Posted by: Manjeet Krpalani on November 28, 2008
It has been now over a day since terrorists attacked Mumbai’s Taj Mahal and Oberoi hotels, the Victoria Terminus station, and other landmark targets on Colaba, the main shopping street.
The sense of siege in the city has intensified, as has the mood of gloom and sorrow. The hostages at the Taj Mahal Hotel have been released, and the Indian army is close to hunting down the remaining terrorists. At the Oberoi, a heavy blanket of silence is occasionally torn by gunshots or a grenade exploding.
I went back to the scene of the crime last evening – the area around the Taj Mahal, and next to the Gateway of India, a glorious piece of Indo-Saracenic art built in 1911 to commemorate the visit of King George V to India for the first time as Emperor. It was just past 6 pm, and the area near the hotel had been cordoned off. All shops and establishments were closed. There was smoke billowing out from behind the Taj’s famed dome, and fires blowing fiercely from the windows. Fire trucks were trying to douse the flames.
Many of us celebrate our life’s landmarks at the Taj – birthdays, anniversaries, weddings. Tea at the elegant Sea Lounge restaurant overlooking the Gateway is a special treat. Even if you didn’t have good manners, the Sea Lounge brought it out in you; no one there ever misbehaved. The Golden Dragon is perhaps the most popular Chinese restaurant in western India, and everything else about the Taj – from Guzdar, the famed jeweler, to the Nizam of Hyderabad, to Indian Silks, the saree store – is simply divine.
At the Gateway ground, there were curious idlers, but it was mostly journalists and television cameras – scores and scores of them, maybe hundreds, around the Gateway and facing the Taj. In front of the television cameras were – other journalists. I’d been invited by NDTV Profit, the business arm of the premier English channel, to discuss how the attack had changed Bombay. The crew had set up at the Gateway.
But where were the politicians and businessmen? The editor was sheepish; he could not persuade Indian businessmen or corporate chieftans to visit the scene of the attack, nor would the politicians come.
Disbelieving, I began calling from my Rolodex. One had a backache, one said he didn’t want to worry his wife, one said he was waiting for his daughter to come home, one said he was afraid of the location. These are successful businessmen, who have been the first to celebrate the city and use its generosity to conduct their business.
I began to understand why Bombay keeps suffering attacks or disasters – and it has had one every year. The terrorist blasts on the city’s transit system last year, the floods before that, earlier blasts at the stock market, riots, etc. Of the three legs in the stool that is Bombay – the citizens, the corporations, and the state – just one is working. That’s the citizens, who are working very hard, picking themselves up and starting life anew, but handicapped without the support of the rich corporations or the politicians.
Rahul Akerkar, owner of Indigo restaurant, one of India’s most famous on the Lonely Planet guide, and located close by, was talking to the media. “I feel angry, a sense of violation for the city we love so much, sad to see so many people suffering, and frustrated that so little has been done for us,” he said. His wife and business partner, Malini, is more vocal. “We pay the highest taxes in the country, but where is the infrastructure, the coast guard, the security?” she cries. “They’re crippling us. We’re a happy, cheerful smiling people and they’re crippling us. I tell them, GET LOST.”
At the Oberoi hotel, there’s hardly a leaf moving. The reporters stick to their cordons. The only thing to break the silence is the ambulances taking the bodies out of the hotel. Every 15 minutes, an emergency van would arrive. On the way out it would carry a dead body from the hotel. In return, every half an hour, the terrorists would lob a grenade out. It became a pattern.
The night stretched on….