by Purwa Bansod, Asia Society Mumbai Centre
MUMBAI, November 26, 2008 - Last night was one of the most frightening nights of my life. What started out as a relaxed and social evening turned into a night-long vigil to the powers that be to calm the madness in Mumbai.
I met a friend for dinner at Indigo Deli, a favorite with Mumbai expatriates for its "continental" food. The restaurant is located almost directly behind the Taj Mahal hotel. We were planning on grabbing a drink at the "expat night" at Henry Tham's, a nearby bar, after dinner. While enjoying our meal, my friend received a phone call that there had been a shootout on Colaba Causeway at Leopold's, a mainstay in Mumbai's nightlife. The gunfire was credited to gang violence. Assuming it to be an isolated incident, we continued our meal, deciding to stay until the commotion died down.
It soon transpired that this was not gang violence, but a terrorist attack. We learned of terrorists with AK47s inside the Taj Mahal Hotel, bombs at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, and an explosion in Santa Cruz in the suburbs. Some people chose to leave the restaurant, but the rest of us took to heart the hotel's advice, "You may leave, but it will be at your own risk." The gates of the restaurant came down, and a police officer guarded from the outside. Though I received a number of texts from Mumbai dwellers asking if I was alright, it wasn't until 11:30 pm, when I received a text from the States, that I realized the magnitude of the situation.
By midnight I heard of fires at the Oberoi Hotel and more gunfire on Colaba Causeway. Calls were coming through frantically and the majority of the 20 or so patrons of the restaurant were attached to mobile phones. The message was clear, "Stay where you are. Do not go anywhere." I dutifully obeyed. As more reports of an onslaught at the Taj came through, those remaining in the restaurant moved upstairs where we assumed it would be safer. Soon, the lights were put out and we continued discussion by candlelight. Strangers were introduced and commiserations made over the terrifying situation. Tea, coffee, and cakes materialized on tables to calm fears. Speculations began to fly about. Was the Indian mujahideen responsible? Were the previous terrorist attacks in past months a distraction leading up to this affair? Did it have anything to do with Kashmir? With no TV or radio, we were left at the mercy of news via text message, phone calls, and intermittent internet updates from the manager of the restaurant.
Further, it came to be known that the terrorists in the Taj and Oberoi Hotels were targeting US and UK nationals. A colleague called upon hearing the news. "Listen," she said, "Whenever you get out of Indigo Deli, the second you're on the street, speak Marathi. Don't speak a single word of English." She didn't spell it out, but I understood she meant my Yank accent would give me away as a foreigner. The realization sent a chill through my body.
Around 12:45 am, the distant boom of a bomb could be heard. A 12:50 text confirmed its detonation. The police were being joined by the army to combat the terrorists. From our dark perch we watched a caravan of fire trucks and convoys of men in fatigues roll by. Yet we were not certain if this meant the situation would soon be under control of if it was worsening.
By 1:30 am, blasts were claiming the JW Marriot and Ramada hotels; "American hotels," some nodded knowingly. Five blasts had gone off at the Taj and fires had sprouted. 3:30 am came with a stark message, "Taj is burning down for sure. Looks like old wing at least will be razed to the ground by morning." This one struck straight and broke my heart. The venerable, beautiful old Taj is a quintessential monument and symbol of Mumbai.
From 4:00 to 6:00 am we waited with little news, drifting in and out of unreliable sleep. By 6:30 am dawn was breaking, but there was news of new gunfire at the Taj and the presence of snipers were suggested. By 7:45 am the police deemed it safe and the gates were opened for us to leave.
Strangest of all in this experience was stepping out into the morning. It seemed like any other early morning in Mumbai, though considerably quieter. The sun was shining, people had begun milling around, and some taxis were whizzing by.