Police naik Arun Dada Jadhav wants to know why I want to meet him a year after 26 November—since he has told the world what happened that day. A little over 5ft tall, of medium build and in his early 40s, the Mumbai Police head constable is dressed in a pair of dark trousers and a plain shirt. He doesn’t look like the stereotypical tough cop, but Jadhav is what is known as an “encounter specialist". And he is the only survivor from the Mumbai Police Qualis van that was hijacked by Mohammed Ajmal Kasab and his accomplice—his co-passengers, who included anti-terrorism squad chief Hemant Karkare, additional commissioner Ashok Kamte and senior inspector Vijay Salaskar, died.

Providential escape: Arun Dada Jadhav (centre) still gets sleepless nights thinking about his close brush with death. Abhijit Bhatlekar

In his 22 years of service, Jadhav has dealt with all kinds of criminals, including members of the Chhota Rajan and Arun Gawli gangs and the D-Company, led by Dawood Ibrahim. But the 53 encounters he had been part of until then hadn’t prepared him for 26 November.

“We were pitted against the unknown. All the previous encounters were in a controlled situation... Here, we knew neither our foe nor the amount of ammunition he had, nor his strengths and weaknesses," Jadhav explains in a matter-fact-tone.

That night, as news of the attack on Cama Hospital broke, Karkare, Kamte, Salaskar, Jadhav and three other policemen reached the hospital, where Kasab and another terrorist had opened fire after moving out of Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. The police had blocked the back gate of the hospital so the Qualis headed towards the front gate for a counter-attack. It was intercepted by the two terrorists hiding in the bushes near Corporation Bank, behind St Xavier’s College, who opened fire. Jadhav was the only one to survive—he draws a diagram on a piece of paper to show how he was buried under the bodies of his colleagues. He was shot five times—thrice on his right elbow and twice on the left shoulder. Blood-soaked, his right forearm nearly severed and the weight of his carbine and the bodies of fellow policemen on him, Jadhav survived.

Jadhav recalls how Salaskar had realized the magnitude of the attack and asked his team to stay on reserve, but they had insisted on going along—they were confident and self-assured. “Even when Sir asked me to come to the Colaba police station for an ‘assignment’, although I had not been briefed beforehand, I was quite sure the job would be done. I called and told my family I had some work and that they should not call me."

He recalls how he escaped death not once but twice that night. “After they had hijacked the Qualis, with four of us still lying in it, the wireless operator’s cellphone rang, so they turned back and fired a few more rounds. But this time, too, I escaped because I was under everyone."

Life hasn’t returned to “normal" for Jadhav. “Even now, when I think of that day, I can’t fall asleep. The sound of the firing, the helplessness while I lay pretending to be dead and the pain due to the bullet wounds come back. I can’t get over the fact that I am alive," he admits.

However, the knowledge that he was part of something of such enormous magnitude has helped Jadhav move on. “This experience has only made me more confident. It has also given me immense satisfaction that I got a chance to serve not just people (of Mumbai) but also the nation," he says.

The son of a schoolteacher and an army man, he grew up in Vaduj in Maharashtra’s Satara district. In school, he was a National Cadet Corps (NCC) squad leader. Duty, discipline and service were anthems drilled into him from childhood, so enrolling for police training was a natural choice.

Jadhav worked under Salaskar for 14 years. In 1996, when both were posted at the Nagpada police station in Mumbai, Salaskar hand-picked a team of five to work in the anti-extortion bureau with him, and Jadhav was one of them.

“Since then, it’s been like working on a mission," Jadhav recalls. “From then, I started getting more and more involved in my work. It started becoming important. There were times when I wouldn’t go home for two or three days. We would persist till the task at hand was complete."

Jadhav says he asked for his current posting at the motor vehicles theft department at the Yellow Gate police station, near the Masjid railway station. It’s a congested neighbourhood, cut off from south Mumbai. “Now I am working from the same room Sir (Salaskar) was working from for a few months. This room is full of memories," he says. “Even though I am not at the anti-extortion bureau, you can’t really detach me from the work I have been doing all these years. We still continue to act on information and tip-offs."

He has preserved Salaskar’s photographs, and still has his telephone numbers stored in the cellphone.