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Recalling 26/11:Part III

mumbai Updated: Nov 25, 2011 23:51 IST

Hindustan Times
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27th November 2008

It seems so ironical. Here I am discussing with my feminist theologian friends the wisdom of holding Ecclesia of Women in Asia in Bangkok because of the political unrest, and there is a terrorist attack right on my doorstep!

Last night was surreal - watching our tale unfold on TV. In, but out, witnessing the attack one step ahead of the news reports but looking at the TV to know what we were experiencing. The machine gun firing broke out at Leopold a famous café, which has mostly foreign nationals as clientele. It is three doorways away from my house. We were relaxing after dinner and heard the firing. We ran to the window and saw people running for their lives. The shooting went on for some 15 minutes non-stop and I kept thinking how many must be dying at such close range and so helpless. A police van arrived and the first cop out was shot dead. Poor men they were unprepared for machine guns.

The shooting then continued at the Taj. All night long we could hear the firing and the explosions, our 100-year-odd building trembling with the vibrations. As I lay down at 3 a.m. exhausted, my thoughts went to the police and the army and the others who could not afford to rest. We lost so many of our best officers and cops. We owe them much.

My family was lucky. My son passed Leopold just 20 min before the shoot out. My housekeeper had also gone down a little earlier for some bread. My 15 yr old was out at a birthday party on Marine Drive. We frantically called her telling her to spend the night with friends. Our neighbours were not so lucky. They lost a relative. They have a pharmacy in the area. They downed the shutters but one of the brothers went to "see" and never came back.

Three passersby came running up our building for shelter from the firing. One was a college student, little older than my children. He was walking towards Leopold to meet his friends when he heard the machine gun fire. He waited near our doorway and when he saw the public running he charged up. One of his friends was hit in the leg and taken to hospital the other managed to go to the Colaba police station. The other two who came up were Egyptians - a doctor and an engineer - who were shopping on Causeway. They were staying at the Trident hotel, one of the worst hit hotels where some 50 people have been taken hostages. The situation is still tense there. All three stayed with us for the night. They left with the consul general this morning. In their halting English they said to us “we are Arab, Muslim and passport in the hotel how can we go out?” We were suddenly looking at the other side of the picture. There are innocent victims on both sides.

Right now there is curfew all around. Army commandos on watch, their trucks parked in the street across. South Mumbai, the happening place, its old world charm evident in its stone buildings, a legacy of our colonial past. The Taj hotel one of the best examples – a landmark of India. We boast the best skyline in Mumbai, clubs, restaurants, theatres, people taking walks - a city that never sleeps. We would stand around chatting even at 11 p.m. without fear. Now no one has stepped outside in the last 24 hours and at the back of our minds the question lingers - if the victims could come up the building, why not the terrorists?

Explosion after explosion even as I write. Police vans whizzing past. Army helicopters overhead. This is a war situation. All shops are closed and we are checking out provisions.

We carry death with us now like a shadow - a global sign of the times. As the TV newscasters have said, it would seem this is our 9/11.

28th November 2008.

Learnt today that a couple who went to the balcony to watch were killed by stray bullets. Kalpesh had the presence of mind to pull us away from the windows precisely because of this danger. Some bystanders at the Taj site also got caught in the crossfire. Again and again we were told to stay indoors but people were out as if they were watching a Republic Day Parade. Why should police waste their precious time managing onlookers? Lesson One: Follow the instructions of those who are managing the crisis. The terrorists are holed up in Nariman House with hostages. It is a congested area and there is real fear that some of the terrorists holed up there may escape into neighbouring buildings. We are told to be careful. How careful can you be?

A friend calls and asks if I have enough provisions. It is like an answer to a prayer. My daughter was online with hers, a student in the US, and mentioned my concern about provisions. She calls her mother who has a number of shops in Colaba and I get my provisions by special delivery! Lesson Two: Always keep basic food stocked for at least a week. Calamities come unannounced.

Friends have been calling in and sending emails from different part of the city and India – Pune, Goa, Delhi, Kolkata, Pondicherry, Bangalore.

Calls/SMS from US, Asia, London, Rome, Australia. The most touching was from an ex-houseworker from a village in Bihar. She saw the scenes on TV and recognized the locality. She left my home 8 years ago and has preserved my phone number all this time. I ask her to take down my mobile number and she says, “how can I do that? I am working in the fields.” Her younger brother and sister are married and she is looking after her mother, earning Rs. 200 a month. And she spent on a long distance call on a borrowed phone to find out how we are.

