I was having a casual coffee at Starbucks on a weekend when I overheard a couple discuss about the birthday of their deceased son. Now, that’s not something you hear very often, so I eavesdropped. Five minutes later, I was sitting at their table. Here’s their story.
Time has stood still for the Patankar household since the phone call on January 11, 2005.
A hospital in Jakarta rang them up early in the morning and asked them to identify the body in a picture they had faxed to Dinkar Patankar’s office. The caller, a volunteer at Red Cross, said he traced Dinkar’s contact details after retrieving a hotel key from a money pouch the deceased was wearing under his shirt.
“At that instant I knew that they had found him. Rashu always wore a money pouch when abroad. Plus they had cross-checked the picture with hotel check-in records,” Dinkar said.
Rishabh Patankar, fondly called Rashu, had been temporarily stationed in Indonesia for official work. He was scheduled to return at the end of January, in time for his 28th birthday.
The 30-minute drive from Al Qusais to Karama was the longest ever for Dinkar, a 53-year-old accounts manager.
“I did not know what to expect when I looked at the bunch of faxes that arrived that morning. A part of me wanted to run away and cry. What will I get by looking at the picture of my dead son? Another part of me prayed that the news was just a false alarm and Red Cross had got the wrong family,” Dinkar said, quickly wiping off his tears as his wife Rekha held on to his hand.
“She has been the strongest among all of us,” he said, pointing to his wife.
The fax included a blurry image of Rishabh’s face, his watch, pouch, shoes and a few identity cards. Faces dropped as the fax went from hand to hand. Rishabh’s elder siblings – a brother and a sister, both working in Abu Dhabi – had arrived by then. No one cried.
Dinkar called up a colleague and asked him to book two tickets to Jakarta.
“We decided that moment that Siddharth (the elder son) and my husband would fly and get Rishabh back,” Rekha said. “We couldn’t waste any more time. We had waited long enough for our son.”
Rishabh, a manager with a Dubai-based event management company, had left for Indonesia on October 20, 2004 for a short project set-up stint.
“He is a frequent traveller, and has been to nearly all countries in South Asia. It was just another trip for him and us,” Rekha said as her husband went inside to fetch his laptop.
“I will show you his pictures,” Dinkar said, showing a hint of excitement.
“No guest comes to our house and leaves without seeing Rishabh’s pictures,” Rekha explained. “Earlier I used to stop him from doing this as it made me uneasy. But I have stopped telling him now. It gives him happiness. You can see it on his face.”
Sure enough, Dinkar went through each picture with a lot of excitement and pride.
“This is the last one. He sent this on December 24,” Dinkar said, tears flowing again.
The same photo hung on the living room wall, enlarged and framed.
“Rishabh told us he is taking a small break and won’t be in touch for the next three days. When he didn’t call us on the day the tsunami struck, we got worried. We made several phone calls to his hotel and office. Nobody answered. I became restless,” Rekha said.
The Patankar family spent the next two days calling up all the helplines and watching news channels, hoping to catch a glimpse of their son. Taking a flight to Indonesia was not an option as the handful of runway strips that were available were being used for rescue work.
“So like everyone else, we approached the Indonesian and Indian consulates and submitted all identification papers. We also shared the details with Red Cross,” Dinkar said. “Then we waited.”
Hope faded as time went by, until the day the phone call came.
Rishabh’s body was found near a beach, wedged below debris. His skin had decomposed and the clothing had to be carefully peeled off when searching for identification papers.
“Only the metal key and plastic cards survived. Everything else, including his passport, had decomposed beyond recognition,” Rekha said, looking fondly at the picture on the wall.
A part of us died with him.