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Day after, Taj turns disaster hot spot

india Updated: Nov 30, 2008 23:35 IST
Samanth Subramanian

Before the shattered glass had been cleared, before the last of the firemen had gone home, before even half a day had passed since the death of the last terrorist, the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel had begun to fill the role it will play for at least the next couple of months — a tourist spot of regrettable notoriety.

On Saturday evening, gawkers filled the promenade outside, pointing to the parts of the façade that had featured in the ceaseless TV coverage, taking photos of themselves with commandos or in front of a damaged section.

There was still a lot to see. A Mercedes-Benz pitted with bullet holes, its glass shattered, stood to one side of the road. Large smudges of soot seemed to creep like fungus over the hotel’s outer walls. The windows in the heritage wing gaped empty, some of them starting to be boarded over with sheets of plywood.

Almost continuously, for the two-and-a-half days of the terror attacks, Kamini Sheth had watched the events develop over television. “When it was over, I wanted to show my daughters the hotel,” she said.

And where there are tourists, there are, invariably, self-appointed tour guides. The bespectacled Digvijay Gaikwad claimed to be from a “coordination committee” of the government, although he offered no identification to that effect. Gaikwad held court to a small ring of onlookers.

“Everything you saw on TV was wrong. I know what happened,” said Gaikwad. “For instance, a channel said that terrorists would booby-trap their bodies as they died, so that any attempt to move them would cause an explosion. It was just said to improve ratings.”

Others attained minor celebrityhood. Nilesh Kadam, a 23-year-old security officer at the Taj Mahal hotel, found himself shaking hands repeatedly with people who congratulated him for his courage. On Wednesday, he had already returned home from his day’s shift; so had his older brother Rajesh, who is, in a curious coincidence, the assistant chief security officer at the Oberoi hotel, the terrorists’ other target.

“Around 9:30pm, both of us got calls, from our hotels, saying that there was trouble, so we both headed out. I was here the entire first night, and he was there,” Kadam said. One woman, saying she was collecting pieces of debris from the site, asked if there were any bullets to be had. “Not here,” Kadam said, looking a little put off. “Inside, though, scores of them. The place is littered with bullets.”