Four Days of Terror in Mumbai
A city in the grip of rumour and recrimination—an eye-witness account of the jihadi attacks and their aftermath
It is all too clear that the Mumbai terrorists were outstanding at their vocation. This was true in a purely technical military sense – after all, as few as ten of them were able to hold off the massed might of India’s security forces, including her best commandos, for more than three days. But it was also true in a more important functional sense: they were highly effective at inspiring terror. They chose precisely the right targets in a country whose institutional and cultural weaknesses they understood and were able to exploit. Though the real horror of their attacks was the murders they committed and tried to commit, they inspired massive fear far away from the symbolic targets they chose. Indeed, what I found in Mumbai during the four long days of the emergency was that the fear they provoked increased the further you got from the loci of their actual attacks.
The terror instilled by the attacks was somehow deepened by the news coverage, with its melodramatic music, its repetition of rumours and supposition, and its sheer ghoulish relentlessness. But the terror seemed from my experience to have a proportionately stronger effect on the well-off and socially prominent. The poor of the city, like the inhabitants of Colaba Market in south Mumbai, where three of the attacks took place, are perhaps more fatalistic and resilient, having dealt with life-threatening floods, riots and terrorist attacks before. Mumbai’s working- and middle-class commuters were back on the trains the day after the horrific railway bombings of July 2006. This time, smart shops stayed closed not just in Colaba but far away in central Mumbai, and hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, stayed home, glued to their TVs for days on end.
Thursday, November 27
I get to Mumbai (almost all residents still call it Bombay even though they have long called themselves Mumbaikars) in the evening, about 24 hours after the terrorists attacked. After walking through the gleaming but half-empty airport terminal, I find it all but impossible to get a cab down to my hotel in Colaba. The drivers are convinced either that the south of the Mumbai peninsula is too dangerous or that a police curfew has cut off all road access to the area. As my hotel has reassured me, it turns out that no such cordon or curfew exists. The one brave driver willing to take a German businessman and me makes it down to the bottom of the peninsula in a quarter of the usual time. Despite the fact that the emergency is at its height, there are no roadblocks except in the immediate vicinity of the Taj Mahal and Oberoi hotels. Indeed, when I drop the German at his seaside apartment, we go straight through a police checkpoint that has apparently been abandoned. “Oh, the police always leave the checkpoints at midnight to go to sleep,” the businessman tells me. “Security was supposed to have been boosted because they were expecting attacks here after the bombs in Jaipur and Bangalore, especially during Diwali [in early November], but nothing really changed.”
At the Fariyas Hotel, none of the staff has slept for more than 24 hours, as none of the morning shift turned up today. They are cheery though, the managers dozing in the lobby, and keen to point out to me the besieged Nariman House, with its Jewish centre on one floor, which is only a couple of hundred yards away and can be seen from the lobby steps. A porter takes me to the top floor so I can see the dome of the Taj. It’s on fire. Suddenly, the whole attack seems real and sickening. I have never stayed at the Taj, although as a backpacker more than a decade ago I took refuge in the famous Harbour Bar. Seeing the red flames and smoke reminds me of the famous photograph of St Paul’s Cathedral during the Blitz.
I walk to the siege sites. I cannot believe how quiet the streets are. The manager told me that by 9pm the area looked as it normally does at 3am. There is now no human presence whatsoever. Even the hundreds of people who normally sleep on the pavements or in cars have vanished. Block after block, the only sign of life comes from the feral dogs, who look surprised to have inherited a city. It feels eerie, like a science fiction apocalypse. I walk down the seaside road known as the Strand in the direction of the Taj. It is empty until about 200 yards from the hotel, where a fire engine makes a barrier. The press pack and cameras are on the other side of the hotel, next to the Gateway of India. Here, besides a handful of policeman manning an unmarked perimeter, most snoozing in their cars, some older men in vests sit smoking on the sea wall, with a small gaggle of teenagers. The roof of the Taj is burning and no water is being poured on the flames, though at this point there is no apparent fighting. Indeed there’s no sound except the waves hitting the shore, the quiet voices of the smokers and the low intermittent crackle of the police radio. It’s past 2am. Perhaps the security forces are keeping a low profile until a morning attack, though if the guests still trapped in the hotels are really “hostages”, as the media here refers to them, it seems odd that so little is being done, more than 24 hours into the crisis.
