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'I've just made myself believe that he is here with me'

By Vaihayasi Pande Daniel
July 13, 2012 09:16 IST
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Kanan Shah, who lost her husband in the July 13 blast in Mumbai last year, tells's Vaihayasi Pande Daniel that no one out there really understands what it is to be the closest kin of a blast victim.

"I have just made myself believe that he is here with me," she says with a serene smile, that lends further luminescence to a calm, peaceful, attractive face.

Her gaze wanders across the simple, neat Khetwadi one-room home, as if she can actually see him sitting there opposite her.

It is easy to connect with her sentiment. Eventually you feel that he is in the room too.

It is this simple logic – as well as abundant belief in her Jain faith – that keeps Kanan Shah, 35, going strong, less that one year after her husband Sandeep, 40, was killed.

Her steady, pragmatic belief in his constant presence is not about the supernatural. Or some strange obsession with afterlife. She knows he ought to be nearby in spirit and it is that conviction that makes her sturdy and helps her move ahead. It also gives her the courage to smile.

Kanan, with her faultless logic and brave smile, is a balm to my soul too.

It was with a certain familiar trepidation that I walked up the creaky stairs of the tenement building in one of the bustling lanes of this mostly Gujarati south Mumbai neighbourhood to see her.

July is the month of two of Mumbai's five major terrorism blast anniversaries. Meeting with families of victims is a necessity. It is also gruelling. The stories are painfully sad. Mumbai has now approximately 730 blast victims. The stories are therefore so numerous and so very familiar as well.

Is anyone hearing them? Are you reading them? Is anyone helping these victims? Does anyone care for them?

Most likely our eyes glaze over when it comes to hearing about the victims of the city's numerous terrorism attacks. A few days earlier I visited New York's 9/11 site and learned how sincerely that city honors the people terrorism took away.

So as I was nervously walking up those stairs I was wondering what I was doing there. Would I be making a difference? Or would I just be harassing one more victim, landing up unannounced, and asking them to rip the scab off a partially-healed wound?

When Kanan opened her front door to me, dressed in a pretty sari, she was talking on her cell to a relative, or perhaps a friend. She did not seem surprised or perturbed to see me. The notebook under my arm probably gave her a clue. She smiled and gestured for me to sit and politely indicated she needed a few minutes.

I looked around the room, a little uncertain I had come to the right place. There were no garlanded photographs. Or signs that she was the wife of a small-time jeweller named Sandeep Champaklal Shah, who had died at Opera House on a rainy evening last July, while she was out buying him a birthday present from Haji Ali's Sobo Central mall, blissfully unaware of the tragedy unfolding a few kilometers away that would make that gift redundant.

Like any wife of a happy marriage, 15 years old, Kanan was torn to pieces by the searing grief she experienced when she rushed to Saifee Hospital, at Maharshi Karve Road, and discovered that her husband was dead.

"It happened at 6.45 but my husband had called me half an hour earlier. He had asked me if he should come and pick me up. I said I still had half an hour of work and if he wanted to join me then he had to hang around. So he said he had a bit more work of his own and he would finish that and come." She speaks in Hindi mixing English phrases.

Shortly afterwards taxis stopped running and Kanan could not get through to Sandeep and nor could anyone in the family. "I got a call that he is hurt in the hospital and went to Saifee. They did not tell me what exactly had happened initially. He had died on the spot. He had a friend with him, who lifted him up and brought him to the hospital in a taxi. They kept telling me that the doctors are checking him. This went on for two hours, three hours. I kept telling them I want to go and see him. And that everyone was going to see him except me. Just before they were taking his body for the post mortem they finally told me."

But her mature practicality and the belief that Sandeep could not have really gone away too far has helped her courageously patch things together since that terrible night.

She enrolled, six months ago, in a course to learn how to do bridal makeup and mehendi at CP Tank nearby. It is a long course and she still has a year plus to go but she expects it will eventually bring the income she requires to support herself and her 15-year-old son Meet.

She and her son – who she says "is trying to get strong in his own way" – clung together after Sandeep's death and slowly healed each other. "(When Sandeep was alive) I was devoted to my family. I was involved in looking after my home. (After he died) to support myself I realised I needed to do something -- to keep myself going both financially and mentally, to divert my mind."

Kanan is not nursing unwieldy anger against the government or fate/God for the new course her life has taken. "More than anger, you ask yourself why was this my fate? Why am I having to face this? This is the biggest question. I have followed my religion and never done anything to anyone, so why has this happened to me? But in our religion we don't believe in hinsa (violence) and gussa (anger). Without religion there is nothing. The reality is that we have to go back to where we came from and it is His decision."

But she gently explains that no one out there really understands what it is to be the closest kin of a blast victim. "This should not happen to anyone. If you have no experience of such situations and then are faced with it, the effect is immense. It is a huge body blow.

"When he was around, there was always new life ahead. That's all come to a stop. We would go out. Something or another new was happening. All that happiness has ended. That feeling that you have with a partner… that you have someone with you… that feeling goes.

"Everything changes. They way I looked at life then and the way I look at life now… it has all changed. Your world changes. The public thinks we have the support we need. But that is not true. You have no support of any sort. There is no company. There is no happiness. There is a difference in everything."

Kanan has received the financial packages offered by the government. And her family and Sandeep's -- they belong to the tiny Palanpuri Jain community -- are always available for help. But the solutions are not that simple. The aid package is none too large considering inflation and the loss of the sole bread winner. She says, "Your family is always there to support you. If we make requests of our close ones they will definitely help us but you don't necessarily want to take that help because you realise there is only that much you can expect. You don't want to burden them and make their life hard too. You decide this seems to be my life burden, so let me see how best I can find ae solution out of it."

Further, support from the government should not be just about money she feels. It would help immensely to have other kinds of support like counseling or a place to go to for problem-solving. That reduces dependence on family. "Suddenly every day some sort of problem or the other keeps cropping up and your husband is no longer there." The absence of this kind of support from the government is because the government does not want to bother itself with the "particulars" says Kanan.

Why the absence of the garlanded portraits of Sandeep on the walls of their home? "I just have made myself believe that he is here with me. That he has gone out somewhere and he will be back. When you put up a photo then you start thinking the person is not there. I do not want to feel that."

She constantly assures Meet that he should not feel a sense of loss. "I tell him that I am your mummy and I am your papa and you have no reason to feel any difficulties. He knows that he has whatever he needs."

Would that have been the way Sandeep would have wanted her to tackle the situation? She thinks for a few seconds. "Yes. (He would have done it like I have because like me) he is also alone wherever he is."

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