The Neerja I Knew

Foreword: The Neerja I Knew

 By Aneesh Bhanot, brother of Neerja Bhanot

This book is a tribute to my younger sister – Neerja Bhanot – who showed the world the true meaning of courage, commitment and compassion.

As the idea of this book took concrete shape, I am grateful to the way her school and college mates responded and agreed to write a chapter each on the Neerja They Knew. Thank you Vrinda, Sushma, Naomi, Eli, Shantala and Jabeen. The nuggets of the big and small incidents and delightful experiences you shared with Neerja are a joy to read and took my brother and me down memory lane. Thank you, all of you, true friends of Neerja.

There were two persons who showed some hiccups and reluctance in writing a chapter each on the Neerja they knew. The first  was my brother, Akhil, who would get ‘stuck’ after writing a couple of paragraphs as the memories overwhelmed him. But, finally, in true Neerja spirit, he overcame his emotions and the results are in Chapter 4.

The second was Dharmendra-bhai, who had been on Pan Am 73 as a passenger on that fateful day. He did not want to relive the memories of that horrible day, as he put it. But, he too overcame his fears and wrote Chapter 11 which is really worth reading for another aspect – the way Indians have been, and are being,  discriminated against by the USA and how the Indian Government has not come to the assistance of its own citizens.

I also thank  Wendy Sue Knecht who was Trainer: In-Flight Supervisor, Bombay base, Pan Am and Author: Life, Love, and a Hijacking: My Pan Am Memoir, for the insights she has given in  Chapter  2.

We have an excellent team which has helped create this book – Thank you, V P Prabhakar, Shanti Bhanot, Pawan Joshi, S Gupta, Jasmeet Dhamija, Sudeep Rawat, Sohan Rawat, Gurjit Singh, A C Gogia, Amit Roy, Aditya Sharma  and Aftab Ali.

I must also request all of you to read ‘About Neerja’ immediately after this Foreword and about the Neerja Bhanot Awards at the end of the book. Do help us get Nominations for the Awards so that they can go to truly deserving people every year. I know Neerja would really love that, because that is The Neerja I Knew.

Aneesh Bhanot
aneesh.bhanot@gmail.com


In loving memory of Rama Bhanot

 After living a grand life, Rama Bhanot left this world peacefully on December 5, 2015. As per her wishes, her body was donated to the PGI. Her caring and compassionate nature and her ability to face all challenges in life with a smile on her face will always be an inspiration for all of us.

© Aneesh Bhanot

All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise

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About Neerja: Courage. Commitment. Compassion.

Courage. Commitment. Compassion.

Three simple words that best personify Neerja Bhanot.

Three simple words that explain why this young and vibrant girl earned world-wide acclaim for her courage and gallant actions.

Three simple words that show how, at the tender age of 23 and just 2 days before her birthday, Neerja laid down her life, while saving hundreds of others.

Neerja was the Senior Flight Purser on a Pan Am flight which was hijacked at Karachi airport by 4 heavily armed hijackers. The pilot and the flight crew, who were American,  fled from the cockpit, leaving the Indian cabin crew  and the passengers at the mercy of the heavily armed terrorists.

Setting aside all concern for her personal safety, Neerja identified herself to the terrorists as the crew member in-charge.

A long, tension – filled ordeal started.  Yet, after the initial fear-filled minutes of the unknown, Neerja was a  picture of calm, confident leadership. She comforted the passengers, especially the elderly and small children.

In an amazing act of courage and compassion for her fellow human beings, she hid the passports of the American passengers  as the hijackers had made it obvious that they wanted to execute Americans. (In the early minutes of the hijack, the terrorists had identified an American passenger, forced him to kneel at the exit, ruthlessly shot him in his head and had kicked his body out on the tarmac.

After 17 hours, the hijackers opened fire and set off explosives. Acting quickly, Neerja opened the emergency door and could have been the first to jump out and run away from the mayhem taking place inside the aircraft, but she decided not to and started helping the passengers escape.

She gave up her own life while shielding 3 unaccompanied American children from a hail of bullets. The life of all three was saved while Neerja lost hers.

Neerja was recognised internationally as “the heroine of the hijack” and is the youngest recipient of the Ashoka Chakra, India’s highest civilian award for bravery. She was also awarded by Pakistan and USA.

In 2004,  India Post released a postage stamp commemorating her. A square called Neerja Bhanot Chowk is named after her in Mumbai’s Ghatkopar (East), which was inaugurated by Amitabh Bachchan. The Civil Aviation Ministry, India conferred an honour on her  posthumously in 2010 in New Delhi on the occasion of the launch of the celebrations of the centenary of Indian aviation.

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Chapter 1: A Father Reminisces
by Harish Bhanot in The Hindustan Times of October 5, 1986

Neerja, the vivacious and valiant senior flight purser of Pan Am was felled by hijackers bullets during the Pan Am holdup at Karachi airport on September 5 1986 – barely 25 hours before her birthday. A year ago, she had written to me, “I will do you proud” and the brave girl has kept her word.

Of late, Neerja was doing a lot of modelling. She had returned from Frankfurt on Tuesday (September 2, 1986) morning. She spent all of Wednesday shooting. On Thursday, she had yet another prestigious assignment. She reported for shooting at 9 a.m. and returned home only around 8 p.m. The hard day did not tell on her, she bounced about saying that she had the “most satisfying shooting day ever with Director Ayesha Sayani”, whom she described as a highly talented professional. She had a light dinner and went to sleep after telling her mother to wake her up 90 minutes before the pick-up call from Pan Am. Her mother was keen that she should telephone Pan Am to get excused because she had a hard day. But a highly duty conscious Neerja did not oblige her mother.

Pan Am informed that the pick-up time will be 1.15 a.m. (Sept. 5, 1986). Her mother had to knock on the door really hard to wake up Neerja. She had the usual cold bath. While she was getting ready, we talked. I asked her how many friends had she invited to her birthday on Sept. 7. She replied, “None” because she would be returning only on Sunday morning. She wished the birthday party to be just a family affair.

I learnt of the Pan Am plane hijacking at Karachi, at a press conference I was attending. I felt uneasy. As I reached my office, I had a telephone call from Mr. Irfan Khan of Hindustan Lever. He advised me to be with him, mainly because his office had better facilities to get the latest information from Karachi.

What happened at Karachi airport? As the terrorists rushed up the ladder to “capture” the aircraft, Neerja dashed to inform the captain in the cockpit. A terrorist, however, caught her by her handy ponytail but she was able to shout the “hijack code”. Another flight attendant who got her code, conveyed it to the cockpit.

