibility is that a Pakistani terrorist’s bullets had ripped through my father. Despite these challenges, I’m proud that I’ve protected his legacy while also completing degrees from LSE, Harvard and Cambridge between 2008 and 2016.

Perhaps the most inspiring thing in the last eight years has been Mum. Strongest of us all, she should have been the weakest, the most affected: after all, in her golden years when her children are grown up and independent, she’ll have no one with whom to cherish memories. Her great love story with Dad came to an abrupt and heart-shattering end. Instead, she has been the rock of strength for me and my sister, always laughing, always positive, always looking to move forward and take life’s various setbacks on the chin. I salute her for her strength and forbearance and the dignity with which she continues to be the head of our family.