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'Killing those people was such a wrong thing'

November 09, 2009 16:28 IST
Nariman HouseVaihayasi Pande Daniel meets a hero and survivor of the 26/11 attacks, struggling to keep mind and body together.

He is frail. A soft-spoken, polite boy. Just 23.

When he talks, in an emotionless, impassive tone, you are touched by the depression weighing blackly in his head. And expressed through dark soulful eyes.

"I have lost weight. I am much thinner now. I cannot eat. I feel the course of my life has been disrupted. It has twisted, gone off track. For no explicable reason I feel scared -- a lot of ghabrahat (unease)."

"So many grim thoughts sit in my head. And they have not really gone away. Any loud sound -- like the Diwali firecrackers -- disturbs me. And it brings back memories of that time. I have terrible dreams where the whole thing re-occurs."

Across a marble table, over a Pepsi, in a restaurant in south central Mumbai, Faiyaz Mohammed*, the Assamese boy who worked at Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg's Nariman House home in Colaba for two years, updates you, reluctantly, on the worst year of his life.

"I have not had the money to see a doctor to sort out this ghabrahat I feel," he says matter-factly. "My mother's not been well so I have to attend to that first."

Since his dramatic escape from Nariman House on November 27, a day after the Mumbai terrorist attacks began, with the Holtzbergs's nanny, Sandra Samuel and their son, Moshe Holtzberg, Mohammed's life has been in dark turmoil.

For all of December 2008 he hung out around Nariman House. "I helped clean up Chabad House. The rabbi's father (Rabbi Nachman Holtzberg) offered to take me to Israel. But my mother was not well and I did not want to go. Initially I just made the rounds of Chabad House. But it was difficult. I had no money. And no job. I was staying at Sandra's rented home because she had left by that time for Israel with Moshe. Then in January I went home."

Home for Mohammed is Bhanga Bazaar in the mostly rural, densely-populated and backward southern Assam district of Karimganj. His mother Fatima still lives there as does two brothers and two sisters. His father, a construction worker, died five years ago.

His family does not own land in Bhanga although the little town is surrounded by rice fields, and it has been a struggle for Mohammed, the youngest, and his brothers to maintain the family.

His elder brother Aftab left Bhanga five or six years ago and found work in a shop in Mumbai near the city's famed Crawford Market. That led Mohammed to also migrate. He first headed to nearby Kohima, Nagaland, where he got a job as a cook. Later, some time in 2004, he followed his brother to Mumbai where he found work in a small provision shop in Colaba, south Mumbai as a delivery boy earning a more respectable Rs 3,000 a month.

The shop would often deliver groceries to the Holtzberg home, located just about five minutes away, through a few haphazard lanes, in Colaba Market, and he learned from another delivery boy that they were looking for a cook.

Mohammed applied and was hired.

"Gavriel and Rivka liked my work. They said I was clean and quick. Rivka taught me to cook. Sandra knew some cooking too. They paid me Rs 4,000 and gave me a place to stay and food. Initially I began with cleaning, then I learned cooking and how to do their Sabbath food. They always had a lot of tourists over. All the time. Till then I had never seen a Jewish person."

Mohammed's trip home to Assam in January, after the killings at Nariman House, was unavoidable. His mother needed to see him to reassure herself that he was okay. "She has always has been sickly. And after 26/11 the ghabrahat just ruined her health further. My brother initially thought I was dead. He had heard that everyone had died at Nariman House. It was only when I called him on the 27th that he realised I was alive. My mother only heard the news a few days later but was very upset."

After spending a month in Assam, where he was welcomed as a returning hero for his role in rescuing little Moshe, Mohammed came back to Mumbai. "Being in the village is all fine, but there is no way to earn money there. I needed a job so I had to go back. I kept asking one of Gavriel's friends for a job." His persistence paid off and the friend landed him in a job in a bakery attached to a restaurant.

The bakery is located in south central Mumbai. Mohammed continues to live in rented accommodation and starts his day between 3.45 am to 4 am. The salary is decent but some of it gets deducted towards provident fund and other benefits. Managing on his take home pay can be difficult because of his larger financial responsibilities.

"I have money issues. In spite of being interviewed by every newspaper/media house -- you name it -- American, London, Israeli, Indian and being offered help, nobody has actually helped me. I have my mother's health to look after. I have to send money home because neither of my brothers over there earns much. My brother here earns less than me." It seems the second hero of Nariman House is virtually unknown, unrewarded.

On the face of it Mohammed's life is moving along uncomplicatedly, peacefully. But he is unable to shake the bleak thoughts and forbidding memories that inhabit his head.

He can narrate, after giving well over 50 interviews to the press, every last detail of that fateful night.

"It was 9.45. Dinner was over and they (the Holtzbergs) had gone up at about 9. Sandra and I were on the first floor in the kitchen cleaning up and putting food in the fridge. A man appeared on the 2nd floors landing suddenly and shouted 'Kaun hain' at us. And he started shooting and threw a grenade at us. He was about five feet in height. With a thin face. And was wearing green pants and a yellow and green shirt. He was holding an AK 47."

He and Sandra fled to the storeroom on the other side of the living room from the kitchen and bolted the door and hid behind the large freezers there, wondering between themselves in whispers all night what to do, pondering if the gunman was there or had left, once the horrible din of shooting and grenades died down.

At 11 the next morning, Nariman House was hauntingly quiet. "Sunsaan ho gaya tha (deathly quiet). We thought the terrorists must have left. And we thought our sahib was alive. We never thought had they killed him. Very quietly we stole out. The hall was totally wrecked, broken -- glass, debris everywhere. Then we heard Moshe cry."

"Sandra crept up the stairs to the second floor and I followed her. Moshe was sitting next to his dead parents on the floor and his pants were stained with blood. We grabbed him and then when we heard the sound of gunshots upstairs we fled out the gate to the main road and were taken to Colaba police station."

For many months now Mohammed has made unfailing trips to the Colaba police station and to the crime branch office at Crawford Market to give statements and evidence for the 26/11 case, each trip an inevitable journey back to that terrible day last November. He says he was very nervous about deposing in court but the police restored his confidence and worked with him. Since his deposition the trips to the police station have come to an end.

He and Sandra occasionally speak on the phone when she calls from Israel. Her sons -- one is studying and is quite young and the other works in a call centre -- still live in Mumbai. Mohammed gets news of Moshe from her and thinks she will not come back till he grows up.

"There were really nice people," he murmurs. "Killing those people was really such a galat (wrong) thing."

*Name changed at interviewee's request

Image: Nariman House, Colaba, Mumbai, under siege. Photograph: Rajesh Karkera