Obviously, the cabin crew, including the two pursers, did not know the action the cockpit crew takes on hearing the hijack code. It is now known that the 3-member American cockpit crew – pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer – slipped away, leaving the aircraft, 400 passengers and the 13 member Indian cabin-crew at the mercy of an emotionally surcharged 4-member team of burly terrorists. Since Neerja was the cabin-crew leader, she took over the “command”, as soon as she found that the three seniors (cockpit crew) had deserted them.

Neerja’s notes say that she had to follow up the hijacking warning with 6 steps. In the Karachi situation, she was required to “communicate” with the hijackers. Her smiles, even in deep distress, won a response. She looked after the passengers, within permissible limits. Her smiles were taken as an assurance by the passengers and crew members that the worst was over.

The power generator was running out of fuel and voltage was falling. Then “something” happened. Neerja was standing close to the leader of the terrorists. The light had become very dim. Suddenly, guns began vomiting fire within the aircraft. Neerja jumped to the emergency exit and threw it open.

According to Mrs. Malti Krishnaswamy and other eyewitnesses, Neerja was caught by the leader of the terrorists and shot point blank when she was trying to shield 3 unaccompanied American children from the gunfire. In the dead body I saw bullets had hit her in the abdomen, on the shoulder near the neck and in the arm. When she opened the emergency exit, she could have herself been the first to slide down the chute. But she was the “captain”, who believed that she had to be the last person to quit – alive or dead.

The terrorists guns became silent only after spitting out the last bullet. The cabin crew got together on the tarmac and found the “leader” missing. Two crew members ran back to the aircraft to find a profusely bleeding Neerja at her post of duty. The shock of being hit by bullets did not stop her heart-beat. She had been bleeding, from at least two bullet wounds, for nearly 15 minutes. But she was in her full senses and told her two colleagues to take care of her bullet-hit arm. With a little assistance, she slid down the chute to be received at the other end by another member of the crew. She was helped to walk to the ambulance. But she became a martyr before any medical assistance could help her to survive.

In the normal course of events, Neerja would have been back in Bombay on Sunday, September 7, her birthday. But instead, we collected her coffin from the airport. She, who died so that others could live, was cremated the following day at 11 a.m. amidst chanting of her favourite mantras as we said “Goodbye darling, please keep coming.” The young model had set a model of  her class the world over.

Neerja was a fruit of our long prayers for a daughter. We had two sons and were longing for a daughter. It was Sept. 7, 1963 at Chandigarh – where I was posted at that time. The maternity ward matron rang me up to inform me that we had been blessed with a baby-girl. I was very happy to hear this and gave her a “double thanks”. She thought I had got her wrong and so she repeated “It is a daughter”. I explained to her that the daughter had already 2 brothers and that is why it was an occasion for “double thanks”.

Neerja was a “no problem” child, right from day one. She was a “no nonsense” girl right from the start. She went to Sacred Heart School (Chandigarh). Her family name was “Lado” and I do not think I had called her Neerja more than a score of times in her 23 years.

We came to Bombay in March 1974. She was a student of sixth standard. I took her to Bombay Scottish High School for admission. Everybody had told me that admission would be impossible. But one look at her and that great principal gave a lie to canards that entry into the school was linked with the size of “donation”.

Neerja was a very sensitive, deeply affectionate and an extremely decent person who believed in sharing with her people all her joys but not the jolts. She had well defined principles and there was little room for compromise in that area. Of the 23 years of her life, she had lived 22 years and 10 months under bracing sunshine. The two month long ugly patch was a dowry cloud. Following her ad-based arranged marriage in March 1985, she had gone to the Gulf to join her husband to set up a happy home. But the marriage went sour within two months. She was starved off finance and food in a foreign land and the bright girl lost five kg of weight in two months. She had to borrow money from the husband even to make a telephone call.

Before the marriage, it was made clear that it would be a dowry less marriage. But when she reached the “ordained home” she was told that even a “very poor man gives something to his daughter in marriage”. She came back to Bombay to honour a modelling contract. An ugly letter followed, listing terms for her return, which no person with self-respect could accept. The letter listed a straight formula: accept the humiliating terms without a whimper and return at your own cost or “we will separate”.

The worst was that the letter asked her as to what was she? “You are just a graduate”. The young girl could not pocket this. She applied for a flight attendant’s job with Pam Am. There were nearly 10,000 applications but Neerja Harish easily found place among the top 80. Some of her close friends in Pan Am knew of her marriage mishap. They say that Neerja had been clearly stating that if one day something happened to her, please see that even “his” shadow did not fall on her dead body. The girl with sinews of steel accepted the challenge “what are you” and has told “what she was”.

The Pan Am job was a great success from day one. She went to Miami for training as a flight attendant but she returned home as a Purser. Nothing can, possibly, state her Pan Am stature better than a letter received from her instructor (at Miami), Mr. Keith D. Smith saying: “The courageous manner in which she lived was very evident in the courageous manner in which she died. Shielding 3 small children from danger was a bold, daring and brave act that so dignified Neerja’s personality. She was a wonderful human being. All those who were concerned with her Miami training, including the ‘local mother’, have expressed similar assessment of Neerja.”


 

Chapter 2: Neerja : Leadership at its beautiful best
by Wendy Sue Knecht
Trainer: In-Flight Supervisor, Bombay base, Pan Am
Author: Life, Love and a Hijacking: My Pan Am Memoir

I began a most anticipated career with Pan Am as a flight attendant in 1979, after graduating from the University in Tucson, Arizona. I was a bright-eyed, raring to go flight attendant, eager to take on the world. And take on the world I did – it was a life full of adventure.

I was fortunate to have many Pan Am layovers in Delhi and travellzed to Agra and the Taj Mahal. India was as incredible as I had imagined it to be. Walking through the streets, seeing the magnificent sights and navigating the colourful markets was a thrill. Overflowing with sensory input and flavour, nothing compared to exotic India.

So when the opportunity came up in the winter of 1986 for a special assignment as an In-flight Trainer and Supervisor for Pan Am’s new flight attendant base in India, I enthusiastically took the position. I knew it was going to be a spectacular experience.

What I didn’t realize, though, was just how amazing the new team of flight attendants Pan Am had hired was going to be. They were all individuals of the highest calibre. Among them was Neerja Bhanot,  the cream of the crop, a standout by the recruiting team of Pan Am.

I first met Neerja in London, where we did our in-flight training on the aircraft at London’s Heathrow Airport. We conducted this training in the wee hours of the morning, from midnight to 5 a.m., when we were free to roam around a parked aircraft.  Working these gruelling hours was also the  perfect indoctrination for our new Pan Am flight attendants, who would soon have to learn to handle the airline’s world of topsy-turvy flight schedules.

Neerja, having shown leadership qualities in initial training in Miami, Florida, was chosen to be groomed as a Purser.  The Purser was Head of the in-flight cabin crew and it was a demanding job with great responsibility. Considering that the 747 and its sixteen person crew served almost 400 passengers, a Purser had to be able to handle any situation and think quickly on her or his feet. A Purser had to exhibit grace and calm under pressure.  After the cockpit crew, the Purser was next in line to be in command of the airplane.