I cross to the other side of the peninsula to the Oberoi-Trident complex, a hotel that spreads across several buildings. Here there are cameras set up and a bigger crowd on the sea wall. The hotel is lit up but there are no fires blazing and no troops standing guard with the handful of police who shout if you go too far past the line of fire trucks. There is no rope keeping everyone back, no bank of fierce paramilitary or military men of the kind you would find at such a scene in Britain or America. Young female Indian newsreaders look bored between takes – it’s the women who get the nightshift. It’s as if everyone’s taking a break from the crisis until morning.
Nearer my hotel, I try to get closer to Nariman House, where a Chasidic rabbi, his wife and three guests are being held hostage, his two-year-old son having been rushed out of the building by a maid. (The Israelis are said to have offered the assistance of their commandos to rescue the hostages but the offer has been refused by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.) Nariman House sits behind a warren-like slum at the edge of a ramshackle fishing village and a popular street market. This village, it later turns out, is probably where the terrorists landed.
As I enter the narrow alleys near the market, I’m assailed by a stench of rot and sewage, and two lapdog-sized rats run between and over my feet. I can just see the top of Nariman House but there is nothing else to see at this hour and I pick my way past piles of refuse to the hotel, stepping on another rat, this one dead.
At the hotel a few hours before dawn, I check in with the excitable newsreaders. Every channel and newspaper has come up with a logo along the lines of “Mumbai at War” or “Warzone Mumbai”. One station says that the army has announced the clearing of the Taj, following the killing of two terrorists. It is now being “sanitised”, according to police sources, and the task will take many hours. Half-an-hour later, other security sources say that terrorists are still at large in the building.
Meanwhile, the celebrated local author Shobaa De has caused a stir by giving an interview in which she says that India has been “too tolerant”, and “enough is enough”. This is a theme that will be brought up repeatedly over the coming days. She is referring to the incompetence and cynicism of the politicians, though others decide she means that India is too tolerant of Pakistan or even the country’s own Muslims. Others interpret it as a call for new laws and regulations.
It isn’t clear that the latter would help. Form-filling is already required of all hotel guests and for most kinds of legal economic activity. Moreover, there are already various Prevention of Terrorism Acts in force in parts of India that severely restrict civil liberties and have allowed paramilitary forces to get away with torture and murder. Just before I switch off, the news says that there has been more firing at the Taj and the army believes there is a wounded terrorist still alive there.
Friday, November 28
The stench in the area around Nariman House is just as bad this morning when I return, awakened by the big Russian-made helicopter that has just dropped nine black-clad elite National Security Guard (NSG) “black cat” commandos on to the roof. There’s a big crowd watching. I can hear loud intermittent rifle fire. It stops and then nothing happens.
Back at the hotel where the air conditioning is straining to beat unseasonable heat and a party of big taciturn Russians is roasting by the little pool, a TV news report is saying that the army believes there are five terrorists at the Taj but that the Oberoi has been cleared of terrorists and is being “sanitised”. The DNA newspaper says the opposite, its banner headline shouting: “Taj Taken, Oberoi Next.” It says, “There were 20 to 25 fedayeen in the operation…More than half were eliminated or arrested after the Taj operation ended successfully.” In fact, it will be another 24 hours before the Taj is cleared.
The foreign media assumes al-Qaeda is behind the attacks although a terrorism expert friend in Delhi calls to tell me that she thinks the attacks bear all the hallmarks of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a jihadist group, now based outside Lahore in Pakistan, which wants to bring all of Kashmir under Pakistani control. It has close links with the Pakistan intelligence agency, the ISI, al-Qaeda and Dawood Ibrahim, the exiled capo di tutti capi of the Mumbai underworld. It has been responsible for multiple terrorist attacks here, including an attack on parliament in December 2001. The international reports seem to focus almost exclusively on foreign hostages, though the attacks have primarily targeted Indians and their foreign business partners.
I leave to meet a contact who lives in a tower in the smart Breach Candy area, on the seaside highway that everyone calls Warden Road, even though it has been renamed Bulabai Desai Marg. My taxi zooms down Marine Drive (also renamed by Shiv Sena, to little effect). Normally, this famous, extraordinarily beautiful, long curve of road is packed with traffic. Today we are the only vehicle, a shaking, creaking little Fiat Padmini running at top speed, my driver riding the central divider like a monorail. The beach is empty. All the stores and restaurants are closed.
