The first time I went to the Taj in Bombay, it was on a date, but not my own. I was 12, and the third wheel between my uncle and his fiancee; I had to be taken along for propriety’s sake.
We sat in the Sea Lounge, overlooking the harbour, amid the Parsi matrons arranging marriages and the British bankers drinking gin with American aid officials. My uncle had brought my future aunt here because he wanted to impress her with the hotel’s opulence, and I had the most expensive bhelpuri of my life. The Taj is to Bombay what the Empire State Building is to New York: it is what you see on a postcard of the city, a building that does not need to be further identified. It is, simply, ‘Bombay’.
People who are seeking position or money in Bombay often use this one hotel, this one citadel of empire, as a mark or measure of their progress upward through the strata of Bombay.
The Taj was born out of a slight: because a man was turned away from a fancy hotel. When the prominent Parsi industrialist Jamshetji Tata was refused entrance into Watson’s hotel in the 19th century because he was a native, he swore revenge, and built the Taj in 1903. It is less a hotel than a proving-ground for the ego. The Taj lobby and its adjoining toilets are where you test your self-worth; theoretically, anyone can come in out of the heat and sit in the plush lobby, or relieve themselves in the gleaming toilets. But you need that inner confidence to project to the numerous gatekeepers, the toilet attendants; you need to first convince yourself that you belong there.
The terrorists who swarmed the hotel on Wednesday ignored the gatekeepers, or shot them dead. They marched into the lobby with confidence, and in a rage. If, as seems likely, they are Muslims, then they are only the latest manifestation of the original sin of modern south Asia: the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan.
India has been congratulated, and has congratulated itself, for not supplying recruits to al-Qaeda. India’s 150 million Muslims are different, it was thought. During Partition, they voted with their feet; until recently, there were more Muslims in India than in Pakistan. But Muslims are poorer, and less educated, than other Indians. Urban Muslims have a poverty rate of 38 per cent — much higher than any other segment of the population, including the lower castes. The 2002 anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat, just north of Bombay, made many Muslims think that if the state could not or would not protect them, they would have to take matters into their own hands.
In 1999, a quarter century after I went to the Taj to chaperone my uncle and aunt, I was in a small, dingy room in a guesthouse just behind the Taj, in much less romantic company. I was interviewing a young Muslim man whose family had been attacked by Hindu rioters, and who had subsequently joined the Muslim underworld. He told me about the coming worldwide war of Islam against its enemies, and its local manifestation in Bombay. “This time we will be fully prepared. We have all the equipment. The bhais (dons) will send ships with containers full of weapons.” I asked the gangster why he stayed in Bombay, if he thought it was so bad for Muslims. He peered out the one window at the grey and white walls of the Taj, and remarked: “The main thing in Bombay is money. There’s lots of it.”
And this, when all is said and done, is why the terrorists keep attacking Bombay, and picked the top business hotel of this most commercial of cities to stage their spectacular: it is where money is made. Lots of it.
Suketu Mehta is author of Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found and a Professor of Journalism at New York University