Along with her beauty, Neerja was warm, poised and self-assured. Her smile lit up the room and it seemed she was always smiling. It was no wonder that she had been chosen to be a Purser during her training in Miami. Her leadership abilities shone through during our training in London as well. Neerja was exemplary. She was smart, efficient and eager to take on the challenges of her new job, implementing procedures with ease. She quickly earned the respect and admiration of her fellow employees.

Once the flight attendants graduated from training and began their flying careers, my job transitioned to that of  In-flight Supervisor in Bombay. And it was there in Bombay where I really had the privilege of getting to know Neerja. As a Supervisor, I would generally fly one trip a week with a new Bombay-based crew. Our route was from Bombay to Frankfurt and back, with about a 20-hour layover in Frankfurt in between.

I was often assigned to the flights that Neerja was working as the Senior Purser. I was there to advise the crew and help with any questions, although my interactions were mainly with Neerja. As the reader might know, Bombay to Frankfurt is a very long flight, about eight and a half hours.  It was after the passenger service ended, during the quiet hours of the flight when mostly all of the passengers were sleeping, that Neerja and I would sit on the jumpseat and talk… and talk…

The Neerja I Knew was already a courageous woman, with more experiences under her belt than one could imagine for her tender 22 years.  She told me the unimaginable tale of her arranged marriage  and about living in the Gulf with her new husband and his heartless family.  She told me how they would ostracize her during her monthly menstruation cycle, restrict her diet and harass her over money.

Neerja recounted the understanding of her own family, who were mortified to learn of her treatment and helped her flee the horrific conditions in the Gulf, and ultimately, her marriage. She told me how grateful she was for her family, and for Pan Am, who offered her hope for a new beginning. Neerja was full of gratitude and enthusiasm for the chance to start over. As gorgeous as she was, a model with a face known throughout India, Neerja was incredibly humble and down to earth.

When our posting in India ended in the summer of 1986, I returned home to Los Angeles. I was home only a couple of months when I decided to take a six-month leave of absence and return to Bombay.  I was excited to resume the relationships I had forged while in Bombay and I left Los Angeles on September 4, 1986 for Bombay via Frankfurt. I connected with Pan Am Flight 72 in Frankfurt, had a brief layover in Karachi and landed in Bombay at about 3 a.m., on the morning of September 5, 1986.

When I stepped out onto the jetway, part of the crew was there waiting to board the return flight, Pan Am Flight 73 to Frankfurt, scheduled with a stop in Karachi. It was an incredible thrill to see Neerja and the other crew members again. They were all  bright eyed, well-groomed and eager. I hugged Neerja and the others enthusiastically. I felt a great sense of pride seeing these crew members on their own, knowing how capable they were and looking so happy.

What ensued after Flight 73 left Bombay was the unimaginable. Almost 30 years later, I finally wrote about this in my book, Life, Love, and a Hijacking: My Pan Am Memoir.  Subsequent to writing my book, I found a diary I had written at the end of September, 1986  which describes my experience and feelings:

To think the worst would not have been enough. No scenario in my mind could create such horror. The nightmare had only begun to unfold. Within the next 12 hours, 24 would be dead (we found out later the number was actually 20), at least 100 wounded and terror would grip all on that airplane and those who watched.

In the days that followed, a story unfolded unlike one I’d ever dreamt could be possible.  The flight came in from Karachi carrying wounded passengers, dead bodies and unharmed passengers as well. After many a delay, all those things we read about came to life. Neerja’s body was on that plane.

The day of the funeral ,I went to Neerja’s house. I’ll never forget meeting Mr. Bhanot for the first time.  Something in his eyes showed a far away look, as if now he was merely existing in Neerja’s memory.  He said “Look, today I wear her favourite shirt,” pulling on his blue short sleeve cotton shirt that was Neerja’s  favourite. “I always wear this shirt for special occasions, DDD (a loving nickname he had for her -Daddy’s Darling Daughter) would always ask me to. Who would know that I would wear this to receive her in?”

So to walk into Neerja’s overcrowded apartment and to have Mr. Bhanot summon his eldest son, Akhil,  to “take her to see my daughter,” was more than I was ready for.  But there she lay, her body wrapped in pink satin, and flowers arranged all around her body, especially nestled at her feet. She looked as if she slept in a deep and peaceful trance, as she lay there encircled by loved ones gazing at her. It was a trying time for everyone; for most people the reality was just settling in … and here she lay.  Even as I look back, it is still hard to believe that this event has happened and is passed.  The tragedy is too real.

Neerja’s bright, warm and genuine smile is forever emblazoned on my heart and in my mind. It has been a long time, but my life has been enriched by having known her. Her short life had meaning beyond her years on earth.  Nobody ever knows what they are capable of and as a fellow Pan Am employee and friend, I can only say I am so proud to have known Neerja for even a short period of time. I have been forever been inspired by her character, her grace and her bravery.

Perhaps Pan Am Vice Chairman Martin Shugrue, said it best in his memorial tribute to Neerja and her crew :

“….As good as our training may be, and as exacting as our selection process may be, there’s no way in the world, for example, we could set up standards, or invent training courses, that could produce, on demand, individuals of such quality. There’s no way in the world, for example, we could have taught a 22 year-old woman like the Senior Purser on Flight 73, Neerja, how to offer comfort to frightened children in danger of being shot by terrorists. And it goes without saying that there is nothing in our—or any other organization’s — book of instructions that prescribes, or would presume to, that she should, in a magnificent act of supreme generosity and humanity, give up her own young life.”

(Since her career as a flight attendant, Wendy Knecht has been an inventor, on-air spokesperson, and product entrepreneur.

She developed a line of bags called Beyond a Bag, expandable bags  for travel and daily life, as well as a bed- side bag for hospital patients called the KareBag.

She is still travelling, and when on terra firma, Wendy lives in Los Angeles with her husband,Dr. K, and their four-legged furry son, Murray.)

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Chapter 3: My bubbly, fun loving, ever smiling and caring little sister !
by Akhil Bhanot, the elder brother of Neerja. He is  based in Chandigarh and has his own, successful  business.

It was September 5, 1963 when my father’s prayers for a daughter were answered and Neerja came into our lives. He desperately wanted a daughter and he immediately nicknamed her “Lado” which means someone who is loved and pampered.

At that time my younger brother Aneesh was 5 years and I was 8 years old. Lado really looked like a ever smiling doll and became the darling of the family.

As we grew up, our bonding became stronger and stronger with each passing day. Aneesh and I were studying at St Johns School in Chandigarh and Neerja was in Sacred Heart School which was adjacent to our school. We used to go to school together on cycles and she would hitch a ride from Aneesh for going to school and from me while coming back. We used to have great fun on the way but since Neerja was around we would miss out on the great fun others would have like watching the beautiful girls.

