Sunday, December 11, 2016

Jottings : Slice of life - 72 ( Neerja - extraordinary courage, professionalism and humanity under pressure)

Jottings : Slice of life - 72 ( Neerja - extraordinary courage, professionalism and humanity under pressure)
When Pan-Am flight No 73 was hijacked on 5th september 1986, I was in my mid teens. I think I learnt of the incident from news papers, or I remember my father mentioning that a flight to America was taken hostage by a group of people at gun point , and after nearly eighteen hours, most of the passengers managed to escape through an exit opened by a very brave, young Flight attendant named Neerja Bhanot - who was shot dead during that process. I distinctly remember the beautiful, magnetic smiling face of that recognizable young girl ( Neerja was a popular model) as it appeared in print and limited news channels. We did not have live coverage of tragedies, as we do today. If I jog my memory to see if I was affected by her tragic death in 1986 , I would have to say No. A good looking girl had died by gunshots, and that was all there is to it. I probably assumed it was part of her job. I dont know. All that I am saying is, I simply did not have a frame of reference to grieve over Neerja’s death, the way I do now. Who was a flight attendant, what do they actually do in a flight ? I had no clue. That Neerja was a head flight attendant on flight No 73 really didn't mean anything to me at all, except that she heading something. The kind of courage it took for her to do what she did was unclear to me. I boarded my first flight in 1994. Equally unconcerned was I about the fact that “terrorists” had hijacked the flight. The word terrorist with all its awful connotations -which have become part of ones daily life now - was then, something rare and not often in news. Yes, the assassination of Indira Gandhi had bought that dirty word to the forefront, but the killers attained infamy more from a fact they were Bodyguards and not terrorists. All I could understand about Neerja's death from what I heard and read was a set of bad buys entered a plane with guns and shot many people, including a nice looking girl who helped other passengers escape. Movie like.. Thats all. And then a year later, in 1987, Neerja was awarded the highest civilian honor In India for Bravery - The Ashoka chakra - during the glittering Republic day parade. In recognition of that honor, popular Magazines ran full length articles on her life, modeling career and courageous death. Neerja had by then become part of India’s national consciousness, and I became, sensitive and educated enough to empathize and understand her tragic sacrifice. Along with that understanding came a deep appreciation of tremendous courage and presence of mind shown by that young girl 23 years of age , during those crucial few hours, which could have very easily meant death for over 350 passengers on board that ill-fated flight. She did not do anything spectacular. But what she did needed extraordinary courage and composure. And those are rare commodities under duress.
Intelligence is action, and the ability to bring what one has learnt and digested to bear upon a problem on hand. Intelligence needs courage and intense presence of mind. Old solutions will not work when confronted with new problems. As Flight attendant, one may go through thousands of daily grills on the do’s and dont’s within a flight, but to bring that entire knowledge into single focus, and adapt it to meet a unique situation confronting them is the true test of intelligence. Neerja displayed that quality of active, dynamic intelligence. Frightened she must have been, existential fear would sure have gripped her; but once the situation sunk into her being, she performed three acts which elevated her from a mere twenty year old, vivacious and beautiful girl to a tenacious lady, firm of purpose and determined professional doing her job. She alerted pilots on the hijack almost instantaneously giving them time to abandon the plane ( the first golden rule during a possible hijack) leaving it stranded in Karachi airport. Secondly, she had the common sense to distribute instructions to exit row passengers again, asking them to surreptitiously read and be ready; and thirdly, she found the right opportune moment to open the rear door, when power failed within, and there was chaos all around. Neerja was able to put her training into action when necessary. That is intelligence.
The above three acts are part of any Flight attendants training and duty which they are expected to perform, and probably few others in her situation would have done so as well. But what made Neerja rise from a normal professional doing her job to stirring heights of heroism was her act of extending compassion, sympathy and protective instincts to embrace her fellow passengers and crew members, and put their safety first and her’s next. And that cannot be taught in any school or college or workplace, no matter how many manuals are forced down ones throat. This spirit of selflessness comes from within, from a deep, mysterious source - the origins of which have not yet been discovered. Call it divine strength or whatever name you want to. But it rises in rare individuals under special conditions. Neerja was one such. When the chips were down, and she could have been the first to get off the plane, she chose not to. Instead she pushed all others down the sliding airbag, until only a few were left. Earlier, she made sure that none of the Americans on board were identifiable by terrorists. She collected and hid their passports. And lastly, she made that supreme motherly sacrifice, of taking bullets herself to save the lives of three American kids whom she pushed down the pathway to safety before rolling down half dead, bleeding, and strangely smiling. The human spirit in her had reached its consummation. These three acts mark her a special human being, worthy of emulation, worthy of the highest civilian award for bravery and worthy of finding a place in the hearts of Millions forever. They are signposts of what the Human spirit is capable of, especially in today’s world where basic decency seems to be missing.
in 2016, Neerja’s life inspired the movie “Neerja” directed by Ram Madhvani with Sonam Kapoor playing the lead role. A well made movie with focus on essentials. It had the right feel of realism to it, which made the film all the more worth watching. The young, fun loving, Rajesh Khanna fan with a failed marriage and resilient spirit was well captured. It is easy to catapult Neerja’s sacrifice into something other worldly and not attainable, but I was relieved to find that director had not taken that route. The Neerja we see in the movie comes out as a real, vibrant woman so abundantly alive; and it is from a sense of fullness she was able to respect and save lives. Brilliantly acted by Sonam Kapoor. I Haven't seen much of her, except in passing. But if this movie is anything to go by, then there is lot of talent in her ,and deep understanding of what acting means.
Late night yesterday, I watched Neerja on Netflix and then read a little while about her and surrounding circumstances. It was interesting to read there are few detractors in recent times who claim that Neerja really did not distinguish herself as was claimed. I could only smile. How often have we seen facts distorted, revised, re-interpreted ( revisionist history is the technical term) when viewed through the lens of the present. Nobody has escaped negative judgement. What has happened can never be assessed as it was, there will always an error or a bias, depending upon who is looking at it now, and for what purpose. In my mind, Neerja acted when needed out of a depth which is uncommon in most people, and whether the factual circumstances surrounding it are completely true or not is not my concern. That is for armchair academics and intellectual historians who make a living though discursive reasoning to figure out. To me, the juice, the essence of Human spirit in key moments are more important than anything else. Respected historian Barbara Tuchman, whose footsteps I follow in my own reading of History writes in her preface to collection of essay published in 1981 ( I paraphrase for clarity):
“The risk of a Historian is the temptation to manipulate facts in the interest of his system….I think of History as accidental and perhaps cyclical, of human conduct as a steady stream running through endless fields of changing circumstances, of good and bad always coexisting and inextricably mixed in periods as in people, of cross currents and counter currents usually present to contradict too-easy generalizations..”
It is that steady heroic human stream or spirit which Tuchman talks about that Neerja exemplified, rest is peripheral…
God bless…
Yours in mortality,

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