The haunting image of her stunned face was plastered on every national and international newspaper. She was the Jet Airways air hostess, who miraculously survived the Brussels bomb blast on March 22, 2016 and lived to tell the tale. Nidhi Chaphekar's horrifying and yet brave account of the physical pain and mental trauma, she endured, initially alone at hospitals first in Antwerp and then in Brussels, is deeply moving. And yet what comes through as you read this gripping narrative, is her optimism in her herself and her faith in humanity that has not robbed Nidhi of her belief in the inherent goodness of people.
Excerpts from an interview with Nidhi Chaphekar:
The photograph of Nidhi Chaphekar in a daze after the Brussels bomb blasts.
Most people who saw your snap that was flashed all over the world, did not assume that you were badly injured. We actually thought that you were lucky to have got away without any injuries. How do you feel when you look back at that moment now?
I was and am extremely lucky to have survived the bomb blast. As far as the injuries are concerned, I did have many external injuries but my internal injuries were far more severe and of course that can never be visible to the human eye. I had more than 20 percent burns, multiple fractures, crushed bones, ruptured eardrums and hundreds of tiny pieces of shrapnel embedded in my bones. So much so that most of my body was wrapped in bandages. You can see those photographs in my book Unbroken.
I can only say that the love of my family and the good wishes of so many people across the globe that despite such injuries, I survived and today, not even the marks of those injuries are visible.
I am amazed at your ability to forgive the terrorists who were responsible for damaging your life — after going through the kind of physical and mental trauma and pain. How did you arrive at this zen-like phase. Did you consciously work at letting go of the anger and hatred that you may have felt?
I am a human being and I cannot think like them. As Gandhiji said, ‘An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.’ It is not the solution to any of our problems. It’s because of their weak minds, negative mindsets and misunderstanding that ordinary innocent citizens of the world become victims to such tragic incidents. I have a stronger mind than them. I always pray to God to give them wisdom, help them to think in a positive, humane way, make them understand why they have been given birth as humans and not as animals. Believe me, I have never felt hatred for anyone till date and I hope I never will either.
You truly have been blessed with a wonderful husband like Rupesh. In what way has your relationship changed in comparison to the pre-blast phase.
Absolutely true. There are no two ways about it. I am blessed to have him in my life. Behind each successful man, there stands a woman but in my case behind my success and strength is my husband. Our bonding has become stronger than before and for all those moments, which I had missed while I was on duty flying for the past so many years, I am encashing them with interest! We go together everywhere and enjoy all the evenings and mornings together. What else can one ask for? I don't miss anything. We enjoy every day as a new beginning.
Lying alone on a hospital bed dealing with physical, mental and emotional trauma, alone in a foreign land, missing your loved ones, struggling to survive, hovering between life and death; do you ever look back at that painful phase in your life? Was writing the book a cathartic experience?
Sometimes when I have to take courage to deal with any situation that seems like it could break me, I look back to those memories to gain strength to deal with challenges that come my way. It gives me instant energy to handle the turbulent thoughts and emotions within me. Otherwise, I never go back and dwell on my past. The writing of the book started with jotting down of events. It was for my knowledge and then my mother and family encouraged me to start writing about my experience.
At that time I wondered why would anybody want to read about this. But my family convinced me saying that if I don't want to do this for others to read then I should at least do it for my sake. However, they did point out that the way I was handling every obstacle that came in my path, every challenge, will definitely give confidence and courage to others and make people understand that one can do anything in life if you are willing to make a difference. So that's how my interest in writing began. Also, I wanted to get rid of the fear of writing a book despite being a non-writer. This is my first book. I never knew I had it in me to do this. All of us are born with the ability to do great things. We just need to push ourselves, believe in ourselves a little more to tap our potential.
Speaking about the book, how did you manage to recollect that entire journey with such clarity and detail? Did it involve talking to the doctors extensively to get your facts right?
Yes, of course, I took the help of the doctors, medical reports, my family, the Indian Embassy, people who had visited me and many others. I was jotting down each person's version. I had clarity about all that had happened till I reached the hospital. But for a lot of things after that, I talked to many of my friends, relatives and doctors and meticulously noted down each detail. This was particularly difficult as initially I couldn't even hold a pen properly. I used to wear special gloves that protected the grafts on my hands. But I wanted to write and I love to overcome challenges. The will to do so kept me going.
Your life has changed dramatically since that incident, you have been interviewed extensively both in print and television, now a book, do we see a movie on your life next?
Oh yes, I am very much confident that it will be proposed soon and then a web series on it will also be produced. Because in a book, one has to restrict oneself after a point. But I have much more to tell the world. Jai Mata Di.
There have been colleagues who have responded with some nastiness towards you; does it still rankle. Have they read the book and contacted you after that?
No, one should not get affected because each person has their own way of thinking. I don't get affected; rather I pray that all of us should never think negatively or be rude to anyone. Doing that would only showcase our flaws. Note that every time you feel jealous of someone that means he or she has more than what you have. I got such wonderful messages from a few of my colleagues after they read my book.
How did you manage the medical bills? I am assuming Jet took care of them abroad, but what happened after you returned to India. You obviously could not work, your kids were in an international school and even your husband had expressed his reservations? How did you as family deal with these challenges? What advise would you give to people who may have to deal sudden life altering situations?
God has been really kind. If God closes one door, then he opens another one too. Besides, you have to believe in yourself, constantly put in efforts, you may fail but you will rise again. Do focus on what you have, what you can do, rather than your fears. Learn to cope with the change, try to acknowledge your strengths, love yourself, accept reality and then try to resolve the problems one by one. It would take some time but you would be successful. As far as the medical expenses are concerned, I don't know about who took care of all the costs in Belgium because there is no clarity. on that. As the staff of an international airline, we are insured up to a certain extent. So for some time all the expenses was taken care of but later on my family had to bear the cost.
You have been blessed with a second life; has the bomb blast changed your perspective in how you choose to live it now?
Yes, indeed! I am super lucky to play a second inning. Earlier, I had just one goal — to be happy and take care of my family. But now I feel like the entire world is my family. All of us are related to each other. I work towards making everyone understand that we are united at the end of the day. We have to promote peace, compassion, harmony and empathy to be able to live peacefully and successfully on this planet. We should use our capabilities in the right direction. I use my internal strength to work towards a blissful environment and to motivate people and at the same time make all of us realize that we are born with a goal in life.