She was dominating from the very beginning and would charm you with her smile and always get things done her way. In case we did not listen to her she would tell Dad who would always support her.

We used to stay in Sector 16 and right behind our house there was a rain water drain flowing which we called the Ganda Naala. One day, we brothers discovered that Neerja was a bit in awe and scared of the Ganda Nalla. From that time onwards, we started threatening her that if she did not do the work we told her, we would throw her in it. Aneesh and I were such bullies! This worked beautifully for us for a few weeks … but very soon, Neerja overcame her fears and we were back to square one, with her dominating both of us and we doing her bidding.

Dad got transferred to Bombay in 1974 and  Neerja also shifted with him and joined  Bombay Scottish School in Mahim while Aneesh and I stayed back in Chandigarh to complete our graduation.

After I finished graduation, I shifted to Bombay in 1976 and took up a job. My office was in Fort and at that time Neerja was in St. Xavier’s College. I had a scooter given to me by my company and we would go together in the morning. I would drop her at Xavier’s and move on to my office.

One day while we were crossing Mahim we saw a man mercilessly beating up his wife. Neerja asked me to stop and immediately got down and accosted the man. Though he stopped beating his wife we were shocked when his wife started shouting at us that he was her husband and could do anything with her and who were we to interfere in their life?

That evening I asked Neerja why did she interfere in what was happening.

She replied “He had no right to beat her up like that.” I told her that in case she kept these kind of views it would be very difficult to survive.

She looked in my eyes and said “This life is meaningless. It does not matter whether I live another year or another 50 years, time will pass like this,” and she snapped her fingers to illustrate this point. “So why should I give up my principles for something that ismeaningless?”

In 1977, I got transferred with the same company to Bhilai in Madhya Pradesh and was there for 3 years. Every year Mom and Neerja would spend their vacations with me in Bhilai.

I would pick them up from the railway station in the company car. Once the company car was not available so I took a new Bajaj 3 wheeler from the showroom for a test drive and went to receive them.

Mom and Neerja sat in the 3 wheeler and when Neerja saw me sit at the driver’s seat she broke into laughter. She had an uncontrollable laughter. It started off as a small giggle and soon she was holding onto her sides with tears rolling down her eyes. She got off the 3 wheeler and was soon sitting on the pavement still holding her sides and laughing uncontrollably. A crowd gathered, wondering what was wrong and they too had a hearty laugh.

She had a lot of concern for everyone. She and I were extremely fond of listening to music. We would listen, sing and dance for hours together and would sometimes be joined by her friends and mine.I had a very nice stereo system and would regularly buy Long Playing Records (LP’s) and keep ourselves updated with the latest music. Once, in 1981, I was ill and I mentioned to Neerja about a new album by Nazia Hassan that had been released by the name of “Disco Deewane”. I said I wanted to desperately have it but could not go to buy it since I was ill. Next day was my birthday and Neerja gifted me that album and we sat and listened to it all evening.

In 1986, when Neerja joined Pan Am I was working in Bombay with a company having its Head Office in Faridabad. Every month we used to have our review meeting there. Whenever Neerja’s flight was in Delhi overnight, I would plan my to Delhi visit then.

She and the Pan Am  crew would stay at Maurya Sheraton and I would join Neerja and her crew members at the discotheque “Ghungroo” and we would dance away all night on numbers such as “ Frankie”, “ Part time lover”, “Life is life” and “Tarzan boy”. It was on these outings that I got friendly with her crew members.

I was in my office at Nariman Point, Mumbai on that fateful day of September 5,  1986 when I got a call from my wife informing me about the hijacking. I immediately rushed home to be with the family. It was a nerve wracking day for all of us. My parents kept saying “Knowing her nature I don’t think that there are many chances of her returning.” They had mentally prepared us to be ready for the worst. It was a late night call to Pan Am which informed us that the worst had happened.

Whenever I think of Neerja, I see her sitting on the pavement in Bhilai laughing uncontrollably and that is how I will always remember her as. My bubbly, fun loving, ever smiling and caring little sister.

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Chapter 4: Touched by an Angel
by Vrinda Pandit Kirloskar,  school and college mate of Neerja, now based in USA

It was 2001. I logged in to the internet at work because my husband told me “that a plane had crashed into the twin towers”. I watched, incredulous and horrified, praying that this might be a sad sick joke, or a preview for a James Bond film. And then the second plane mowed into the south tower and the world realized that this was not a freak accident, but a horrific assault. Unbidden, my mind went back to the 1970 ‘s and the vision that broke free from my heart and swam before my eyes was a girl with the warmest hazel eyes. She was tall, probably among the tallest of the girls in our 6th standard class in Bombay Scottish School. She was striking, but more than that something about her was different – she glowed from within. Like a moth to a bright light, I was attracted to her at once and I knew that one day, she would be my friend.

Neerja quickly became part of our little gang. We were a group of four girls, Neerja, Mehjabeen (Jabeen), Eliza (Eli) and me. There were other close friends too – Allison, Jyotsna,  Shirley to name a few. We stayed pretty tightly knit, a group of school girls more interested in running around playing chor-police, hugely involved in our school house activities and not nearly as involved in acing the ICSE exams as we should have been – till the very end.

My first memory of an outing beyond the Bombay Scottish gates was to go to the movies. It was the summer after our 8th standard exams. We all dressed up. Eli and I walked to Jabeen’s house and from there we made it to the train station getting off at Churchgate. Neerja met us there, taking the train from Bandra with her dad. Her dad had probably treated her to ice-cream at Snowman’s which was conveniently located on the ground floor of his office building. We exited at Churchgate and saw her waving to us from across the street with that long, graceful arm, her eyes animated, with her beautiful hair bouncing around her face in reflected joy.

Our plan was to make our way to Strand and sneak in to watch “The Godfather”. All our elder brothers had seen it and it was all they could talk about. So we all dressed up wearing lipstick and high heels just so we could pass off as 18 year olds. We were so relieved when the usher merely accepted our tickets and let us in without a second look. None of us enjoyed or even understood the movie – and felt rather deflated. After we went to college, Neerja and I would sneak out and watch many matinees, stopping at uncle’s office for a Snowman’s cone, but “The Godfather” holds a very special place in my heart beyond the obvious reason of its place in movie making history.

Through all these sweet little incidents that generally make up one’s school years, we stayed friends. Every moment of our time together filled with the long, intimate conversations that comprise girlhood. We took maths tuitions with “mota” Sharma and afterwards I always walked her to the bus stop, eating forbidden bhel-puri, our incessant laughing and chatting continuing right where we’d reluctantly dropped it to focus on maths.