Comments of my friend set me thinking. When I mentioned my houseguests were from Egypt, she said, “They’re Black?” Had they been black would I have taken them in? A question I would prefer not to answer. It is not the colour but the stereotypes. We have drug peddlers in Colaba and many are Nigerians. My friend persisted, “How could you take such a risk?” The mother in me echoed that concern. I too had hesitated to invite these strangers in. “Muslims?” she persisted. At least in that I was clear. It had never even occurred to me that our refugees were Muslims until they mentioned how scared they were. To me they were just human beings scared for their lives. I realize now that our other refugee was Hindu. So there we were, 2 Hindus (my husband is a Hindu too), 2 Muslims, 2 Christians (myself and my housekeeper) and 3 free souls (my children who refuse to be identified by a religion) spending the night together in a time of crisis! Simple human beings with human emotions uncoloured by the politics of division. I came to realize too how vulnerable we all are. Any one of us could have been in a similar situation in a strange land. Hate recognizes no boundaries and in the end all of us are targets of one kind of hate or another because of our class, creed or race. If only we could recover the mirror image – a love that recognizes no boundaries.

Lesson Three: The key to peace - recognition of our common humanity. Our peace keeping efforts must focus on building relationships, relationships that can accommodate and even celebrate the differences of the other. Another blast at this very moment 3:12 p.m. at Colaba.

1700 hours

Have been struggling to understand. 25 yr. olds ready to die for a cause and national security guards (NSG) and commandos equally ready to die for unknown humanity. Two sides of the same coin it would appear. The fear of death lost in the passion of the higher goal. Do all of us have this spark or is it given to only a favoured few? Can it be taught and nurtured, this laying down one's life for the other? Can we teach it in times of peace, for peace?

2030 hours

Just returned from Church. We prayed for all the hurting. Nine of us women in the choir were wearing black. I chose it deliberately in mourning for those who died but for many it was not a conscious decision. Interesting how the subconscious emerges.

Heard that the Nigerians outside Leopold were the first to offer resistance to the terrorists. They whipped out pistols and fired back. Perhaps this unexpected move hurried the terrorists on and reduced the carnage. Strange how “good” and “bad” have a way of crossing sides unpredictably. The encounter sparked off the first rumour of a “gang war”.

29th November 2008

It is over.

No more gunshots and explosions with the reminder that people were dying and families were mourning. Years ago I lost a brother to the sea and I know the anguish of hoping against hope before the final verdict is in. As I write (17:45) the air is filled with acrid smoke. Even though I know that the latest explosions are merely destruction of the terrorists’ cache of ammunition, they still make my heart skip a beat. I can see four “black cats” descend from the rooftop of the building across.

The magnitude of the tragedy is still unfolding. One story more heart wrenching than the next. We were the lucky ones. I want so much to reach out – do something to help. But what? Later I learnt that some of the wounded fled and fell on the pavement below our entrance. We were terrified and just stayed indoors. Could we have gone down and helped? I feel the guilt of the survivor. Some NGOs are meeting to plan a course of action. Will it be more rhetoric?

This time around no one is talking of the "Spirit of Mumbai" that bounced back after the previous bomb blasts. People are angry and are holding the government responsible for poor security and crisis management infrastructure. The interviews on TV last night were hard-hitting.

The terrorists seem to have won this round. We have to ensure they do not win the next. We must stand united as a nation and as a world community. We cannot let them turn us against each other. Can we bury political and religious differences to strengthen security and stamp out terrorism? Can we give up self-centered, petty politicking and join hands with all people of goodwill to take concerted action against governments that support and train terrorists?

30th November 2008

It has been a harrowing experience and we were not even in the fray. How much worse it must have been for those with loved ones who were affected. I continued writing at the request of a friend. My catharsis. It has helped cope with the trauma.

Took a walk to feel the air. To reclaim my territory that had been wrenched from me. Saw the blood stains and the bullet holes and the Taj hotel standing tall, a beautiful monument of Indian pride. Commissioned over a hundred years ago by a man who wanted to defy the British who had denied him entry into one of their elite hotels because he was Indian, the Taj is iconic. What a glorious symbol of Mumbai’s resilience and indomitable spirit she has proved to be. Majestically this grand dame stands despite the fires and explosions. Can her people do any less?

1st December 2008

My daughter lit a candle at a memorial on the street last night and at the children’s suggestion the family has agreed to celebrate life with dinner at Leopold “to show the terrorists we are not afraid.”

But today gave me the biggest scare yet. 8 kg of RDX was found 50 feet from our building. It is a shock forcing us to carry the fear of our uncertain mortality with us. The danger is still not over as we have yet to identify the local terrorists. Life goes on but at the back is the fear. Everyday lived is precious.

