Nashville native Linda Ragsdale, a children’s book illustrator and writer, cannot ever forget how a meal at the Tiffin café at Mumbai's Oberoi Trident hotel turned into a nightmare. It was November 26, 2008, a date not likely to be forgotten by Indians. While she preserved her life after taking a shot to her back, she witnessed the death of her companions at the hands of armed extremists,
Following the sentencing of the LeT operative David Coleman Headley, the man known to have plotted the slaughter, to 35 years in prison, DNA talks to the survivor.
As a survivor of the Trident hotel siege in the November 2008 attacks, you have gone on to found the Peace Dragon Project, a creative arts site. What is the symbolism of the dragon?
I started The Peace Dragon Project to fulfill a request Naomi Scherr had made to me on the day of the attacks. She wanted to learn how to draw a dragon. She and her father Alan, both were murdered that night at our table. Naomi was only thirteen, the same age as my daughter back home.
To draw a peace dragon, one must release the malevolent images of the dragon and come to know what peace is. The peace dragon is drawn with empty hands, allowing the artist to bring forth the gift of their idea of peace to this world. The dragon has also become the symbol of The Peace Master Class, a living peace curriculum, which endeavors to help engage peace as the default conclusion to any conflict in our lives.
How did the idea evolve?
Dragon embodies the idea of our fiery and peaceful natures, which one brings out into the world. Our fiery nature is part of our human existence, and will appear. The challenge is how efficiently we can remove this heat and burn from our fire and translate it into light; and how well we repair the bridges we have burnt in a fiery moment. When we learn this for ourselves, we can then allow and understand the fiery moments of others, and communicate on how we can keep building peace together.
In your opinion what role can art play in healing wounds and building bridges?
Art allows a deep and personal space to communicate with our spiritual nature, and allow a connection with our heart. Art allows us to create balance within, by presenting us with our innermost feelings, either dark or light, and allowing us to release them or empower them. The art exercises I use in the peace curriculum directly relate to the releasing of myths and have us searching for truth. They engage colour and creation, which in itself are key to what we can embrace. We have created what exists in this world, and what's better, we can recreate it. The power of art lies in creating this connection.
You reportedly attached significance to the number 33 before the tragic events played out. What was the coincidence involving the number?
At an early age, I felt the number thirty-three was significant. As dramatic as we can make our lives, I assumed this would be the age I would die. Needless to say, the age of thirty-three was an intense year for me, but it came and went and there was not another thought about it. That is, until I awoke in a Mumbai hospital and my room number was thirty-three. Later I also learned that in the chaos of that night, I was admitted under a different name, Linda Oricastala. A friend translated it to mean, “to caste beautiful light. My interpretation of thirty-three and this name of light, was a sort of "rebirth" for me, and another example of choosing darkness or light regarding my injuries. I chose the path of light, and every day I gladly accept the mission of casting light into the world.
The sentencing of David Headley is seen in India as being too light. In fact, certain sections were holding their breath in the expectation that death penalty would be awarded to him. What are you views on capital punishment?
I ache for India as I believe it is a second home to me. So I hope to carry on with my mission of light and share what I have come to understand until this moment. I believe that there can be no justice in a case where any lives are lost. There is no equation to the pain of the heart, except the personal journey through healing.
My knowledge of the US court system and sentencing has been introduced through this trial. I watched the trial and even spoke at the sentencing. Originally, I thought the sentence would automatically be life in prison, with only the death penalty having been taken off of the table in earlier hearings.
But because we are all not involved in the court and its methods, we were all surprised when we saw what the prosecutor was asking. The bargaining of time off for information is a standard formula in courts here. The prosecutor talked to me after the trial and helped me to understand my questions, which I hope would be the same as all the other victims, as I too have the life sentence of a nearly three-foot scar and its complications.
From these conversations with the prosecutor I have come to understand that the exchange of time and information helped save many lives by thwarting not only the Denmark attacks, but highlighting others who might be complicit in future actions. All of this information was shared with the other governments of victims. I understand the Indian government had open access to Headley as well.
If others can be saved from events like Mumbai, can we see a bit of light from this event?
If we dismantle and disempower those who are hiding in our countries waiting for destructive directions, by exposing who they are, have we not gained a greater foothold in preventing these terror acts from recurring?
Headley, if he survives, will be at the earliest, a man of 79. Prison life does not hold the same life expectancies as a free person. On his release, he becomes a man without a country. He has informed on all his associates, and is condemned by our country. What kind of life will he have? Our compassion must have full circle for it to be true.
What is your message for the other victims of the tragedy in wake of Headley sentencing?
To all of the victims in all countries, let your voices be heard and become the “victors” in your life. Here, we become victors when we keep fighting for justice and truth, and when we uncover something that does not hold true; we work to create the conversations to change it. The real perpetrators are still out there. This was a lower man on the scale of efforts and the one whom was caught.
The real work ahead is to educate all children about the choices in their lives when facing everyday decisions. Knowingly choosing the path of light empowers each of us to face hard decisions with an inner peace that we have a choice, and we consciously choose light.