The students in Mrs. Baruah’s class swiftly straightened up in their seats as she entered the class room. Excitement was in the air as the Class 8A students knew it was going to be different that day. An eloquence practice was scheduled. All of them had been told to come prepared with their speeches.
Mrs. Baruah repeated the topic for the speech. It was ‘Who would you like to be when you grow up?’ In other words, the students had to choose one person from among the best and brightest Indians whom they adored most, and would like to emulate.
From the number of hands that went up, it became apparent that nearly everyone was eager to speak. Such response gladdened her. She knew the topic had fired the imagination of her students.
She proceeded to explain the scope of the topic a little more. ‘The students could cite an illustrious person, and even certain highly laudable traits and qualities in ordinary men and women’, Mrs. Baruah clarified.
The students hastened to arrange the rough sheets of paper on which they had jotted down the points.
It was Ajit Basu who spoke first. He was a die-hard Tendulkar fan. No doubt, he idolized him. Then spoke Gayatri Chhabra, who wanted to devote her life to social work following the footsteps of her mother. Sanjay Damle spoke of her passion for aviation and his dream of soaring into the sky to fly among the clouds one day.
The entire class listened carefully as one after another of their peers stood up to explain the ideals and persons that had stirred them.
It was Kabeer’s turn. He got up as if he shouldered a big load. He was a bundle of nerves. His face wore that look. Perhaps, he was facing the class for the first time to speak to them in a loud enough voice.
Despite his shortcomings, Kabeer had braced for the challenge by preparing for his speech quite assiduously. The ideas came from deep within his inner self. The speech was a cut above the others. It dealt with not just a single great man or a single virtue, but a collage of them. Many eminent persons, and many astounding good qualities of very ordinary people around him had left a deep impression on his mind.
‘When I grow up, I would like to be like Major Unnikrishnan, the NSG commando who laid down his life fighting in Mumbai in November, 2008,’ said Kabeer in a voice that resonated in the whole class. His words seemed to benumb everyone.
Kabeer proceeded to elaborate the brave Major’s feet. The hero had made up his mind to be a soldier when he was just a eight-year-old lad studying in class 3. Finally, on reaching the appropriate age, he joined the armed forces and received training in counter –terrorism and counter-insurgency operations. Then, he joined the NSG in January, 2007. The day he had so eagerly waited all his life arrived. He was deployed to flush out the terrorists from the besieged Taj Hotel in Bombay.
He was locked in a fierce gunfight with the terrorists as soon as he entered the hotel building. One of his commandos got injured, and Major Unnikrisnan had him evacuated. Undaunted by the terrorists virtually controlling the hotel, the brave Major decided to evict them by any means. He took them on frontally. He knew, death lurked at every corner of the building, but he pressed on.
Ordering his colleagues to stay behind, Major Unnikrishnan decided to surge ahead himself. A fierce gunfight ensued. Major Unnikrishnan was fatally wounded. In an extreme show of defiance, he tried to save the life of his colleague Gajendra Singh, despite being just moments away from his death. At last, Major Unnikrishnan breathed his last – a hero in the line of fire.
Kabeer paused for a while. He had gripped the entire class’s attention. Emotion, grief and admiration for the fallen hero swept through everyone’s heart. It was Kabeer’s one-minute speech that held the entire class spellbound.
Outside the class, life was as usual. Children of junior classes capered around, birds chirped and traffic moved along.
Kabeer moved to his next hero—Vishnu Dattaram Zende, the announcer in the CST platform. It was November 26. Ignoring the terrorists who had by then gone on a shooting spree, he continued to guide the passengers to safety through the PA system. He did not flee his position, despite the fact that the terrorists would soon target him. He was a sitting duck. Although he knew he would soon be killed, he stayed put to continuously make his announcements warning the passengers of the terror gang. Thousands of commuters escaped death because of Zende’s words of caution. Finally, the terrorists opened fire on him, but luckily, the bullets missed him. Perhaps, God wanted him alive.
Then, Kabeer proceeded to another hero of his –Karmabir Singh Kang, the General Manager of the besieged Taj Hotel. His whole family happened to be in the Hotel at the time the terrorists struck. He paid no heed to their or his safety.
Instead, he got busy with emergency efforts to save as many of the guests of the Hotel as possible. The whole hotel was aflame as a result of indiscriminate firing by the terrorists. The room in which his family rested was on fire too. He knew fire would soon swallow them, but he concluded saving the guests was more important to him at that moment. Sadly, none from his family survived the fire, and suffocated to death in the obnoxious gasses. Not a single member survived.
True to his name, Karmabeer did not run to rescue his family, but did everything possible to save the guests. Karmabeer did not desert his post even after such a huge tragedy, and stayed on his duty to expedite the restoration work of the charred hotel.
Kabeer’s depiction of his heroes had moved a few of his classmates to tears. The stories had hit Swati hard. Kabeer, as the narrator, was also overwhelmed with emotions. He didn’t like to give vent to the grief that had overtaken him. Resolutely, he continued his speech. He averred, “When I grow up, I want to be like Hemant Karkare, the Anti-Terrorism Squad chief who laid down his life while chasing the intruders near Cama Hospital. DIG Ashok Kamte and Vijay Kalaskar were Hemant Karkare’s colleagues who were also felled by enemy bullets.”
Hemant Karkare haf worked in Austria for eight years as a RAW official. He had distinguished himself as an intelligence officer par excellence.
All the three officers fought terror with all the might and ingenuity at their command. They confronted the terrorists so that we don’t have to confront them. Through their sacrifice, they ensured our security.
Mrs. Baruah was moved to tears by the poignant portrayal of the martyrs. She struggled to hold back her tears.
Kabeer proceeded to narrate the case of Taufeeq Sheikh – the ‘Chhotu Chaiwala’. He had a tiny tea stall outside the CST terminus. The young lad swung into action on seeing the injured. He made arrangements to have the injured taken to the nearby St. George’s hospital. Through his timely intervention, he saved the lives of those hit by the enemy fire.
Kabeer’s list of heroes was not complete yet. He spoke about Sandra Samuel who saved the life of a 2-year-old toddler Moshe Holzberg. She was the boy’s nanny. The grisly murder of the boy’s parents at Nariman House could not be averted.
Lastly, Kabber came to shower his adulation on the innocuous keepers of the Kabristan—the Muslim burial ground. They were so repelled by the hideous terrorists that they refused to bury them in the burial ground. They thought, the attackers’ barbarism had been too un-Islamic to bear.
Kabeer drew down his speech. He had stirred the whole class with his powerful narration of both important and ordinary people who responded to the call of duty with such dedication. As Kabeer ended, the whole class gave him a standing ovation. Kabeer had touched a raw nerve in all their hearts.
Mrs. Baruah was convinced her pupils would grow up imbibing the values of tolerance, peace, and altruism. They would make their motherland an abode of peace – a beckon to the whole world.