While still in school, she and a boy from her colony had a crush on each other. After we finished our math tuition with Sharmaji – who by the way, forgave Neerja everything – we’d set off for the bus stop. Neerja’s crush would be there waiting for her. A tall, gentle, young man with a shy smile. The three of us would chat until the bus arrived. When it did, the two of them would climb on waving and smiling at me happily. It was all sweetness and puppy love.

After our ICSE exams, my dad was keen for me to go to Sophia College, but Neerja said we should enroll at St. Xavier’s and that’s what we did. One afternoon, we decided to pierce our noses and wandered the market near my house till we found matching silver flowers. And then it was done.

We both got our beloved dogs within days of each other. The puppies were cute, white and fluffy Pomeranians that rolled unsteadily around the floor. We laughed as we watched them tumble to the floor like drunken sailors. We decided to call them both Tipsy – Tipsy Neerja Bhanot and Tipsy Vrinda Pandit.

It was while we were eating bhutta outside the college gate that “Bombay” magazine took her picture and featured her as one of the prettiest girls in Bombay. Neerja asked me to accompany her for her first photo shoot at World Trade Center, Cuffe Parade. We were terribly fascinated by the proprietor of the boutique Paville – a beautiful and sophisticated lady called Mrs. Athavale. Later on, we imitated her clipped tones and the way she’d held her cigarette while she spoke to us, giggling at our rendition of her stylish flourishes. But this little assignment was just the beginning. Her career took off almost immediately and then it became hard to keep up with her schedule. She rapidly became the new “it” girl of the modeling world and gracefully juggled her meteoric career and college classes with humility. She did not miss out on the fun stuff we did either, nor did she change because of the attention she received for her beauty. When people gawked at her, she simply smiled gently at them and moved on.

In retrospect, we were compadres for all our little acts of rebellion. But our coming of age was about to come to a sudden end. Early in 1985, the year we were to finish our BA, we had ridden the train to her house in the afternoon, when she told me about a marriage proposal. I laughed my head off, this was the girl who’d teased me for taking a baking class at Catering College. “What are you going to do with that baking certificate?” she had asked, flashing me that bright smile. “Maybe your future father-in-law will be thrilled!” So when she mentioned the proposal, I threw my head back and laughed.  We’d been listening to her oldest brother Akhil’s record collection. Akhil guarded his collection like a mother bear. We were only allowed to listen if we wiped down the record carefully and replaced it exactly as and where we found it. I had been lost in trying to imitate the riff in Pink Floyd’s “Time” when she mentioned the proposal. I realized that she hadn’t joined me as she usually did and was looking at me with a rather serious expression. As she walked me to the bus stop, I realized that this was perhaps the first time I had seen her this sombre. Even in her gravitas, Neerja was somehow ethereal.

Not long after, while showing me her finds on Fashion Street, she announced, “I’m getting married.”

“You’re too young!” I blurted, “Why?”

She explained how her dad had been impressed by the prospective groom and his sister. They were highly educated and seemed so very respectable. After the “dekho” ceremony, Neerja said that her dad had told her that he would be happy if she accepted this proposal. “I really see no reason to deny my father,” she said. I was rendered speechless. “Hey, you know, you should marry Aneesh. That way we can really be sisters!” she said, trying to cajole me and perhaps herself as well. But after that we fell silent and perhaps for the first time we did not talk to each other when she walked me to the bus stop.

Eli and I attended the wedding, rather dumbstruck. When we got to the venue and made our way up to her room, there she was resplendent and gorgeous. Ready, with not a trace of nerves or jitters. I think Eli and I were more nervous than she was, so I can only remember the wedding as a beautiful blur with the single vivid memory of her dad proudly leading his “Lado” to the mandap and then she was gone. We exchanged a letter or two during her time in Sharjah, but in classic Neerja vein, nothing in her letters hinted at her unhappiness in her new life.

When she returned to honor a modeling contract and to finish her final BA exams, she had lost weight. She attributed it to “caring for her mother-in-law”. But she never complained. It was only after her dad read the humiliating letter that her husband sent her from Sharjah, demanding a dowry and simultaneously denigrating her, that she confided the details of her sad marriage to me. Her dad was adamant that she not return. And once the decision was made, she never looked back again. Only once did she mention that she had been so innocent and young that she had not even realized that she was being ill-treated.

Very soon after, we picked out her outfit for the Pan Am interview. We practiced speaking “American”, and giggled at the memory of the ludicrous college classmate who’d acquired an American accent right after her brother left for New York. She aced her interviews of course and was selected from among several thousand applicants and sent to Miami to complete her training. Needless to say, like everything else she touched, her success at Pan Am was sure and quick. She thrived and was promoted to Purser during her training. When she returned she was her cheery self again. Although I was pursuing my MA while she flew back and forth from Frankfurt, when she returned  I would visit her on my way home from the University at Kalina.  We’d eat lunch together, gorging on her mom’s delicious parathas, rajma and chawal. She loved her mom’s rajma-chawal, as did I. We usually finished up our meal arguing over the cheeni paratha that auntie made for dessert.

We fell into this routine until the summer of 1986 when my father decided to send me to the US to visit my brother. “Fly Pan Am,” said Neerja, “and we can fly together.”So I bought my ticket on Pan Am and I watched proudly as she performed her duties as Purser. I was so thrilled when she brought me dessert from first class. At Frankfurt we parted ways, Neerja went off with the other crew members and I headed off to London to visit with another close friend. “Write and let me know when you’re coming back,” she said as she waved. “Stay on with me in Frankfurt for a couple of days and we’ll fly home together. We’ll be home before my birthday, I hope?” I nodded, “yes” to all of it.

Sometime in August, I wrote Neerja letting her know that I would meet her in Frankfurt on September 5th. I let her know that I couldn’t come earlier, but we would be traveling together to Bombay (as it was called then) and that we’d be home for her 23rd birthday. I have spent many anguished nights running this sequence of events through my mind….would Neerja have boarded that flight if I had not written her? What  if…

My last few weeks in the US flew by, just as the previous few months. I was getting ready to go back home, sorting through sales and buying gifts for my friends, cousins and parents. The day before my departure, we headed to the Indian store to buy saffron. I was peering through the counter and pointing to various boxes while the shopkeeper patiently rattled off quantity, quality and price. I felt a gentle tug at my elbow, “Come check something out with me,” my brother said. His gentle eyes locked with mine, pleading askance. In normal circumstances I might have brushed him off, but when I felt his hand still gently pressure my elbow, I followed him – curious.

Tucked away at the back of the store was a TV tuned to a local news channel. “What is it?” I asked, unable to understand why a plane on a tarmac would be of any interest. Sensing my confusion my brother said, “I think that is your plane, and perhaps your friend is on it?” I remember feeling woolly mouthed and yet somehow sure that the answer to both those questions was “yes.” “I think I want to go back home,” I said. The shopkeeper rolled his eyes as we walked out and said to our backs, “I have the best prices, shop around and you’ll see.”

