Karambir Kang: The Stoic
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”.
Image: Vikas Khot
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.”