Sunday, 21 February 2016

Neerja: Heroine Of The Hijack Of Pan Am 73

I was slightly more than a decade old when Pan Am flight number 73 from Mumbai to New York via Karachi and Frankfurt was hijacked by terrorists. I was already an avid newspaper reader by then but for some reason I have no concrete memories of reading about this particular event, though I do have crystal clear memories of my life during that time. As an adult, somewhere on the fringes of my sub conscious, I was aware that there had been a brave Indian lady purser who had saved lives during a hijack attempt but I had totally forgotten the details. It is for people like me and for others born much after me, that a Bollywood producer and a director decided to make a movie based on this young lady's incredible devotion to duty, even when under fire, titled 'Neerja'. It released in India and worldwide just day before yesterday.
Much as I wanted to watch this movie, I was undecided whether to do so or not. I knew it was horribly sad and did I really want to spend the week end with a huge headache, brought on by my horribly weak and copiously leaky lachrymal glands? My daughter had a long weekend and she said," Mom we are going!'' And so the decision was taken out of my hands. Let it not be said I do not listen to my daughter... As far as my son was concerned, I put my foot down and said he had to stay at home with his Dad, who isn't keen on anything that Bollywood churns out anyway. I did not want him to watch people getting shot in cold blood, as terrorists are wont to do the world over, nor did I want him to experience a hijack situation even second hand, more so as we will be flying home in a few short months.
And so my daughter and I were at the theatre. We bought the more expensive balcony tickets as we always do, and as it turned out, we were the only two in the entire balcony! It seemed a sacrilege to buy snacks as this movie was not an out and out entertainer but the reenactment of a terrible tragedy, that would have been magnified, had it not been for Neerja and the other brave pursers who worked with her. We settled for chocolate instead and hoped the subsequent release of dopamine would help to counter the effect of our tears. I messaged my family back in India, "S and I set to cry, @ Neerja."
Neerja Bhanot, the Chief Purser of that ill fated flight, was two days short of her 24th birthday and had joined Pan Am just six months earlier, after escaping from an abusive arranged marriage. She was also a well known television and print advertisements model and managed to balance both her careers. The film opens with Neerja returning home late from a day long shoot and then tells her mother to wake her up at 1:00 a m, as she had to report for her flight. Her mother asked her to report sick, since she had already put in a full day's work but the girl is adamant about doing her job and says its her first flight as a Chief Purser, as her superior had already reported sick. At this point, one does wish that she had listened to her mother!
As her mother wakes her up, it is clear that the bond between the two is very strong. The poignance of these last hours with her parents is very potent as we, as the audience, know something they do not. They will never see their beloved daughter, given the sobriquet 'Lado' ( the beloved one) by them, alive ever again. Little things touch you as you watch and many middle (lower, middle, upper) class Indian mothers will identify themselves with Rama Bhanot, Neerja's mom. No matter how early our children are leaving the house, we wake up even earlier and pack food for them, usually 'Parathas', and then admonish them before they leave, that they should be sure to eat the food! And we check that they have done so when they come home again, as her mother had done, just the night before, when Neerja finally reached home. And yes, she also switches on the hot water geyser a little before she wakes her daughter up, as many Indian homes do not have instant hot showers. I have lost count of how many times I have done this for my kids back home in India! It is little nuances like this that help you to immerse yourself in the story, though you know the end.
