Life and death, celebration and mourning... it all came together in a bewildering flash for the Sharma family that Nov 26 one year ago (2008) when terrorists struck Mumbai and Sushilkumar Sharma crumpled to a hail of bullets on his son's 13th birthday just as the party was under way.
The 48-year-old assistant chief ticketing inspector with Central Railway (CR) joined duty at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST), promising to be back before son Aditya cut his cake. But that was a date never to be kept.
File photo of Sharma Family
Regret and a continuing sadness shadow the lives of his 45-year-old wife Ragini and their sons Aditya, now getting ready for his father's first death anniversary and his 14th birthday, and 16-year-old Siddhant.
As the nation remembers the 170 who died when terrorists laid a three-day bloody siege over India's financial capital, the Sharmas remember the husband and the father. And they replay in their minds his last conversation, his last moments, his last goodbye.
"He had bought two cakes that day and wanted to have a small party with friends and neighbors. Usually, he would take an off on our children's birthdays, but that day he had some urgent work so he went to office with a promise of returning early," remembers Ragini, fighting back her tears.
The mood that evening, she recalls, was celebratory. In a party mood that whole evening, the family watched a cricket match at their home in suburban Kalyan, 60 km from here, blissfully unaware of the terror drama unfolding in the city -- and at the CST where an estimated 60 people lost their lives in just a few hours.
Just before 9.30 p.m., Sharma called home, asking for the latest score and instructed the family to go ahead and cut the cake. But Aditya insisted on cutting the second cake in his dad's presence.
Ragini has been able to piece together his last moments.
Sharma was on his usual rounds on the suburban platforms when he heard the sounds of bullets soon after 9.30 p.m. Mistaking it for a gang war, he immediately informed the Railway Control Room and requested them to halt trains coming towards CST to prevent the loss of innocent lives.
As he waited, a colleague informed him of the terror attacks. And Sharma decided to go out and see what he could do to help.
As he went near platform No. 1, Sharma saw a small girl called Pooja running towards him, screaming in terror and pain as she had been hit by at least four bullets. He tried to whisk her to safety, but four bullets hit him too and he fell to the floor, life ebbing out as the bloody terror drama continued all around him.
Back home, the first inkling of something going wrong came when Sharma's sister called up asking Ragini where he was. She had just learnt about the terror attacks from the news channels.
For the next three to four hours, Ragini tried her husband's number but the phone remained unanswered.
"We still felt that he must be busy helping people or tied up in work. Around 1.30 a.m., a policeman picked up the phone. After confirming my identity, he asked me to rush to the J.J. Hospital, but I couldn't go since all trains had stopped that night. Much later, we were informed by his colleagues that he fell victim to the terrorists' bullets," she said.
Life, she said, changed forever that instant. The homemaker from Kalyan became a working woman to support her two sons. She was offered a job in the accounts department of Central Railway.
"He was always a person concerned about society, helping out to people, especially the needy; he always used to say that 'my life is for the people' and would go out of his way if he could serve anybody," said Ragini.
She is now focused on continuing her husband's legacy. Her sons are also determined to ensure that their father's heroism will not be forgotten.
So, as a tribute to his memory and his ideals, the family has set up the Shaheed Sushilkumar Sharma Foundation in his hometown Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh.
"We shall have commemorative prayer there Nov 26, organize a few children's events with the theme of peace and anti-terrorism, felicitate people who display bravery and courage in day-to-day life. We shall repeat a similar programme in Kalyan on Nov 29," said his elder son Siddhant.
(Quaid Najmi can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
A Year After 26/11
Chabad House: Still Pocked with Bullet Marks, Still Remembering its Rabbi by Gayatri Makhijani
India Works on To-Do List to Revamp Homeland Security by Ritu Sharma
New Weapons, Better Preparedness Since 26/11: NSG Chief by Sahil Makkar
Surviving 26/11, But Living with Shrapnel by Quaid Najmi
The Uncut Birthday Cake and Four Terror Bullets, A Family Remembers by Quaid Najmi