“Check out the sky,” my friend calls, “there’s a smiling face.” A crescent moon flanked by Jupiter and Venus. A sight we will not see again till 2012. It is something to cling to.

A little perhaps like the star in the Christmas story we will commemorate in a few weeks, that guided the wise ones to the little babe in the manager, the harbinger of peace.

Epilogue:

2011. It is 3 years since the attack. Our three refugees have become friends. The young student came with candles bought from his first salary. It brought a lump to my throat. He came again with his parents who wanted to thank us for our act of humanity. Our Egyptian visitors come home every year. One brought his wife to meet us.

In the midst of death we have made new beginnings.


Astrid Lobo Gajiwala
Occupation: Head, Tissue Bank, Tata Memorial Hospital
Age: 54


I was about to board the Howrah Express from C.S.T on 26/11.But due to some urgent work (college submissions), I had to cancel the ticket and board Howrah Express a day before the terror attaks.

I reached my destination Bhilai and as soon as I reached my hostel, I came to know about the events that happened at C.S.T and nearby places that day. My relatives and friends didn’t knew that I had preponed my travel date. All were worried and I was flooded with calls and SMSes asking me about my safety and whereabouts. I immediately called my parents and asked them about their safety. My mom works in a Hospital near CST.

I thanked God for keeping me and my family safe and being with us at the same time felt bad for those who suffered.

Born and bought up here in Mumbai. I’m a Mumbaiite. Yes, it is always in my heart always.

Mumbai was UNITED, is UNITED and will be UNITED. Mumbai Meri Jaan…!!!

Abhilash Thomas Kurian
Age. 23.
Engineering Student


Here is my take on 26/11. I had gone to Shamiana at the Taj for coffee at around 7:30pm and met my friend, Executive Chef Vijay Rao Banja briefly on this day.

I have been frequenting this hotel ever since I was a little girl. Since there were not many coffee shops when we were growing up, I used to frequent Sea Lounge quite frequently as a school going girl with my sister, to have our share of pastry and tea. We were made to save out pocket money then to enjoy this luxury, and our parents would foot in the remaining amount to make this experience of ours week after week an enjoyable experience.

On this fateful day, I had stepped out to Shamiana and have favoured Shamiana a lot more in the last 7 years as after Sea Lounge has been renovated, very frequently it has been used as a banqueting room. Else Sea Lounge was an all time favourite. I frequent the hotel up to thrice a week for coffee outings and sometimes for meals.

Before 26/11, my outings to Taj were more frequent. I could have easily spent a few more minutes inside the hotel had the entrance to the heritage wing been open, as that is the entrance that I was so used to taking up to the Sea Lounge.

I stepped out of the hotel was walking back home and was outside Tarun Tahiliani's store on Prem Ramchandani Marg, when I heard the first bomb blast. I thought it may have been a film shooting at night. But by the time I reached Radio Club at the end of the road, there seemed something grossly wrong, as I saw people running for life and stores were pulling down their shutter.

I was returning home to change and go back to the Taj for dinner at 10:10 p.m. When I reached home, I turned on the television and heard the news. It was one of the most violent terror attacks on Indian soil. I am glad I got away in good time, as I would often frequent the shops at the Taj after my coffee outing. This was one day I was heading back as I had to return to a formal dinner.

I have fond memories of Chef Banja who was like a brother to me. He was shot at 3:30 am on 27/11, whilst dishing out canapes, coke/fanta cans, Pringles to the

guests who were held as hostages by the terrorists. We spoke as late at 2:30am and the next thing I know is he is no more.

The image attached in this mail is one that I have taken on 27/11 in the morning from my terrace. The white coloured tents that you see are that of KOYLA restaurant. Koyla is bang opposite my residence.

Gitanjali Gurbaxani,
92, Gitanjali,
Penthouse Apartment,
Behind Radio Club,
Colaba,
Mumbai 400 005


This is in reference to the anniversary issue of 26/11. Not very positive memories but just wished to share them out.

On the 26th of November 2008, I was just a mute spectator to the terror that unfolded across my Mumbai, I did remember and I never forgot.

To begin with, I was a 10th standard student back then and did not have an inkling of the firing that took place in the city. I remember listening to the PCR vans moving around with their red lights flashing and a siren going off every ten minutes. Oblivious to the fact of terror attacking Mumbai, I got ready the next day to reach school when I got a call from my classmate urging me not to venture out but watch the news. It was only then that I realised the magnitude of the firing, which took the shape of a full-fledged attack on the city. Though I was happy to be at home that night, I am indebted to my classmate for calling me at the right time telling me not to venture unless it was absolutely necessary. So, if you're reading this, I owe my gratitude to you.