Terrorists enter the plane when it lands for a short stop over at Karachi, in Pakistan. Neerja manages to convey the hijack code to the pilots who follow protocol and abandon the aircraft. Then this slip of a girl identifies herself to the terrorists as the person in charge and convinces them that she needs to do her duty, just as they are doing theirs. So she serves people water, coffee and snacks during the course of the next seventeen hours, even as no help seems to be forthcoming from any quarters. She also comforts the unaccompanied children and the elderly on the flight.She, at great risk to herself,  manages to collect and hide passports of all American citizens on board when she realizes that the terrorists aim to shoot Americans first. She also smuggles instructions on how to open the emergency exits in the plane to passengers sitting near those exits. Now you realize that you should pay attention when the crew disseminates safety information, no matter how many times you may have flown before.
Meanwhile, at home, Neerja's mother and dog, with the unexplained sixth sense that mothers and canines both have, have been feeling uneasy since morning and her mother has the strong feeling that something is wrong. Her journalist father soon calls up to break the news that Pan Am 73 has been hijacked. Thus begins the endless wait for a darling daughter who will never come home alive.
Seventeen hours into the ordeal, the one engine that was running gives out, there is auxilliary power failure and the plane is plunged into darkness. The terrorists, thinking this is the start of a rescue attempt, start firing and throwing grenades indiscriminately. Neerja shouts for all emergency exits to be opened and opens one herself. Now comes the moment why she has been lauded far and wide. Instead of sliding down the slide herself, she starts pushing passengers down. Eyewitnesses say she was outlined against the door and was a clear target but continued helping people. In the darkness and melee it is not clear whether she actually died shielding the unaccompanied minors, as there are conflicting accounts about this version. The movie shows this story and this is what you choose to believe because she did save them with her quick thinking and accomplished her duty as all of them had been given in her care at Mumbai airport, as she was the Chief Purser of that flight. Today one of those Indian American girls is a lawyer and the other, her sister, is a doctor, a radiation oncologist, in the United States.
Then instead of taking the opportunity to escape she still tried to search for more passengers and was finally shot at point blank range. When her crew realized she was missing they went back to help her and found her lying in the aircraft. They pushed her down the slide. In the movie, she tumbles down herself. When she finished Pan Am's hijack training, her mother was frightened and told her to run and save herself, should the situation arise. Neerja, fondly scolded her mother for such advice and said she would die before she abandoned her post. And, true to her word, that is exactly what she did. Her mother who died a couple of months ago, herself related this story, even as she blessed all those who were making this movie and those who were going to watch it. The Neerja Bhanot Award for Bravery is given every year on her mother's birthday, by the trust her parents formed, using all the money that this brave heart had saved, while modelling and working with Pan Am.
Neerja Bhanot was given India's highest civilian award for bravery, the Ashoka Chakra. The governments of the United States and Pakistan also honoured her and she is credited for saving 360 lives out of 380. The Indian government also released a stamp in her honour.
Her parents received her body in Mumbai on what would have been her 24th birthday. She was cremated a day later. As her mother said,'' The worst pain a person goes through is that of losing a child. People tell me my daughter is now immortal, which brings me little comfort, because I will never see her again in this life..."
Do go and watch the movie to honour Neerja's memory, as intended by her family, when they gave permission for this biopic to be made. Do not take young kids. Let's preserve their innocence as long as we can. If you are prone to claustrophobia, do not go, as almost the entire two hours are shot in the confines of the aeroplane.
And yes, for those of my generation who grew up in India, Neerja was the Amul Mom in the advertisement on television, in which the  kid ironically says,"I'm too old for tricycles, too young to be a pilot." She replies ''You're just right for Amul Chocolates!'' I loved that advert as a child and always enjoyed watching it. She died soon after it was made, but our one and only television channel played it for years! I discovered yesterday that the model was Neerja Bhanot! I'm going to buy Amul chocolates for myself and my kids in her memory, when I go home this summer, even as I mentally salute Neerja Bhanot, who died so others could live.


