If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Neerja Bhanot and the spirit of humanity

Neerja Bhanot (1963 – 1986) was a flight purser for the now-defunct airlines Pan Am. She was an ordinary girl from an ordinary middleclass family based in Mumbai. Her twenty-three years of life was ordinary too, except for the last 17 hours, when she showed amazing courage, compassion for others, presence of mind, and absolute, unbelievable selflessness. 

Neerja was born to Rama and Harish Bhanot, a journalist, in Chandigarh. After she completed Standard 5 in Chandigarh, her family moved to Mumbai. Besides studying in college, she started working as a model too. She had an arranged marriage in 1985 and joined her husband in the Gulf. Unfortunately, like thousands of Indian males, her husband turned out to be a scoundrel who tortured her for dowry. Her marriage survived just two months. Back home, she applied for and got a job as an air hostess with Pan Am. She went to Miami to train as a flight attendant, but came out of the training as a flight purser. The Pan Am authorities had spotted her qualities with great prescience, as later events would prove when she saved the lives of a few hundred people.

On 5 September 1986, two days before her 23rd birthday, Neerja boarded the Pan Am Flight 73 in the small hours in a dark and sleeping Mumbai. She was the head of the in-flight staff when – two hours later – the aircraft was hijacked by four Palestinian terrorists from the Abu Nidal group just before its take-off from Karachi. The plane had 340 passengers. The terrorists wanted to fly to Cyprus and get some of their fellow criminals released from jail there.

And that’s when an utterly asymmetric struggle began between ordinary unarmed passengers and crew on one side, and four ruthless terrorists armed to their teeth on the other. And in this struggle, if I may say so, the people on the side of humanity was led by a 23-year-old girl, Neerja Bhanot.

As soon as Neerja realized that the four men wearing Karachi Airport Security uniform were actually terrorists, she alerted the cockpit. And the all-American cockpit crew of the pilot, co-pilot, and flight engineer, following Pan Am protocol, left the aircraft through an emergency overhead hatch. I recall that when I read this in 1986, I thought this was an act of unbelievable cowardice and the protocol was stupid and irresponsible. My thought was perhaps natural for someone who had grown up with stories that say the captain is always the last man to leave a sinking ship. But the point could be debated, and let’s move back to the story.

Neerja, being the senior-most cabin crew, had to take charge of the aircraft. The hijackers instructed her to collect the passports of all the passengers. The idea was to put pressure on the USA by identifying and possibly killing Americans on board one by one. Neerja had guessed the hijackers’ intention and saved dozens of American lives by simply hiding ALL the American passports – some under seats and some down a garbage chute. Clearly, this was the first of the several huge personal risks she took to save the passengers. She would surely have been tortured and killed if the trick was found out by the terrorists.

During the seize, one cabin attendant, probably Neerja herself, hid a page of the Flight Manual that described how to open an emergency exit and asked the passenger sitting next to it to “read the magazine carefully.” He did, and this saved some lives hours later.

After 17 hours of stalemate, the aircraft was plunged into semi darkness as the auxiliary power supply ran out and the emergency lights turned on automatically. The nervous and frustrated hijackers opened fire and set off explosives.

The man sitting next to the emergency exit managed to open the door, but couldn’t activate the slide that would help passengers deplane. Yet, some of them jumped off the door at a height of 15 feet above the tarmac.

Neerja opened another door, flung open an emergency chute, and assisted passengers from the aircraft to get off.

She could have been the first to jump off when she opened the door but …

She decided to stay back and help others. Like a real hero, she helped elderly passengers to leave the plane, while every passing moment brought her closer to her own death. And she was shot from behind while shielding three children from a hail of bullets and certain death.

From a total of 379 (359 passengers and 20 crew), 20 got killed, but 359 survived thanks mainly to Neerja. One of the children, then aged 7, is now a pilot with a major airline. He says Neerja Bhanot has been his inspiration and he owes every day of his life to her. Neerja was recognized internationally as "the heroine of the hijack" and posthumously received Ashoka Chakra, India's highest peace-time gallantry award.

And it was not Neerja alone, as the passengers looked death from close quarters, they too showed tremendous courage, compassion and support for fellow humans. A musician Nayan Pancholi who was in that flight has written in India Today TV’s online edition: “That day, nobody saw any religion, caste, or creed in each other. That day, we saw each other as humans and wanted to help each other and save each other’s lives. It's as simple as that in end.”


Let’s now move on to the film which is based broadly on this storyline. A similar narrative can also be seen on Wikipedia and elsewhere. However, some of Neerja’s colleagues in the flight have said this story is more fictional than real. Their point is simple, it was not Neerja alone, but every member of the crew who showed tremendous courage under stress. Maybe they are right, maybe they have a point. But on the Net, they are being abused squarely in high-decibel filthy language and kicked in different parts of their body for being – believe me – “unpatriotic”! Who says India has become intolerant?

And that is the reason I would salute the makers of the film including the director Ram Madhvani. With many other Bollywood film makers today, this film would have been subtly anti-Muslim and crudely anti-Pakistan. But the film is neither. Check these scenes.

When an officer tells the head of the Karachi Airport that there are 44 Pakistanis on the flight, the boss reacts angrily: ‘Do you want me to save the 44 Pakistanis and say “sorry” to the rest?’

In another scene, a man, who looks very much like a Muslim, is seen pushing an American passport under the seat.

For this reason alone, the movie Neerja is worth watching. In the ultimate analysis, even if the plot of the film is partly fictional, it tells a story of the human spirit, and of human values that come to surface when people are face to face with a deadly enemy, be it terrorists or be it floods.

Kolkata / Thursday, 25 February 2016
(Pictures courtesy the Wikipedia)

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