I don’t know when we reached my brother’s home. But I went straight down to the family room and flicked on the television. The plane was still on the tarmac, a silent behemoth amid the lights and vans. It was difficult to imagine that there were people inside, confused, panicked and completely terrified. The plane just squatted there – ominous, brooding and large. I have blurry recollections of listening to speculation among the reporters covering the event. There were reports about shots being fired inside the plane and confirmed by those coherent enough to speak when they fled the grounded plane after Neerja opened the door. But this was before the era of CNN 24 hour news. And in the US we had no idea of the exact sequence of events. Deep down, I knew that she was hurt. What I do remember clearly is endlessly watching that hulking plane and being frozen and numb during that grueling ordeal. Wishing I was with her and wondering again and again, what if?

In those days there were no direct phone calls to India from the US. You requested the operator to place an international call. My brother called AT&T to arrange it. I could not sleep, eat or think till I spoke to my dad. When we finally connected, he confirmed what I knew, “Are you sitting down? She is gone.”

Pan Am cancelled flights in and out of India for a few days, so I did not make it to the funeral. When I did get on a flight back home, there were perhaps 10 people on board. I had an entire row to myself. I curled up and dozed fitfully most of the way… completely exhausted. Everyone on that plane was acutely aware of why it was so empty and the journey was quiet, no glare of television screens and no bustling flight service. Just folks who absolutely needed to go home and had no other option but to fly.

Somehow, through the grapevine, the cabin crew knew that Neerja and I had been close. Whenever I woke, I found at least one of them sitting next to me. We mourned silently, the language of loss binding us together. I do not remember their names, perhaps we exchanged them. I do however remember their eyes quite vividly. Darkened with pain and reeling from the shock and pain of having lost someone so very precious. It was a surreal experience sitting in the belly of that silent, ghost plane and wondering if she had ever flown in this particular craft.

Time allows us to find explanations that we can accept and in that sense – time heals. But like everything else, time is also a reminder of things past. I cannot go through the first part of September without exceptional weariness and my way to cope with it is to wear a silver flower in my nose and say “happy birthday dear” to the first star I see. For she was born to do special things and streak across the sky like a meteor. My dear, beloved, courageous friend – you had so much more to teach me, but you definitely taught me about courage and love. In the time since, whenever the memory of her stirs, I see those warm hazel eyes, bright and uninhibited smile and know that I was fortunate enough to have been touched by an angel.

We, unaccustomed to courage

exiles from delight

live coiled in shells of loneliness

until love leaves its high holy temple

and comes into our sight

to liberate us into life.

 

Love arrives

and in its train come ecstasies

old memories of pleasure

ancient histories of pain.

Yet if we are bold,

love strikes away the chains of fear

from our souls.

 

We are weaned from our timidity

In the flush of love’s light

we dare be brave

And suddenly we see

that love costs all we are

and will ever be.

Yet it is only love

which sets us free.

Maya Angelou : “Touched by an Angel”

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Chapter 5: An Ode to Courage 

by Sushma Semlani-Gallarotti,a classmate and friend of Neerja  at St Xaviers College. Sushma moved to New York & Boston to pursue further studies and now lives in London, UK.

How many tomorrows would have been lost had she not stepped forward to do something about it  on that fateful day – September 5, 1986. She never saw her own tomorrow going beyond her own fear and anguish and  made the supreme sacrifice of her life so that 375 others, people who she hardly knew, could have a future..

She is my friend Neerja, lovingly called Lado  (the beloved). I first met Neerja whilst we battled the Mumbai monsoons and anxiously waited for our train at Bandra Station. It was June 1980. Our frequent glances at the inaccurate colonial clock on the platform got us talking and we realized that we were classmates at St. Xaviers College, Mumbai. Both of us were working towards a Bachelor in Arts.

This was the beginning of a precious and eternal friendship. We would travel together from Bandra Station to college, shared a Sociology class and like most young collegians explored the city after college.

In 1984 we travelled together for a group sociology trip to the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. Neerja’s adventurous spirit and her love for nature was evident during those two weeks. A memory from the trip, that holds a special place in my heart, was at the Mahaballipuran Chennai. While we strolled the beach we came across a monkey with his owner. When he saw our group most of us stepped back however Neerja approached the monkey who took a natural liking for her and perched himself on her shoulders.

Neerja’s warmth and beautiful smiles won her many friends not just at college but in her professional aspirations as a model. Her humility was a lesson for all. She took the power out of rudeness with kindness. She faced challenges with steel like determination.

After graduating in May 1985, we embarked on the next chapter of our life – Neerja was chosen to fly for Pan Am airlines. She was excited and looked forward to her training at the Pan Am Academy in Florida. On her return to Mumbai, she was elated to have excelled at her training and promoted to a Purser. Despite her hectic flying schedule and my further studies, we stayed in touch and our friendship only strengthened.

My last meeting with Neerja was on 27th August 1986. A catch up was long due, so we decided to meet that afternoon. As she walked through the door I noticed she was glowing. Her face shone like a light. I teased her and asked for her beauty secrets. She smiled. Her birthday was the following week and we made plans to meet and  celebrate. It was never to happen.

I celebrate my friend Neerja. She has been my inspiration through my journey of life. Courageous, kind, free spirited and cherished by all.

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Chapter 6:  Sherni Lado

by Eli. A school mate of Neerja, Eli  works in Mumbai as Dubbing Producer and  Director at Main Frame Software Communications. They take on projects for channels like Walt Disney, Cartoon Network to adapt english series and films to Hindi, Tamil, Telegu or any national or international language. She also takes on theatrical dubbing projects of Walt Disney, Warner Bros and ParamountFilms. Eli is doing  a lot of original animation work for Shemaroo Films, Amar Chitra Katha, Tinkle Comics etc.

We were in 6th grade at Bombay Scottish,  when Neerja came into our class as a new student. A simple girl from Chandigarh, with two long plaits,  a broad smile with dimpled cheeks, her light brown eyes sparkled with naughtiness and glowed in anger, like a sherni. One day the two plaits were gone and woah there was a new Neerja with a short stylish hairdo which turned heads and how!! She became popular, was flattered but didn’t let it go to her head.

I don’t remember how and when we became a group of five – Mehjabeen, Neerja, Vrinda, Shirley and Eliza (that’s me, Eli, to all.) I remember us walking round the old school corridors during breaks, giggling, teasing each other as to which boy was eyeing whom … the usual girl thing.  All of us trying to fit onto one bench in Gambi’s (Mr. Gamelial, our principal) Shakespeare class and ducking under the table to control our laughter when he dramatically said, “… Ceasar beware … the Ides  of March “, meeting up in Vrinda’s house post-school for Maths tuition with Mr. Sharma (whose pet name was matka and who was also our Hindi teacher) and harassing him not to turn up in class the next day for Hindi, so that we would get a free period. These were small ordinary moments which have now become precious.

