An excerpt from the book, No Margin for Error by Tanushree Podder.

The reward came on Republic Day. Seated amongst spectators, I watched the President of India handing over the Ashok Chakra to Sam’s father. How could the award, a mere piece of gilded metal, compensate for my pal’s life? How could it take away the pain of Sam’s death?

It was the second time I was meeting Sam’s father. Tears welled up in my eyes as the proud soldier, refusing to be assisted, rolled his wheelchair to the podium to receive the award. The award would join the string of other medals standing on a dusty cabinet in the Fernandes home, a cruel reminder of a son who lived up to his father’s expectations and died in the prime of his life.

Two years later, we met again.

It was the reopening of the Grand Palace Hotel. Two years and billions of rupees had gone into the reconstruction and refurbishing of the two wings of the hotel. Hundreds of invitations had been sent out all over the world. Dignitaries, politicians, patrons and media, the page three crowd – everyone who mattered was at the reopening. In a thoughtful gesture, those who fought the terrorists, as well as families of the martyrs, had also been
invited with an idea of honouring them.

Among the invitees were Sam’s parents. Once again, his back straight, expression solemn, the old soldier made himself present. This time, Sarah accompanied him to the hotel. I watched the duo as they arrived. A dignified soldier and his stoic daughter. No one paused. No one remembered. They were merely two figures in the melee of merry makers; invited for the sake of formality. We were mere cogs in the giant machinery. Our utility had ended on the day the terrorists were neutralized.

Among the invitees were Sam’s parents. Once again, his back straight, expression solemn, the old soldier made himself present. This time, Sarah accompanied him to the hotel. I watched the duo as they arrived.

C’est la vie!, as Sam would have said.

A memorial plaque had been installed in a neat niche near the central stairwell. On it were the names of those who had lost their lives in the attack. A gurgling fountain, a sculpture of Kalpavriksha, tubs of foliage and flowers completed the serene picture. Sam, the brawny young man, had now been reduced to a name on the plaque.

Candles were lit in memory of those who had died during the attack, wreaths laid and eulogies spewed. From the fringes of the crowd, I continued to watch the circus. Bouquets were handed to the dignitaries. Intense networking continued. Bureaucrats kowtowing to the political bosses. Media flocking the hotel management. Television crew televising the proceedings with a glamorous reporter giving her views on camera. Did anyone remember Sam’s sacrifice?

And then the invitees were guided into a decorated hall for refreshments.

I went up to greet Sam’s father and sister.

‘How are you, son?’ Colonel Rodney Fernandes gave me a wan smile.

‘Why don’t you pick up a drink while I take charge of your father?’ I told Sarah. ‘We will meet in half an hour in the lobby.’

‘There is no need, really,’ she began objecting. ‘I can…’

‘It’s alright, we will manage,’ Sam’s father goaded her. ‘Go ahead and enjoy yourself while I catch up with Neel.’

Throwing a doubtful look at us, Sarah shrugged and joined the invitees.

The young are resilient. They accept changes faster than the old.

‘Son, will you take me to the spot where my Sam breathed his last?’ he asked, after his daughter left. His eyes held mine in a steady gaze. ‘I know it will not be easy for you but I need closure.’

‘We have to face the truth at some stage,’ I said, pushing his wheelchair.

Something akin to a gunshot struck my heart as I wheeled him into the Waves Lounge, where I had held a dead friend in my arms. Surreal, it seemed aeons ago.

Just like the rest of the hotel, the refurbished lounge held not a trace of the deadly attack. Since most of the action was in the lobby, the lounge was deserted. There were just a couple of waiters who were busy laying the tables, preparing for lunch time. They had seen the VIP badges dangling around our necks and knew we were special invitees.

Sensing the importance of the moment, they walked away to another part of the room, leaving the two of us alone.

Grief welled within as I pointed to the spot where his son had died.

‘Please help me down?’ he requested.

Silently, I helped him to the floor. Lips twisted in grimace, straining his wasted muscles, Rodney Fernandes flopped, resting his weight on his arms. Hunched in an awkward position, he sat, his hands caressing the spot
where his son had fallen in death. Lips moved in soundless words of endearment. Not a tear did he shed.

Anger raged in my heart as I watched the proud soldier trying to clutch at fragments of dignity. Sam had died saving fourteen lives. Not many people celebrating the reopening remembered his sacrifice.

Soldiers were expendable, politicians were not.

I turned away to offer him privacy.

‘Let’s go,’ he ordered brusquely, his throat choked with emotion.

‘Thank you, son,’ he added as an afterthought. Straightening a body bent with grief, he said, ‘Let’s join the party.’

I marvelled at his self-control. Would he never let down his guard?

A few minutes later, back in the hall, we were surrounded by the mass of human bodies revelling in the party.

‘Shall I fetch you a drink?’ I asked.

‘A glass of water, please.’

There was a melee at the counters. I picked up a bottle of water and fought my way back to him.

He was not alone. An elderly gentleman and a child stood near Sam’s father.

‘Sir,’ the elderly gentleman began. ‘I am Fardeen Billimoria from United Kingdom. For long, I have been waiting for an opportunity to meet you.’

‘Glad to meet you,’ Sam’s father shook his hand. ‘I am…’

‘You are Rodney Fernandes, Major Samuel Fernandes’ father.’

Surprised, Colonel Rodney looked at the gentleman.

‘I want you to meet Sam,’ Fardeen Billimoria pushed the boy towards him. ‘Roshan Sam Billimoria, my grandson. He owes his life to your son.’

The boy came forward, stretching his hand shyly. ‘Your son risked his life to rescue him,’ continued Billimoria, his eyes clouding with memories of the painful day. ‘His parents were killed in the attack. Sam was just two
years old at that time. Roshan bears the middle name as an honour to your son.’

‘Sam!’ Colonel Rodney Fernandes, body heaving with tears, hugged the little boy and the dam burst.

The tears he had held back streamed unabashedly down his face.

No one looked. No one cared.

The juggernaut of life continued to roll.

Picture Credits: Roli Books/Tanushree Podder

Excerpted with permission from No Margin for Error by Tanushree Podder, Roli Books.

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