Best Wishes,
Akshay


Name : Bauddhayan 'Buddy' Mukherji
Age : 38
Occupation : Adfilmmaker, Founder Director of Little Lamb Films

Little Lamb Films was turning one.

We had started shop on the 26th November 2007. On the fateful day 26/11/2008, we were about to celebrate our first birthday.

We had a grand plan to begin with. A boat party at the Gateway of India -who’s who of Indian advertising would be present and we would ring in our second year in style. But as luck would have it... it was a Wednesday and we were not allowed booze on the boat. An advertising party without booze? Friends refused to even drive down to the Gateway and we had to postpone it to a weekend.

Instead we had a small ‘office’ dinner at my daughter’s favourite restaurant in the western suburbs and as were raising a toast to a grand year of filmmaking, someone got a call informing us of a ‘gang war’ in Colaba. We brushed it aside. Mumbai has seen many of those, hasn’t it? We carried on with our dinner... ordered the choicest of Italian dishes... and cut a cake. Another call came in... this time from Calcutta. “Are you guys safe? Mumbai is under a terror attack.” That’s when it hit us. There was no television at the restaurant... we started calling up people and what we heard shook us so badly that we abandoned our dinner and headed home. Amidst rumours that some terrorists have also been spotted in the suburbs, we drove back as a strange and eerie silence engulfed the city. We didn’t allow our colleagues to travel that night. They were all holed up at my residence, glued to television for the next 48 hours.

Remembering that night, I shudder to think what would have happened if we did manage to stage our boat party at the Gateway? Sitting ducks, may be? Keeping aside the films that we have done and the numerous awards we have won for the country, I guess postponing that day’s party would remain our biggest contribution to Indian advertising!!!


Name: M. Nazareth
Age: 40
Occupation: Copywriter
Bad things happen for a good reason, they say. Well, never before had I seen the good effect follow a bad experience so swiftly as on 26/11. That evening was the Month's Mind of my uncle, Fr. Stephen Nazareth. A few of us gathered at R.C. Church, Colaba, for the 7 p.m. Mass, then decided to go to dinner.

We cabbed it out of Colaba, via Badhwar Park. It must've been about 8 p.m. We drove to Fort, to Apoorva Restaurant. It was full - surprising for the middle of the week. That would mean a wait. A long one, though they said 'for 20 minutes'.

Fed-up after the first 10, we decided to go somewhere else.

We strode off to Bharat Excellensea, a short distance away. And.... it was full too! Fuming, we waited outside, and decided against looking for another place, for that might mean going all the way back to the end of their queue.

It was hot and stuffy, and I was really, really annoyed. To make matters worse, I had had a fall the previous evening, and my leg was hurting a bit. While I wasn't in a hurry to get home, I didn't want to sit out on the road, breathing in traffic fumes and waiting for a seat in a restaurant. I grumbled all the time - about the heat, the fumes, the wait, the fact that the restaurant was full when it wasn't even a Friday night, etc.

Finally, after about half an hour, they let us in. Mellowed by a terrific Mangalorean meal, we left the restaurant and went our separate ways. It must've been around 9.45 or so. Alone, I limped slowly towards CST station.

At the mini bus-terminus near 'The Loot', I came upon a bus driver who mumbled that he 'didn't know what was going on'. Further down the road, just before Kabutar Khana, I was stopped and prevented from going any further because of 'the gang war at CST'.

There were others there too - long-distance passengers with their baggage, furious at being compelled to miss their trains. A desultory police van screeched by, a few gunshots were heard from the vague direction of the station. A passerby told me to get into a cab and go home. We all had no idea of what was going on.

I limped back to Excellensea, where the doorman, recalling my visit earlier that evening, got me a cab to Churchgate to try my luck with the trains there. The people in my compartment seemed spoke in terrified whispers. All of us knew nothing of the events that - even as we sat there - were eruptingaround the city. Rumours flew thick and fast about bomb explosions here and there. I got off at Dadar, which was deserted, and got a bus that took me straight home. And when I switched on the news, the horror of the evening unfolded on my TV screen.

I froze. The first thing I recalled was how annoyed I had been at being made to wait at those restaurants. And then it slowly sank in: if we had got a table on time, it would have put me at CST station right at the time of the shootout. I thanked God - and my uncle, whose Month's Mind I had prayed at earlier that evening – for saving me that night.