FEATURES/Person of the Year '09 | Dec 29, 2009 | 53962 views

Karambir Kang: The Stoic

Uncomplicated. Jokester. Turn-around guy. Saviour. Survivor.


arambir wasn’t supposed to be his name.

At 22, Kanwaljit Kang was married and pregnant. One night, she had a dream. A saint opened the Sikh holy book and said, “Name your baby, a son, Dusht Daman.” Kanwaljit only laughed. Such a hard name for a child, she thought. The name meant “Destroyer of demons”.

Karambir Kang, the general manager of Taj Mahal Palace and Tower
Image: Vikas Khot
Karambir Kang, the general manager of Taj Mahal Palace and Tower

The saint was right. A boy was born. For eight months, he went without a name. Finally, Kanwaljit and her husband Jagtar went to a nearby saint to ask for another name. A name not so rough. But the saint said the name should stay. Still, Kanwaljit resisted it. No, we must give him something more modern, she thought. A softer name. They settled on Karambir. It meant, “A person who does brave deeds”.

Now, Kanwaljit, 61, cries when she talks about her son’s name. She wipes her eyes with her dupatta continuously. Her makeup smears into little rain clouds around her eyes.

“If I had given him the name I was supposed to, maybe he could have killed those terrorists that day,” she says. She cries harder.

On November 26, 2008, her son did not kill terrorists. But, true to his name, Karambir Kang did brave deeds.

On that day, he was extraordinary. Through a 60-hour siege on the hotel whose company he’d served for 19 years, he worked. On and on, without tiring. Helping to save a thousand guests. But he couldn’t save his wife. He couldn’t save his children.

Karambir called his parents at midnight that night. “I don’t think they’ve made it,” he said, his voice splitting.

“Be a brave Sikh,” his father, a retired Major General told him sternly over the phone from Bahrain. He knew this was the only way to save his son. “You are an army general’s son. Stay afloat with your ship or go down with it.”

There was silence, and then, “How can you think I can leave?” Karambir asked his father. “If it goes down, I will be the last man there.”

Karambir Kang was born as normal as a parent could hope for. Blue eyes. Pale skin. And pulled out of his mother’s stomach, Caesarean style, at a strong 11 pounds. “What a big, healthy boy,” Kanwaljit had said.

Others said his skin and eye colour looked like a bunny’s. Bunny soon became ‘Binny’. The nickname stuck for life.

Binny was the first child born to the Kang family. And so he was the darling of his relatives: His mother and father, his aunts, maternal and paternal. They called him a lovely, simple boy. Nothing too complicated. Because Binny didn’t fight with other kids. Sometimes, he teased his sister to tears. But nothing past the normal brother-sister banter. He always had friends in the house. “A galaxy of friends,” his father Jagtar says, eyes twinkling. They are his son’s eyes.

Binny grew up on the war stories of his father, a Major General who was in action in 1965 and 1971. Jagtar moved the family from Shimla to Wellington (in Tamil Nadu) to Himachal to Delhi to Pune. But Karambir never complained. He made friends everywhere he went. They all called him, affectionately, ‘Binny’.

In class 12 in Chandigarh, Binny met a boy with a mop of curly hair named Puneet Vatsayan. They pulled a prank and became instant partners in crime.

One day Binny, with Puneet’s help, dressed in all white and hid in some high grass, holding a candle. Binny was a convincing ghost. He waited in eager anticipation for one of his little cousins to find him and get scared. Instead, his uncle, who was on a walk, saw the apparition. In fear, his uncle began whacking the ghost as hard as he could. “Uncle, it’s me!” Binny yelled, collapsing in laughter with Puneet.

The two boys stayed friends despite Binny’s move to Pune. “We were only together for a year, but we lived a lifetime in that year,” says Puneet. It was like that with many of Binny’s friends. Meet once, and there always. In the weeks that followed 26/11, almost every friend Binny had ever made reappeared to help him.

Binny made friends being funny. But he could be serious, too. He made his parents proud when he represented the school in quizzes. He acted in plays, some professional. In George Bernard Shaw’s, “Arms and the Man”, he played Major Petkoff, the guy who gave comic relief. The play was a satire on the foolishness of war. Of violence.

In college, Binny got up every morning and listened to the radio. BBC and Voice of America were his favourite. Then he’d narrate the day’s world events to his father. When his friends were drinking, he’d be the one making sure everyone got home. His parents knew when he got home at night by the sounds of classic rock coming softly from his bedroom.

Soon it was time for Binny, for Karambir, to pick an occupation. His father wanted him to join the army. Or the civil services. His mother would constantly be asked why her son wasn’t in medical school or law school.

“Leave me alone, I’ll do something,” he told his mother.

“We spent innumerable hours talking about how we wanted to do something,” says Puneet. Their friendship wasn’t just pranks anymore. “We wanted to do something, and something successful. You see, Binny just got more serious over time.”