In our group of five, except for Mehejabeen, four of us were from Anne’s house – Yellow house.  Neerja, Vrinda and I represented our house in Basketball and our school in the interschool Throwball competitions, but Neerja was the most agile. She represented our house in Gymnastics too and won the event.

As a person she was traditional as well as modern, but without crossing the line. She was gutsy. I can still hear her saying, “What crap! If I was there I would have slapped him. No, no, no, you musn’t get scared yaar, if you are right why should you get scared?”

One would have thought being in a co-ed school, with a beautiful personality she would have many boyfriends … but no, she knew that would not be accepted. She did like someone whose name I forget, we called him “Eclair” as he would give her éclair chocolates whenever they met, but she kept it only to a friendship level.

Once out of school we went to different colleges and met occasionally for lunches and birthdays. Just after graduation she got married and I was left wondering how a girl so smart, who had a lot to achieve, had agreed to settle down in marriage so early. With her it was always family first. She was their Lado, her dads ‘agyakari beti’. She was also very close to her brothers  who we used to meet often, whose personality was similar to Neerja – happy and full of life .

Post her marriage and later, divorce, I did not get a chance to meet her. In 1986, I joined an advertising production house and was looking forward to working with her at some point. Unfortunately it was not meant to be … I saw her last in Sept. 1986, clad in a red bridal saree, looking as beautiful as ever. I was in  a state of shock … as were so many of us. Time flies and it has been 29 years … at times it feels so long ago, and at times, as though it were yesterday.

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Chapter 7: My sweet friend Neerja

by Naomi Netto Kennedy, Neerja’s college mate, now based in London

When I think of Neerja, it is always that Smile and those beautiful dancing eyes. When people talk about Neerja, I just picture that Smile and her laughter.

Neerja was highly caring and very considerate. I remember the time when we used to travel on the train from Bandra to Marine Lines to Xaviers. We were a group of us and had fun times. I used to  tell Neerja how gorgeous and beautiful she was, always had heads turning. She had this special thing … so beautiful a face you cannot forget.

One day, she showed me her portfolio/modelling pictures … she looked so lovely and I remarked ‘If only I could look like this’. The next thing I knew was that she booked me to have my pictures  taken by the same photographer  at Tardeo. That was Neerja –  so kind and considerate and caring.

I was so touched when she arrived at the studio that day. I was not expecting her to come as she was busy,  but  she stayed the entire day,  retouching my make-up.  It was a long day and on several occasions I told her that she did not have to wait, as I knew she had a modelling assignment the next day … but being Neerja she waited till the end with me. Always kind, thinking of others first.

The other thing I remember was going for the Pan Am interview. I came to Neerja’s house in Bandra and she did my make-up so patiently. I asked her ‘Hey, you have to still get ready too,’ and she just simply stated, ‘Don’t worry.’ Again, thinking of others first. I was so nervous before the interview and Neerja kept on encouraging me saying you will be fine. I remember when we both got the job offer so clearly. Sadly, I never took it up.

Neerja loved animals. I recall when she told me her dogs name was Tipsy and I said mine was Boozey. She and I were in hysterics. We were always talking about the tricks and antics these two got up to.

And then, the hijack. Where have you gone, my brave, sweet friend?

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Chapter 8: Full of fun, love and laughter

by Jabeen Merchant, a school mate of Neerja, now based in Australia

Where do I start and what do I write about “The Neerj a I Knew”

I first set eyes on this amazing girl in year 7, at Bombay Scottish School

We both clicked straight away and become really close friends. Our passion in sports got us even closer. We both played for the school basketball and throw ball team. She was girl full of fun, love and laughter.

After we graduated from school we moved on to different colleges. But we were always in touch. I was part of everything that happened in her life. Her marriage, her modelling and her airline career.

When she got into the airlines, she excitedly called me and told me about her new job. “This is not for you Neerja, don’t do it” I said to her. But she was determined and said ” I love meeting and helping people” and this is what she actually did before she departed from this world.

Her death was a big shock to me, took me a long time to get over it. I am blessed to have been able to be a part of her life before she went to rest in eternal salvation.

Over the years she has still been a part of my life even though she departed. She always comes in my dreams whenever I’m low and gives me that moral support.

I miss my best friend dearly, but the friendship we had will never be forgotten until we meet again. Death can’t take away my admiration for Neerj a. She has been a great student, a classmate and a friend. Her legacy and the moments we shared will forever be tattooed in my heart.

May her soul rest in peace. I firmly believe that God would have accepted her with open arms for all the good she has done while she was on this earth.

Love you always !

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Chapter 9: Carefree Days

by Shantala Kothare, a school mate of Neerja, now based in Mumbai is a Visiting Teacher in Economics at the Aditya Birla Works Academy.

Neerja Bhanot. The name stirs memories of carefree days. Days of after-school-games, of sports, gossip, classmates and essentially enjoyable days in school.

Neerja was in my 10th standard class. We sat in the same row with one bench separating her bench seat from mine and I was always conscious of her liveliness and verve.  She was spunky, bubbling with laughter and beaming with energy. Her energy was infectious. It spread around the class and followed her like Mary’s little lamb where ever she went. Her face would always be beaming with oomph, her dimples lending a whole new gamut to her charm and personality.

She might have seemed light hearted and giggly to someone who didn’t know her well enough, but that was certainly not how she was. She had the extraordinary ability to laugh when she was the butt of a joke or when she was teased about something. A quality that is very exceptional with school children.  As I got to know her, I only grew to like her better. She was an intense and passionate girl. Beyond her smile and outward appeal, a whole new magical world opened as she softened to talk in depth about things you couldn’t imagine. She had the ability to smile in the face of trouble and walk with her head held high. I hardly recall her sad or teary eyed. She seemed to have a solution to all the problems that we as students had to deal with.

When we left school we parted ways and made new friends. She dabbled very successfully in a modelling career whilst still in college. Almost as soon as college was done, she was married, but the marriage ended soon, due to demands of dowry.

Although I did not speak to her about this, it was not in Neerja’s nature to fall prey to the demands of dowry or to play second fiddle in a marriage. Soon after she returned to her parents’ home she interviewed for a job with Pan Am, and though she had  joined to train as an air-hostess, she swiftly rose  the ranks and started off as a Purser.

When I heard that a Pan Am flight had been hijacked, a sense of fear gripped me. Two of my friends were working with Pan Am.

When I heard that Neerja had been injured and killed on that flight, I was in disbelief. I could not believe that the news was true. The news did not sink in. Not for a while. I did not want to accept it. But it was all true.

