I was in Mumbai (formerly Bombay, the name I find hard to discontinue using since I knew it as such for most of my life) during the month of November, on a vacation to visit family and friends. During this time, we visited our favourite haunts including the majestic Taj Hotel where we lunched at the Golden Dragon restaurant. I distinctly remember how impressed I was by the rich decor, classical ambiance and spaciousness of this century old structure. A few things were different I sensed, compared to my last visit seven years ago. There were more people for sure – milling in the lobby and at the entrance, with hundreds more just outside the periphery of the Taj, a spill over from the squeeze of visitors to the Gateway of India. Just outside the lobby, at the foot of the gleaming marble stairs, was a solitary narrow metal detector that visitors had to pass through before entering the hotel. It looked ugly, out of place in these surroundings, and hardly seemed effective. Once inside the hotel lobby, we tried to capture some video footage on our camcorder of the enormous room with the stunning chandelier and artefacts, but were politely asked to refrain from doing so, as we would be “offending guests”. (Had the staff been instructed to curb people from filming the interiors for security reasons, or was it truly because we might offend the sensibilities of guests and intrude their privacy, albeit in a fairly public place?)
A few days later, we were enjoying an exquisite Indian buffet spread at a restaurant in another 5-star hotel a few kilometres away at an area popularly know as the Juhu beach. There was an outdoor wedding reception taking place on the beachfront. We saw headlines flash by on the restaurants big screen TV – there had been shootings at the main railway station in Mumbai, then at the Metro cinema in South Bombay. Within minutes, the channel was showing raw footage of the aftermath of gun attacks at Leopold’s Cafe. We thought it might be gang-related, but Leopold’s was hardly the kind of venue for assassinations of this sort. It was essentially a tourist hangout, and its clients didn’t didn’t seem to be sort who might be involved in trouble of this nature. Within few minutes we heard that the Taj was under attack,
and there were gunshots in the Oberoi hotel lobby. My brother, who was dining with us, and who also manages a luxury hotel property in Bombay was on his Blackberry pretty much the rest of the night asking his staff to secure the hotel gates, and to screen ID’s of all guests. It was difficult to swallow further morsels of food after this. Then the bomb explosions in North Bombay. We knew at this point the police were on the street, and curfew had been imposed. Our hotel had closed its gates, but the restaurant staff were still on duty, serving guests and going about their duties, making sure we did not rush through our meal. However, we decided that it would be in our best interest to head homeward as soon as possible.
As we all know, Bombay was shaken by some of the most horrific terrorist attacks that night. The Golden Dragon restaurant we visited a few days earlier at the Taj was one of the venues targeted by the killers, the hotel as we all know, a major portion of it destroyed by fire. A couple from NYC (who incidentally had table reservations at the Golden Dragon) detailed their harrowing experience in a Forbes interview and in an interview with Charlie Rose, commended the Taj hotel staff, most of them who put their lives at risk and some who died in turn.
A saga that lasted nearly three days, it was a disaster in crisis management. The city is not used to guns and automatic weapons. It takes two years or more to get a license to own a gun, so most security guards do not carry one. The most common form of a weapon is a lathi or a wooden cane, still popular with the police force, mainly used as a crowd control measure. And if they do carry guns, they haven’t been fired in years. It was nerve wracking to to see a lone firefighter perch on a wall across the second floor window of the Taj trying to douse the raging flames with no bullet proof vest or armour, with no policeman or agent covering him, a sitting duck for the terrorists. Most Bombayites wanted to hear from Ratan Tata, chairman of the Tata Group that owns the hotel, and heads the vast Tata empire. Ratan, like his predecessors in the Tata family is known for his patronage of art and culture. The Taj had a treasure of irreplaceable paintings, old maps, artefacts and several modern works. Many were lost in the fire. Fareed Zakaria interviewed him soon after, and it was no surprise that he was frustrated by the slow response to this catastrophe.
And so, in some twisted way I admit was glad to have been there when this happened. At least, if nothing, an expression of solidarity with my city folk. Life is tough for most of the population here on just a normal day. Water shortages, traffic jams, dust and pollution, failures of the power grid, poverty. Now bring into this equation, a recession and terrorism – amounting to an incredibly challenging time that is going to test the city to its gills, and one that I hope the city manages to survive with grace and determination.