My contact has a 25-year-old daughter, who has three girlfriends in bed with her when I arrive, all watching the TV news. They were afraid to return to their homes in south Mumbai last night. They are far from danger but on the verge of tears. India’s new 24-hour cable news channels are accompanying every bulletin with melodramatic music and even more melodramatic newsreading. Although the attacks began more than 36 hours ago, at this point little is known about what is going on, how many hostages there are, if the terrorists have any demands, how many people have been killed or hurt. The newsreaders say that the Oberoi has been liberated by NSG commandos.
I go to the Gateway of India, walking past a police barrier keeping out all vehicles. It’s only when I get to a hundred yards from the lobby of the Taj that I have to show a press pass. Here there are scores of cameras set up, satellite trucks and policemen walking around. On a grass verge, a platoon of blue-uniformed troops of the Rapid Action Force is lying down, some pointing rifles at the hotel, others eating. Army troops in green crouch near fire engines. The fires I saw last night seem to be out but there are black scorch marks up one side of the hotel. Close to the lobby, plain-clothes policemen in bullet-proof vests are hiding behind a four-wheel-drive vehicle. The press line is astonishingly close to the hotel. No one is wearing a flak vest.
Moments after I arrive, firing erupts and people throw themselves to the ground. Some hide behind cars or the green netting around a nearby lawn. A grenade goes off with a loud bang. The firing seems to be coming from inside the hotel but it’s hard to tell in what direction it’s going. Just as quickly, it stops. Everyone in the press line, plus various hangers-on and onlookers behind them, gets up and starts wandering around and chatting. An ITN cameraman drily remarks that people here seem to think that bullets don’t travel more than a hundred yards or fly low to the ground. Even the police seem to think that a car door will protect them from an AK-47 round – a dangerous delusion. By the end of the day, two journalists will be wounded here, one of them a woman from Agence France Presse.
The whole atmosphere is strangely casual, even as gunfire erupts repeatedly. To my surprise, not only is there no proper perimeter around the hotel, there also isn’t a proper police cordon to prevent any terrorists escaping by one of the huge hotel’s many exits. At this point, there are no helicopters overhead, and no snipers visible up on the Gateway or in the modern tower that adjoins the old Taj building. I assume that there must be some kind of command post inside to coordinate the various different security forces here: the city police, the state reserve police, the regular army and the NSG commandos.
Most of the city policemen milling around, their rifles and long sticks carried every which way, wear a kind of baffled expression, as if confused to be dragged away from the daily grind of traffic control and minor extortion. Although there is a siege going on, some concentrate on the media women: the attractive, slightly chunky female newsreaders from Indian TV or the blonde foreign reporters of a certain age in jeans or combat pants.
Suddenly, about a quarter of the press pack pick up their cameras and sprint down the street away from the Taj. There’s more shooting at Victoria Terminus station, I’m told. It turns out to be pure rumour. Many of the shops that had been open this morning are shut by 1pm and people don’t come back to work. In the Crawford Market area, there is talk not just of shooting but of rioting. Shoppers run into stores to hide from violence that never comes. In response, the government shuts down all TV broadcasts for 45 minutes.
I was living in Manhattan on 9/11 and remember the rumours that ricocheted around then – the most widely-repeated one after the planes hit the towers was that ten more had been hijacked. But they had dissipated by the end of the day. These attacks have already been going on for more than a day and a half, and as they draw on, unresolved, rumour seems to grow more powerful, fed by TV anchors who need to say something even when there is nothing new to report.
It doesn’t help that there is no central command post briefing the press. The police, the army, the commandos that flew down from Delhi, the naval commandos and the state government have all been giving briefings both on and off the record. There is apparently a bureaucratic imperative for all of them to seem important or in charge.
I walk back to Nariman House down an empty Colaba Causeway, all its shops shut, the usual crowd of backpackers, tourists and touts gone. The road takes me past the Parsi housing estate, the model for Firozsha Baag in the works of Rohinton Mistry. Leopold’s Restaurant, where backpackers were sprayed with machine-gun fire on Wednesday night, is boarded up. Two terrorists, who had eaten at the restaurant before opening fire, are known to have walked from here the 200 or 300 yards to the back of the Taj.
Almost opposite Leopold’s is Colaba police station. Apparently, when a couple of cops finally came out to investigate, the gunmen calmly shot them. No more police emerged. Nor was there a response from the massive headquarters of the Maharashtra state police, only a quarter of a mile down the road and equidistant to the Taj.
