Sabina's friends wait with hope

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  • Published 29.11.08

I first met Sabina Sehgal Saikia in misty Kashmir, echoing to the distant thunder of gunshots. This was in the early Nineties. Militancy was at its peak in the Valley, and a brave — some called him foolhardy — bureaucrat had taken a large and quarrelsome group of journalists by road to Leh via Srinagar for an art camp. Sabina was in the motley gang stuck in Leh for days because of a fog that refused to lift.

The trip consisted of arduous bus journeys. Once, just before one such long drive, Sabina jokingly told a security man going through everybody’s luggage that she had a bomb hidden in her bag. The jawan promptly made her get off the bus and painstakingly rifled through the contents of her bags. And Sabina laughed good-naturedly.

Amid the rubble of death and destruction in Mumbai, some are still waiting to hear that familiar, hearty laugh.

Delhi-based Sabina, 45, who writes a popular food column, had gone to Mumbai to attend a wedding. When a group of armed terrorists stormed the Taj hotel, she was in her room on the hotel’s sixth floor, in the wing that later caught fire. Friends relate that she got to hear about the terrorist attack and was urged to hide under her bed. She did that, sending out text messages to her husband, Shantanu Saikia, and other friends.

Her last text message to Shantanu — late on Wednesday night — said she loved him. There was one more message after that, this one to a friend who was in the public relations department of the Taj. “They are in the bathroom,” it said. Nobody heard from her after that.

But in Delhi, Sabina’s friends are waiting for her to resurface — larger than life as always, resplendent in a heavy kanjeevaram and with her favourite Pan Parag in hand. They are waiting to read her column called Main Course — a weekly piece that the hotel industry has always believed can make or break a restaurant. A high rating, and people throng a restaurant it recommends; a snide remark about a snivelling waiter, and the eatery downs it shutters.

But food and Sabina have for long been synonymous. Her culinary skills are legend — and I fondly remember an awesome biryani she cooked for us once. “She loves our pizzas and pate,” says executive chef Bakshish Dean of The Park in New Delhi. “Any interaction with her about food is always high-energy and charged.”

But Sabina didn’t begin her career with food. While studying in Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College, she was involved with the activities of Spicmacay, an organisation promoting culture among students.

She joined The Times of India in the Eighties to help organise the daily’s cultural events for its 150th anniversary. “Those days, she used to bring sandwiches for lunch, and we’d have them with wine in one corner of the office,” an old friend recalls.

She had learnt Dhrupad from the Dagar brothers and knew almost every top musician intimately. But she also worked for a while in the news bureau where she covered, among other subjects, the Enforcement Directorate and the CBI.

Later, as the editor of Delhi Times, a city supplement, her juniors remember that she was forever being feted by the hospitality industry with cakes and wine, which she generously shared with them. “She has always been big-hearted,” says the friend.

Last month, her friends gathered to cheer Sabina at the launch of her book on rice recipes from some of India’s top chefs. Such is her clout that almost overnight, every hotel put up a stall to rustle up 50 recipes mentioned in the book at the Maurya lawns for the launch.

Right now, as her husband looks for her in besieged Mumbai, her friends and family wait for Sabina to return. Among them are her two young children — a daughter and a son.

“She used to love them,” her distraught husband told a newscaster on Thursday. “Don’t say ‘used to’. She still loves them,” the newscaster replied.

The present tense has never been this difficult; the past tense never as horrific.