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University community remembers victims of Mumbai terrorist attacks

Following the service, students took turns lighting candles in Packer Memorial Church.

Munisha Mahtani ’09 journeyed last week to be with her loved ones—in her case, an aunt and uncle in Westport, Ct.—to rest, relax and enjoy a big Thanksgiving feast that mixed traditional American fare with dishes from her native India.

However, the brutal and senseless terrorist attacks in the city of Mumbai, the city where she was born and a place that family members still call home, changed everything.

Instead of enjoying the holiday, Mahtani’s thoughts and prayers were half a world away in the city formerly known as Bombay. She was glued to the TV and news reports online from India, while fielding phone calls from her mother in Nigeria. The next day, Mahtani learned that she lost an aunt and an uncle in the attacks on the Hotel Oberoi and that a cousin was critically injured in the same attack.

One week later, at noon Friday, the incredibly poised Mahtani shared her experience during a “Service of Reflection and Remembrance” in Packer Memorial Church to honor the nearly 200 people who were killed as a result of the attacks and the estimated 300 more who were injured.

She spoke poignantly of how her cousin was in the restaurant in the Hotel Oberoi where the first terrorist attacks occurred.

“She laid there for 20 hours—injured but pretending to be dead—before being found and taken to the hospital,” Mahtani told a hushed crowd of students, faculty, staff and members of the community.

She spoke about how her aunt and uncle weren’t as fortunate, dying immediately from bullet wounds, and about seeing her grandfather and another cousin on CNN, crying outside the restaurant.

Mahtani will return to Mumbai over Christmas break to embrace and comfort her cousins and grandparents—much as members of the Lehigh community who gathered in Packer Church tried to do for her.

"No easy answers"

The 50-minute interfaith ceremony was led by Lloyd Steffen, university chaplain and professor of religion studies, and Rabbi Seth Goren, director of Lehigh’s Hillel Society, who arranged the event to commemorate those who perished in the attacks and to offer support and condolences to those affected by it.

It followed a candlelight vigil that took place on the UC lawn late Thursday afternoon that was organized by the Indian Student Association.

“We come together to hold in sorrowful and grieving hearts the memory of those who have perished, and to offer comfort and support to those burdened by the pain of loss, those who feel this most directly and whose grief is most immediate,” Steffen said.

“At least one student in our university community has been directly affected by this calamity; and we are connected to her, and offer to Munisha our condolences, our sympathies, on this very personal loss to her and her family.”

During his remarks, Goren said: “Our world was turned upside-down as, in horror, we saw light where we should see darkness and darkness where we hope to see light. We witnessed brilliant explosions of grenades and gun muzzles at the Leopold Café and the blinding intensity of searchlights trained on Nariman House in the ordinarily dark night. We saw charcoal smoke billowing out of the Taj Mahal Hotel, eclipsing the sun, and dark red stains on the off-white floor of the Chattrapati Shivaji Railway Station.

“The inversion of light and darkness, this loss of equipoise and position signaled the arrival of evil, the presence of pain and deluge of murder, mayhem and destruction.”

Mahtani, Goren and Steffen were joined at the podium by Sudhakar Neti, professor of mechanical engineering at Lehigh; Arup SenGupta, professor of civil and environmental engineering; and two members of the Indo-American Association of the Lehigh Valley: Prabhat Kumar and Sandeep Dhareshwar.

All condemned the acts of horrific violence, and expressed feelings of frustration and helplessness.

"We are all shocked and angry and cannot figure out what to do," Neti said. "There are no easy answers. The only way to get through something like this is to come together in support of each other. The hard thing is that these are not single matters of law enforcement. Those who want to commit violence only have to be successful once, while those who believe in peace must be ever-vigilant."

SenGupta spoke of his concern for friends and family members in India, and of his time in India—including some memorable moments in the very buildings that were the site of terrorist attacks. Watching news footage of the coverage, he said he was struck by the images of the terrorists.

“They looked like me, or could pass for many men in India," he said. "There was nothing about them that stood out, which led me to wonder: How could they be involved in something like this? What is the genesis of this kind of behavior? This is a very sad day for all of us, but something we should continue to think about is what happens to make someone so willing to kill people they don't even know?”

After each speaker finished their remarks, they lit a candle on the steps behind the podium in remembrance of those who perished in the Mumbai tragedy. Audience members also lit candles before leaving in silence. Many stopped to hug Mahtani before exiting the chapel.

Trina Pal '11, a behavioral neuroscience major from Dumont, N.J., came to the ceremony in support of her friend, Mahtani.

"I just wanted to find a way to offer my condolences," she said. "I want her to know that we support her and are here for her."

Pal attended the ceremony with a number of students from the Indian Student Association, including the organization's vice president Kush Badshah ’11, a behavioral neuroscience major from Seattle, who said he found the ceremony "comforting."

"I'm really glad this was held and that it was attended by people from all over Lehigh," he said. "It's important we could be here for someone who suffered this loss."

Mahtani, still composed but with tears in her eyes, lingered for a few moments at the back of the church, and said the last few days have been “a whirlwind” of emotion.

“It’s been great having friends around, and it’s touching to see them come out and be a part of this service,” she said.

Like Prabhat Kumar, who vowed to return to Mumbai’s beautiful hotels and tea rooms as soon as they are rebuilt, Mahtani plans to go back to India over the winter break to continue her charity work with Children to Children, a New York-based, non-profit group geared toward teaching young people the power to effect social change through volunteering.

“Our next project will be to find ways to help the children who lost relatives during this terrible time,” she said.

--Bill Doherty and Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Friday, December 05, 2008

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