Tuesday, 16 February 2016

TV Dinners: A Whole New Connotation!

In the midst of the multiple things that are simultaneously going on in our lives here, my fourth article has been published on the parenting site.

The TV dinner had its origin in The United States Of Americain the 1950s, after World War Two. Many women had entered the work force just then and were often short of time to cook meals. An innovative company discovered that there was a market for a pre packaged, complete, frozen meal. It consisted of a main course and side dishes, desserts were added later.

To read more please go to

If you have really young children, do read this. I hope it helps you!

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Life Is Like A Ferris Wheel

Those who know me well know I tend to juggle a thousand things at once! NOT at the cost of my children's routine, but just about all the time in between! I've been exceptionally busy these past couple of weeks, even neglecting to walk my routine eight kilometres a day, for the last ten days, so much so that when I started again yesterday, my neighbour said she thought I was out of town!
I've been reading and reviewing multiple books that just came in for the school library,(I finished five thick books in seven days!), been taking back to back classes on Skype for my students in India (and sending them their bills for classes taken in the last few months, because since I do not live in India, I refuse to take money in advance!), helping my daughter collate pictures and write ups for her Senior year book page, volunteering in the kids' school, trying out new recipes and desserts, much to the delight of my husband, for my son (who at twelve, has hit the eat all the time stage) and whipping out my credit card to pay for my son's pizza and ice cream birthday treat for his school friends, after spending time creating and sending a poetic invite. The last one was waaaay easier than all those glamorously themed parties I have organized in the past, complete with games and prizes and thoughtful return gifts! I've been writing a lot of course, for two other entities, besides my blog. The only thing I haven't been doing is studying for an on line course I'm currently doing. Thank you Symbiosis Centre For Distance Learning, Pune, for letting senior students like me take FOUR years to do a two year course! It doesn't seem like I will be able to attempt the exams this year either...
So in the midst of this all, why am I blogging today? I have three classes lined up on Skype and a hot after school snack to make for the children. But as any one who writes (or their kids!) will tell you, it is a compulsion. Once something gets into your mind, you are not satisfied till it's down on paper. Or out in cyber space, as the case may be...So here goes...

Life is like a gigantic Ferris Wheel,
It's not a puppy to whom you say 'Come to heel'.
Slowly, as you climb up, you watch the world go by,
Even as butterflies in your stomach fly.

Sometimes, right at the top, you get stuck,
Relax, enjoy the view, it's just your luck.
Others are hanging somewhere halfway between up and down,
They are the ones who, often, at life frown.
Relax, you may go up and reach the top,
Or, you may come down, but life doesn't stop.

And what of those who are stuck right below?
Close enough to kiss the ground hello?
Sometimes I think they have it best of all,
There really isn't anywhere for them to fall...

Where ever you may be, try to enjoy the ride,
After all, with God's will we must abide.
Life comes a full circle, just like the Ferris wheel,
At times we stand tall, at times we kneel.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

My Right To Pray, On ANY Day!