At Nariman House, a battle is under way. The whole neighbourhood is watching from what is almost a safe distance. Most people are sensibly keeping to walls and out of direct sight of the buildings’ windows, though one man holds his baby up for a better view. Yesterday a couple of middle-aged residents watching from a balcony were killed by stray rounds. A teenager sees my camera and directs me to an unfinished apartment building. I climb rickety stairs and find myself with a TV camera crew and some local boys looking right across at the top floor of Nariman House. There are onlookers on all the surrounding rooftops, including a mass of small, blue-uniformed figures on what is obviously a school.
The shooting gets louder and more frequent, and a grenade blows out the windows of one floor of Nariman House. It’s hard to believe that the hostages can still be alive some seven hours after the assault began and apparently ground to a halt. According to the news, the terrorists are now on the third and fourth floors and the commandos are squeezing them in a pincer movement from the top and ground floors. But between the outbursts of shooting the commandos on the roof look strangely nonchalant, pacing up and down, looking out at the crowd, their carbines loose at their sides.
After some more grenade explosions and outbursts of fire, it’s announced on the news that according to the police the siege is over and the terrorists are dead. But firing breaks out again. Eventually, around 6pm, there’s a big explosion and this time it really is the end. The terrorists (who turn out to be two in number rather than ten) are dead and so are all the hostages.
A huge crowd gathers to cheer some of the commandos as trucks drive them away from the scene. They chant “Bharat Mata ki Jai!” (“Victory to Mother India!”), mobbing the vehicles. The TV news channels go wild, running instant specials “Saluting India’s Bravehearts”. When a leading Mumbai intellectual, Gerson da Cunha, asks on a news panel if “Operation Black Thunder” really was such a wonderful victory, the anchorman screams at him for his lack of patriotism and all the other guests join in.
The enthusiasm for the security forces is in stark contrast to the hatred being expressed for politicians of all parties. The English-speaking elite that was targeted at the hotels, and which has until now been mostly untouched by terrorism, is looking for someone to blame. The Hindu nationalist BJP would like to exploit the situation. However, it will be hard for it to don the mantle of toughness on terrorism. Recently, it has been campaigning against Maharashtra’s anti-terrorist squad over the arrest of a Hindu extremist army officer. The squad’s leader was killed on Wednesday and has been hailed as a martyr.
Back at the hotel, the news is saying that the terrorists came by boat from Karachi. There’s a kind of irony to this if it’s true. Karachi looks and feels like a mini-Mumbai. It is Pakistan’s great trading port, the locus of its film industry, its most Western, modern and outward-looking city. The story is that they hijacked a trawler up in Gujarat and that it was boarded by two coastguard officials, who were kidnapped and murdered. However, none of the stories includes a confirmation from the coastguard that any of its people are missing, and like so many rumours reported as news it evaporates in 24 hours.
The terrorists on the trawler are said to have landed just down the street from my hotel. The newspapers and TV show a picture of a semi-inflatable dinghy seized from a nearby fishing village. The police say it is one that the terrorists used. However, the police have a talent for “discovering” evidence at politically convenient moments, just as they are adept at getting confessions from unlikely suspects.
But the Karachi-Gujarat-Mumbai route makes sense. A Gujarati friend explains to me that there is an enormous amount of illegal commerce between Pakistan and India in the north of his state. Fisherman from each country routinely go back and forth to quiet beaches across the border. This is the prime smuggling route for heroin and cocaine on its way from Afghanistan to consumers in Mumbai. The trade is said to be controlled by Dawood Ibrahim, the Mumbai mafia boss who fled to the Gulf in the early 1970s and became a major backer of Islamist terrorism. He was said to have arranged the 1993 bomb attacks on Mumbai in revenge for anti-Muslim riots the year before. To Indian fury, he now operates out of Karachi.
Martin, a European banker who has lived here for three years, one of them in a suite at the Taj, takes me to a late dinner in an apartment on exclusive Malabar Hill. The apartment, on the top floor of a newly-built high-rise, is owned by the ex-wife of a prominent businessman. She looks like a Bollywood star, in jeans and a tight T-shirt. Everybody in the room has been watching TV almost continuously since Wednesday night. Our hostess says that it’s making her depressed. We are all relieved that the Oberoi has now been cleared, though there are said to be dozens of bodies in its restaurants and the operation was delayed by the loss of the master key.
