A Mosaic of Gloom

1972, that’s when I adopted this city of Bombay, as my own. Actually I had to, due to my profession, but yet I was so lucky that I had to. I fell in love with it instantly. I enjoyed its rhythm, efficient local trains, buses, discipline, civic sense and work culture. Due to these qualities, I loved bragging, “Bombay doesn’t seem to be a part of India.” Secondly I also fell in love with the most awe inspiring and beautiful hotel, Taj. Visiting Hotel Taj gave me a sense of having arrived. There could be perhaps no higher step to climb. It was the ultimate in luxury, beauty and importance. Though not very often; but I could afford to use the Taj barber shop once in a few months, order a carefully chosen (cheapest) snack at Sea Lounge, Shamiana’s VFM burger and milk shake both costing Rs 25 each and a glass of draft beer Rs 15. I also spent a lot of time in its book shop, Nalanda. Taj gave me a sense of well being, rich feel and immense pride due to its luxurious and strong gothic structure. It also had a very comforting ambiance, ‘cool’ in today’s terms. My father had visited me in 1977. So I took him to Sea Lounge for a cup of tea and a taste of Taj. Sitting by the window opening towards sea, I ordered tea and some snacks that cost me around Rs 25 or so. My father’s face, I remember; became rigid after noticing the ‘fat’ bill…

Well, time has to move on, so after many long years that also included a new millennium; the calendar registered the date of 26 Nov 2008. I was home when I heard the news of a vague shoot-out somewhere. It is fairly common in this rich and industrial city. A gang war is not uncommon. Any ways I switched on the TV. I was sure that it must be a usual case of underworld rivalry. But soon I realized that was not the case. It turned out that some Pakistani terrorists had entered India’s maximum city! They had split themselves in 3-4 groups and had been killing uninterrupted at various locations, like CST railway station, Cama Hospital and Leopold Café at Colaba. Soon it was announced that, Chabad House (a Jewish center at Colaba), Oberoi hotel at Nariman Point and last but not the least, Hotel Taj had been ‘taken over’ by a small groups of heavily armed men. It was beyond anyone’s comprehension. I got glued to the TV. Soon news channels had setup their cameras in all three locations… and soon sounds of bullets, bursting grenades, raging fires and shattering glass panes, all became ‘live’. And it was happening, right in the heart of my city!

There was no chance of me ‘not watching’ it. I did not want to leave Taj when it was being mauled by those three Pakis who were killing guests and staff and setting everything on fire!

State and central government had no immediate answer to this crisis. It took them a lot of fumbling hours to take any focused approach. Finally politicians at ‘New Delhi’ took a lot of risk themselves and spared us a team of NSG commandoes.

Violence in the form of sounds of blasts, flames and smoke from inside Taj were going on unabated. I thought that some part of the hotel might cave in. It was very frightening. As news switched between Taj, Oberoi and the Chabad House, I felt I was in a theatre of war, right in the middle of my city. I lost track of time; eating at odd hours and sleeping very little. I would get back to TV first thing in the morning.

Gradually there was clarity – there were 10 terrorists in all. But these are not like those cowards who would cowardly plant the bombs in trains, in markets or in theaters. Experiences of bomb blasts seemed nothing compared to this. How well prepared and motivated these 10 Pakis must have been to battle India right here! And it wasn’t over yet! They had come with full knowledge that they will not be going back from here. Only ‘they’ can have that kind of motivation.

In the meanwhile commandos were dropped on the roof of the Jewish Center from a helicopter! Utterly unimaginable! A chopper dropping commandos in the most congested part of Mumbai and that was ‘not for a film shooting’. Both terrorists there were killed by our forces; but not before they had killed everyone inside there. There was a heart-warming story of a little boy being saved by his nanny.

Oberoi was next to get sanitized. All the terrorists were killed by NSG not before many guests and staff had lost their lives. To face bullets inside the most familiar and secure place must have been utterly unbelievable experience for everyone. Dozens of grenades were hurled inside the plush suites of the old wing of Taj in an effort to destroy them somehow. Most rooms were on fire on top two floors. Smoke was bellowing from large windows under those prominent Taj domes.

Finally 9 terrorists were killed. I saw one of them falling out of a ground floor window in Taj in the hail of Indian bullets, ‘live’. That was satisfying; but other than this, I had seen so much of real blood on the floor of CST, innocent poor passengers lying around. Print and TV started showing images where they could not reach during the carnage, all this was adding to collection of images on my mind…

This piece is being written in an effort to get back to writing. I take my motivation to write from incidences that unfold and affect me. But after those 60 hours long war, nothing else felt important enough to affect me. Everything seemed too small or insignificant to care about. I suffered a 3-year long ‘writer’s block’ borne out of ammidyphobia… I had a fright that Taj would collapse right in front of my eyes or it will never look the same again.

This year will be the 3rd anniversary of 26/11 and I wish to turn the leaf over and get back to my earlier sensitive self, by becoming ‘writer of small things’ once again. (29 October, 2011)

The terror carnage was played inside this railway station. Ajmal Kasab was the main terrorist here.

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