For all those who have been following the news from my home state of Maharashtra in India, it is a well known fact that the burning issue over the last one week has been the issue of women not being allowed to worship at the main shrine in the famous Shani Shingnapur temple, in Ahmednagar district. When I wrote a post last month about my Double Helping Of Divine Blessing, I did not mention the fact that we had been, in fact, thrice blessed that day last July, because on our way back from the temple town of Shirdi, our driver suggested that we stop at Shani Shingnapur and seek blessings there too. My sister in law and I eagerly agreed and that's how we reached this famous temple, dedicated to Lord Shaneshwara, who is believed to be a personification of the planet Saturn.
A unique aspect about this temple is that the houses in the village where it is located, have no locks on their doors and in some cases no doors at all! The villagers believe that the protection of this God is so strong that no crime will ever occur here. And they have been proved right till date, as not even petty thievery from houses has been reported for the last many decades!
There is no sanctum sanctorum in this unique temple. There is just a platform on which the 'swayambhu' (self manifested or that which is created by its own accord) idol stands, in black stone. As we got out of my car, we were immediately surrounded by throngs of vendors, each one eager to sell us a bottle of mustard oil and black sesame seeds, which is how Lord Shaneshwar is traditionally worshipped. But much to their disappointment, neither my sister in law nor I are huge believers in mere ritualistic worship, (we would rather buy oil and donate it to our house help than pour it over an idol and see it go waste) and so we refused to buy any. Our main aim, when we visit temples, is to give Thanksgiving to God, above all else, and then seek His protection and blessings, as our families go about their daily lives and to help us accept His will, over our own.
Last week, a group of women legally challenged the fact that they are not allowed to climb onto the main platform which houses the Deity in this temple. Feel free to put it into Google search and sure enough you will see that the temple website (chances are high it was even designed by a woman, given the number of women software techies India has!) says women cannot worship this God, up close and personal! When I visited this temple I wasn't even aware of this rule, as the whole platform had been cordoned off and men, women and children could only worship from a distance. This was fine by us. Either every one is allowed there or no one is! These courageous women held demonstrations, blocked the highway off which this temple is located and finally forced the state government to intervene and say they would look into the matter! Women in other parts of India rapidly caught onto this issue and began agitations in other places of worship, both Hindu and Islamic, where women are not allowed into certain core areas. It's a status quo right now and we will soon come to know the outcome.
What I found strange and what no one talked or wrote about (or if they did, I did not hear or read it), is the main reason why women in India are banned from entering areas where the main Deity is, in a handful of ancient temples. The sad and completely unscientific reason is that women in India are considered to be 'impure' during a certain time of the month and are not supposed to venture into any place of worship, for fear that they will 'pollute' the vicinity and God forbid, that happen in God's own 'house'!
Most temples leave this decision to enter or not, to the discretion of individual women, but a few are still imposing a blanket ban, which today's women are determined to fight! I read an article on Facebook recently which said women were originally banned from entering places of worship as they radiated a lot of powerful energy during this time, which would result in the deviation of God being the main focus in a temple! I find this hard to believe.
I prefer to look at it in a practical manner and feel that for hundreds of years and right up to a few decades ago, women did not have adequate protection during this time of the month and traditionally used and laundered and reused pieces of cotton cloth. So they were, more often than not, not fit to be seen publicly, as sarees and other garments invariably got stained. Also given their busy schedules of cooking from scratch and cleaning in joint families and endless number of kids to look after and elaborate religious ceremonies to prepare for almost every month, these were the few days of the month when, being banned even from their own kitchens, they could just sit down and rest!
My point is, that was in the past. Why now? The multinationals, with their endless prime time advertisements, have promised and given us state of the art protection and urged us to do anything and everything we want during those days! We shower twice a day, cook and teach our kids and go out to work, party and watch movies. Then why not visit the temple too? Almost all the women I know euphemistically whisper (pun intended, Proctor and Gamble's Always is called Whisper in India), that they cannot enter the temple as 'it's not the right time'. Some even go a step further and take pills to tamper with their natural cycle, if there is a religious event in their own house, during, what they believe is the wrong time of the month! You were taught this by your own mother or grandmother. But I would like to know where it says so in our scriptures and why would anyone feel or be made to feel, that that they are soiled or impure for four or five days out of thirty or thirty one?
I agree, may be you were brought up that way and now find it hard to change your mindset. But my sincere request is please do not let your daughters grow up believing this! Do not impose such 'sanctions' when you have daughters in law. I know that a few of my own daughter's friends back home, from highly educated families, are banned from the kitchens of their own homes during periods, as the deities are housed there. Teach your kids, both boys and girls, the basics of hygiene and decent behaviour and set them free!
In my own case, it's my choice to enter public temples on any day of the month that I want and worship my own Gods in my own house or in my parents' house, all the days of the month. However, I do take care to inform the lady of the house in orthodox households if it's that time and I am invited to a religious ceremony there. If given the go ahead, I seek blessings from their deities. If not, I just enjoy the delicious food and come home! That is simply because I don't want them to feel I have compromised their Gods and their beliefs, NOT because I agree with them.  But I would not want my daughter to even think of doing such a thing and I would definitely want her to clamber right up on the main platform at Shani Shingnapur on ANY day of the year she chooses to do so. Or not! It's entirely a women's prerogative!
By writing this, I probably just nixed all future invitations to religious events from all those who usually invite me, but that's fine! I prefer to worship my God, my way, on any given day!

                                          The temple at the heart of the current controversy!
                                           P.C : Blessings On The Net.

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