This article appeared in the Forbes India magazine issue of 08 January, 2010
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Comments (21)
Siram Mar 1, 2014
The best article. A true role model for thr Indians. His life highlights the significance and value of responsibility. First, I appreciate his father for giving him courage to face the attack. He was responsible not only to himself and his family but also towards the society. He was extremely sincere towards his duties. If he happens to glance at this post, I want to tell him not to be embarrassed.
Please don't think about the past.
Saluting you, brave Indian
Your respectfully,
Vishnu Priya Mar 1, 2014
First I salute karambir's father who gave him mental strength for facing the attack.
If karambir happens to glance at this post, please don't be embarrassed.
Hats off Mr Karambir Singh Khan, the brave general manager of Taj mahal palace and towers.
Vishnu Priya Mar 1, 2014
The best article. A very touching story of karambir Singh khan. His a true role model for Indians. I pray to give hime mental strength. His life highlights the significance and value of responsibility in life. He was responsible not only to himself and his family but also towards the society. He is truly sincere towards his duties and responsibilities. I salute you for your brave deeds.
Prashant Colaco Jul 26, 2013
Its one of the most inspiring at the same time touching article I have read... I salute Mr. Karambir
Diana Mar 31, 2013
Kang a Living Angel on Earth...
Sajjitramdas Nov 26, 2012
can only pray to god to give kang the mental strength to be able to come over the tragedy.
Arpitakshatriya Oct 11, 2012
Wow, that is what we think first...but just keep yourself in his place. It shivers you internally. Too dificult task. One needs LION HEART. Even I could feel his pain deeply.
But there is also surprising thing that your father was retired Major, and he couldn't save his own family. It is like Doctor's family died of sickness. And Death comes from Pakistan...unpredictible. What happens when happens and it happens.....why anyone goes through such pain....It is almighty who knows what is stored in our destiny.
My Condolsences to him and his family. Wish I could help him. Can you give me his email id or phone no.
Yezdi Chikhliwala Jan 4, 2010
What can I say?
The finest - We Indians should be proud of this hero
My eyes swelled with tears reading this article
Hats off to his wonderful parents too - who brought up the son
We can only pay homage to the wonderful wife and the 2 wonderful sons
srinivas Jan 2, 2010
Hts off to you Mr.Kang. I have no words to say.
Srinivas Jan 2, 2010
Mr Kang,

I am speechless after reading this article, i would want to meet to you one day and salute you. May god be with you always.

Brig Arun Kochhar (retd) Jan 1, 2010
Well done son. We are proud of you, and yours who made you what you are.
Labanya Jena Dec 31, 2009
I salute you sir for your brave efforts at the most critical time of your life. You will always be a role model for me.
Manmeet Singh Dec 30, 2009
speechless..Article must be read by those who indulge in terrorist activities.
Ashish Jalan Dec 30, 2009
Well written. It made a very interesting read. The respect for Mr. Kang has only grown after reading this story.
Philip Dec 30, 2009
Awesome guy. Hats off.
Pawan Dec 29, 2009
It takes a lot of courage for a man to be in a place where he has lost his family, we salute You Sir.
Anonymous Jan 13, 2010
To me it is just a normal story of a normal guy. Just written using a poetic and flowery language. Okay, he might be a little better than the average John, but that's all. I don't see any greatness in this person. If there is something substantial, I would like to know. Because there were three top cops who were killed. There were so many who faught on the day of the terrorist attacks. Things is: even if he is a great man, the story written here is way off track. Taking your drunk friends home is the duty of every sober person. And this story talks about so many other silly things. Maybe the man if really great, but this story just made him look average.
Elizabeth Flock Jan 13, 2010
Dear Anonymous,
The purpose of the story IS to show an ordinary man who did extraordinary things. A man who grew up inculcated with a sense of a duty, and on a particular day when it was put to the test, demonstrated that.
Response to Anonymous:
saloni Jan 25, 2010
u think that he is an average guy? I don't seem to understand you point of view....this man saved guests and worked for hours at a stretch after getting news of his family's death...he still works there...comes face to face with his loss can you call him average?? u and i can't evn imagine the depth of his loss....i don't know about the article, but i think it is unfair to call him average....he is a warrior, a hero.
Response to Anonymous:
Shubhreet Sidhu Apr 13, 2010
Somebody who doesn't even have the guts to give his/her name and express opinion about something i suppose shouldn't be expressing views on courage. Kang in every sense is a hero and has been true to his name. Ask every single life he saved against his own children.. @anonymous-- if you cant appreciate them please respect them atleast
Response to Anonymous:
Sameer Feb 2, 2011
Some people we loose in life some in death , I salute Mr KANG for his heroism, he is indeed an extraordinary man, it's easy to break down in public but this man did not. Though i am sure he went through private hell every second after that. His loss is immense, cannot be described in words.
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