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An Eyewitness to Mumbai Attacks

Smoke drifts from Mumbai's Taj Mahal hotel on the morning of November 27, 2008 after a night of terrorist attacks rocked the Indian city. (Purwa Bansod/Asia Society)
by Stephanie Valera
26 November 2008

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.