Neerja had been on duty aboard that ill fated Pan Am flight in September 1986, which had been hijacked by terrorists. Her actions on that day were well beyond the call of duty as she bravely stayed back to protect the passengers. She had tried to save every one of them from the terrorists by letting open the emergency door. Whilst she had tried saving some children, she had received the fatal bullets of the perpetrators and had succumbed to her injuries.

It is apparent that she had tenderness within her being. This exposed itself amply in the spirited compassion of her last defiant act of valour. She set duty above everything, placing in its highest degree, a reverence for honour and courage. Whilst most people look for extending their lives or to challenge the question of certainty of death, this was not the case with Neerja. Though I wasn’t present, I can sense that Neerja faced her death with equanimity and guts, almost welcoming it with the composure, poise and self-control that she had handled her life.

——————————————————————————————————————————– Chapter 11: Never tolerate any injustice

by Dharmendra Shah, a passenger on Pan Am Fight 73 on that fateful day, Dharmendra Shah was based in Ahmedabad, but unfortunately passed away after this book was published.

I think out of all the people who are writing about the Neerja they knew, I would have probably  known her for the shortest time – 17 hours to be precise – but those hours were surely the most important hours of my life! They marked a ‘before’ and ‘after’ in my life and I am glad that even if I never really got to interact with her, we weren’t close friends who hung out with each other or spent a lot of time  together… still,  our paths crossed and I got this  chance to write about ‘The Neerja I Knew.’

When I saw Neerja  for the first time, I was barely 22 years old and had boarded  Pan Am  Flight 73 all excited as this was  my first ever journey to the United States of America. Neerja  was a flight attendant on that flight in which I was travelling with my Group – Aavishkar.

In our times, we were not very exposed to technology and stuff but  from all the TV, magazines and hoardings that I had seen, I had this image in my mind of how a perfect air hostess would look like. Neerja was every bit of that image put in front of me. A good looking, dashing and confident girl who was there in the flight with full zeal and enthusiasm !

From Mumbai to Karachi, she was moving around in the flight with the other air-hostess, serving all the passengers with a broad smile on her face. Our flight was just  like any other flight, but things changed drastically once  it was hijacked at Karachi Airport ! To be honest, in a matter of seconds, I saw the bubbly and cheerful expression on her face turn into a thoughtful and serious one. The smile was suddenly buried under deep layers of thought and apprehension of what could happen next !

However, very quickly and within minutes, Neerja  regained her  full compsure. I saw Neerja turn from an apprehensive girl to a strong woman, who, instead of losing her mind in panic took charge of being with the passengers in a situation which was in no one’s hands.

When Neerja came to know that the main target of the hijack were the American citizens, she used her presence of mind at such a critical moment and took charge. She collected the passports of all the American citizens and hid them so that it became difficult for the hijackers to separate Americans from the other passengers.  This, in the final analysis, saved the lives of the Americans. She did this at a very grave risk to her own life, because if the hijackers had found out what she had done, they would have surely shot her dead there and then.

After 17 hours into the hijack, came that  time when the hijackers opened fire, hurled hand grenades  and there was bloodshed all around.  Screams and cries were heard from all sides of the aircraft.  But even in an extreme situation like that, Neerja was exactly where she was supposed to be… on her duty! As soon as she got a chance, she opened one of the emergency exits of the flight but she herself did not escape from the situation – she instead tried to help as many passengers she could to move out of the plane. While the firing from the hijackers did not stop, she took her last breath while shielding 3 kids from the bullets!

I was lucky to have jumped out of the plane through the emergency exit! Two members of our Group – Trupti Dalal and Rupal Desai – were not so lucky and lost their lives.

If I have to summarize what sort of person Neerja was, I would connect her with two words: Commitment and Dedication!

I am proud of the fact that the Indian Government, America and Pakistan took note of her contribution to humanity and conferred her with various prestigious awards.

But there is one thing that pinches me as an Indian…

“Is the value of an American life more in comparison to that of an Indian?”

“Is the loss that a family of an Indian faces on a loved one’s death any different than what one feels in the United States?”

It was an Indian air hostess, Neerja, who hid the passports of the American citizens which helped save their lives in the early hours of the hijack. When the hijackers started  firing indiscriminately and bullets were flying inside the aircraft, it were the Indians who had the maximum casualties and injuries. While the attack was by a terrorist group against American assets and American citizens, it was the Indians who became cannon fodder.

So, when citizens of all countries were treated equally during the mayhem in the flight, why were Indians discriminated against when monetary compensation was being awarded by the US Government?  When the bullets that were fired by the terrorists slammed into a person, they did not ask him what his nationality was. The streams of blood that spewed out into the plane looked the same of all

Why does our Govt. keep  silent against USA even though it has discriminated against Indians?

And, as important, why has our Indian Government not seriously taken up the cause of Indians and just maintained a  studied silence against the USA, when the American Government compensated only the 40 odd Americans on board that aircraft. And, USA  did this very, very recently – in the period 2009- 2014. That’s right, just 3-4 years ago. At a time when we are looking forward towards a global scenario and we claim that Indians can look at anybody in the world  in the eye,  walk with our heads held high and with pride that we are Indians, why has not the Indian Government, or any  Indian politician or bureaucrat  stood by the side of its  own citizens in their fight for justice ?

Neerja used to say – Do not tolerate any injustice… that was The Neerja I Knew. And so, we will continue to demand our rights and it is high time that the American and Indian governments took notice! We would welcome any help that anyone can give us in our pursuit of justice and can be contacted at justiceforindians73@gmail.com

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 Neerja Awards: Call  for Nominations

A Trust has been set up in memory of Neerja Bhanot – the Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust. The Trust is keeping the memory of Neerja alive by reflecting, in its objectives and actions, two main and basic features of her character:

  1. Do your duty, come what may, AND
  2. Never tolerate any injustice and never compromise on self-respect.

The Trust has instituted 2 main Awards of Rs. 1,50,000 each:

Award A (Rs. 1,50,000): The Award goes to an Indian woman subjected to social justice, on counts such as dowry, desertion etc., who faces the situation with guts and grit AND then makes a success of life by assisting other women in similar social distress.

Award B (Rs. 1,50,000): The Trust honours an airline Crew Member, on a world wide basis, who acts beyond the call of duty in a difficult situation.

Nominations, on plain paper, in English or Hindi, can be sent by anybody (including self-nominations) with as much as supporting evidence as possible. All eligible nominations are thoroughly screened and back-checks done.

There is no nomination or any other sort of fees.

Nominations are accepted round the year and can be sent to Mr. Akhil Bhanot, Managing Trustee, Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust, 3727, Sector 46 C, Chandigarh or e-mailed to aneesh.bhanot@gmail.com

The Trust does NOT accept any donations, whatsoever.

 

 


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