How do you learn fear? From a horror movie, from a book? From life—when you know you are about to fail a test, lose your job, crash your car?

What do you know about the type of fear that immobilizes, shuts down your mind and freezes your body, the kind that, months after a life-altering event, still feels like a gaping dark pit you can’t dig out of? Fear not for yourself; the fear you feel for yourself is a pale imitation of the one you feel for the ones you’ll leave behind. What do you really know about fear?

Ask the people who lived through 26/11 what they know, and they might tell you something similar.

The night I spent curled up on the floor of the Taj with gunfire and grenades going off all around didn’t dramatically change my life. When I think back to that night, I felt, experienced and lived through many things, but I learnt one important thing—true fear. I know you don’t want to hear that—it’s defeatist, cowering; it doesn’t reinforce what you want to believe, that the human spirit can overcome anything, that it’s all going to be okay.

For a long time after the attacks, the fear was all-consuming. You block it out for lengths of time and when it suddenly spurts up in a crowded movie theatre or shopping mall, you learn to force it down and turn back to the screen or whatever else you’re doing. It doesn’t ever totally go away, but you suck it up and get on with life.

However, you learn things from fear that you might not from more positive emotions. You can recognize and truly admire courage; you know what strength it takes when someone else reaches out to help an old woman up, when everyone else is running from gunfire that sounds like it’s just a few feet away and coming closer. The events that stand out in my mind when I’m sometimes playing back that night are the small acts of bravery and courage that in normal times might seem like the mundane helpful, neighbourly gestures we perform every day.

In that situation, despite fear, there were so many helping hands, kind words and selfless gestures when it easily could have been everyone for himself or herself. Much later I realized that good things, great things can come despite, or even from, fear. I also felt defiant in response to the fear. When the attacks took place, my parents were thousands of miles away, on a much-deserved vacation.

On hearing what I had been through, they were determined to get onto the next plane home. I was equally determined that they would not. To me that was fulfilling one of the aims of the attacks and would be the ultimate victory for the attackers—disrupting lives, plans and schedules. So my parents finished their holiday, and climbed a glacier in New Zealand. For me that was a significant, probably pointless but still satisfying, victory.

What didn’t feel like a victory, however, was the hanging of Mohammed Ajmal Kasab, the captured attacker. I was at an early breakfast with friends who were ex-colleagues from Mint when one of them mentioned that he had been hanged that morning. “Does it make you feel better?," they asked, genuinely concerned. “No, it really doesn’t," I said, thinking it was a mindless waste of a human being that served no purpose in life or death.

Now, five years later when the fear is no more than a passing thought, the most overwhelming emotion I feel is gratitude. That God’s grace—or dumb luck—got me and my boyfriend (now fiancé) out of there alive. My fear and anger are now reserved for the inept and corrupt goons that run this city, leaving it wide open for another attack, or many worse fates. From them there seems to be truly no escape.

Parizaad Khan is now beauty editor, Vogue India. At the time of the attack she was a features writer with Mint.

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