The terrorist captured on Wednesday night is now allegedly talking to the authorities. He is the same young man whose clean-shaven face appeared on the front pages of all the papers this morning, snapped while gunning down people at VT station and before taking part in an ambush that killed three top police officers in a single devastating blow.
The overall mood is feverish. Everyone at the dinner knows several people who were at one of the attacked restaurants. All of them know J, a young woman who is now in a coma in hospital. She had been at the Taj for her brother’s birthday party. He was killed along with their parents and sister. It’s important to understand the five-star hotels’ place in Indian society. They are social and business hubs in a way that is hard for outsiders to appreciate. The Indian elite comes to them for luxury, comfort, calm and space. There is no equivalent in the UK or US. Attacking them is like simultaneously attacking every event of the English social season, every gentleman’s club and the top ten restaurants in London, starting with The Ivy. India’s best restaurants are still to be found in them and just about all the people I speak to here and in New Delhi know someone who was in one of the restaurants at the Taj or the Oberoi. All have eaten in them many times themselves.
Everyone in the city’s bon ton was called or texted or emailed from BlackBerries, by friends and relatives dining or drinking at the hotels that night. Many of the trapped diners knew what was happening by accessing the internet. (It may well have been the case that the terrorists too kept abreast of developments outside by checking the Web.) The Times of India food critic, Sabina Saikia, sent text messages to her husband in Delhi from her hiding-place under the bed in a suite on the top floor of the Taj. Her final message read: “They are in my bathroom.”
Martin has a colleague who was in the Taj but escaped in the early hours of Thursday morning. He says the commandos weren’t searching the rooms in any systematic way. When they escorted him and ten others out to a bus, it was parked in plain view of the hotel windows. As they reached it, the terrorists opened fire, killing at least one fellow-guest.
No one is surprised by this. Another guest has heard from a friend who was dining at the Taj but also got out in the morning how “the troopers didn’t know their way round the hotel”. “Look,” said another guest, a tall, slim woman married to a foreigner, “most of them have probably never been in a five-star hotel before. Of course they didn’t understand.” One of the commandos confirms on TV that the terrorists knew the hotel extremely well while he and his colleagues lacked maps or plans of the building.
Everyone is furious with the BJP’s Narendra Modi, who came to town today. Modi is a controversial figure, who gets “Z-category protection”: wherever he goes, he is accompanied by a huge police presence plus bodyguard of NSG commandos. Nor does anyone have any faith in the Chief Minister, whose house can be seen from our hostess’s balcony. “When we had the floods in 2003 that killed 800 people, he tried to blame it on plastic bags.”
“Security isn’t serious here,” another foreign-educated Indian businessman points out. “If you don’t look like a fisherman, you can go wherever you want.” His wife, who helps run an upmarket design store not far from the Taj, explains to me that Western-style security systems don’t work here. “If I tell the watchman to write down that I came in at 10 o’clock instead of 11, he will.”
The Indians at the party are worried that the attacks will severely damage tourism and the economy. Martin isn’t so sure. “People here have short memories. This year, there were bombs in Gujarat, Hyderabad, Jaipur and Bangalore. Has it stopped tourism in Jaipur or business in Bangalore? In Hyderabad, 60 people died and they found 19 bombs that didn’t detonate. In Jaipur, 90 people were killed.” He reflected for a minute. “Of course, they were all locals.”
Martin’s colleague was setting up a new business here. “I don’t think he’ll ever come back.”
Saturday, November 29
This morning, TV declares once again that the Taj has been cleared and the last terrorist killed. This time it seems to be true. Just after dawn, commandos attacked the remaining terrorist or terrorists on the ground and first floors – areas which troops had been in yesterday and are now windowless and blackened – and the news includes footage of a body falling or being pushed out of a first-floor window. The papers show gruesome pictures of murdered restaurant guests at the Oberoi and a portrait of a handsome NSG commando killed at the Taj last night. “Braveheart Dies In Rescue Op” runs the headline.
I walk to the Taj through the still relatively quiet streets. Their elegance is so run-down it could be Cuba without the excuse of socialism for crumbling walls and peeled paint. A woman carries a mineral water bottle perfectly balanced on her head. A navy officer in white shirt and shorts sails by on a bicycle.
At the Taj, the ground is covered with the detritus of a media siege: cigarette packets, paper plates, half-eaten sandwiches, even an abandoned shoe. An ambulance sits behind the bank of cameras. On the other side of the rope various units of the security forces mill around a man handing out plates of bread and dal. There are the men of the Rapid Action Force in blue camouflage overalls and cardboard boxes at their belts announcing “Tear Gas Munitions”. There are city police with Second World War-vintage Lee Enfield rifles and the occasional more modern SLR rifle. There are regular army troops with leaves in the camouflage netting on their helmets, and black cat commandos. The firemen wear ill-fitting helmets and uniforms with a 19th-century air, as if they’ve been hired from a theatrical company specialising in Gilbert and Sullivan. Later, there will be angry questions in the papers as to why the firemen don’t have modern equipment.
The sun has come out for the first time in a couple of days. The crowd that laps against the rope is curious but subdued. They are from all walks of life: the urban poor obvious by their clothing and small stature, low-level officials, to men wearing pens in their shirt pockets, students in fashionable western clothes, and young Muslim boys in white skullcaps. In contrast to many of the young foreign female journalists, who are wearing salwar kameezes, most of the young Mumbaikar women are in jeans.
A senior policeman, his high rank obvious from the size of his belly, waddles over to a loudspeaker truck to announce a series of controlled explosions. Each report sends the plaza’s pigeons shooting up into the air. Two women in gloves walk out of the Taj, each holding the arm of a man in the uniform of a restaurant waiter. He is the last so-called “hostage”. He looks dazed.
I have been invited to the Cricket Club of India. It was here, at the club’s elegant art deco Brabourne stadium, that England were practising only a few days ago, before they temporarily cut short their tour and flew home. My host is a plump Indian hedge-fund manager who has lived for most of the last 15 years in New York. His office is in the Taj and he and his employees left just minutes before the terrorists struck. He apologises to me at the gate. The club is not allowing any guests into its premises, as a temporary security measure. I ask if there’s anywhere else we could go for coffee or brunch. “Oh no,” he says, “the only other places I would go to are the Oberoi or the Taj. There is nowhere else.” As I climb into a cab, he warns me: “You can’t eat anywhere, by the way. There haven’t been any deliveries for three days, so the food is dangerous.”
I go to lunch in the Churchgate district with the executives and staff of a small chemical company. Everyone is mystified as to why it has taken so long to defeat a terrorist gang that the police say is only ten-strong, and they look for explanations that give the benefit of the doubt to the security forces. A boat-owner explains why coastal security is so poor: “It is a punishment posting for the police – there is no income there. A lot of my friends have boat parties, which are illegal. Police come aboard, you give them two bottles of whiskey and they leave.”
One businessman launches into the politicians: “There is no politician who is respected in Bombay today… For years, they called for a proper marina to be built so boats couldn’t just land anywhere. For years, they called for better equipment for the police. For years they called for special commandos to be based in Bombay as Bombay has so many attacks. We need security suitable for a city like this.”
I return to the Taj again now that the hotel is truly, definitely liberated. The police are still “sanitising” the building and occasionally detonating what they think may be explosives. The policemen who were supposed to be checking people for press credentials have disappeared. As the last commandos come out, a nun in a grey habit walks up and says hello. Sister Martha’s convent is behind the hotel. She normally walks here every evening for the fresh air. “We could hear all the noise and see the smoke. We couldn’t go out and we couldn’t do anything, so we prayed and prayed.” As dusk falls, the kites that soar above and around the city’s tall buildings disappear, to be replaced by big bats.
I visit Menal Baghel, editor of the Mumbai Mirror, part of the Times of India group. The Times building is on the Golden Mile in the Fort district. It’s across the street from the VT. I meet Sebastian D’Souza, the photo editor. It is he who took the infamous pictures of the terrorist walking through the station, calmly gunning people down. He is an extraordinarily brave man who deliberately entered the all-but-deserted local terminal as the terrorists finished their bloody work. He then ran through open train doorways and ducked behind pillars to photograph the men murdering his fellow-citizens. He saw them gun down a shopkeeper and then, strangely, spare a woman who calmly walked past them.
D’Souza was struck by the professionalism of the terrorists. “They always shot from the waist. Almost all the wounds were in the body. There were some headshots but that’s because people must have ducked. They were never in any haste.”
His courage was in stark contrast to the score or more policemen who were guarding the station, many of whom were armed but who failed to engage the terrorists, instead fleeing along with the passengers. D’Souza came upon two cops with rifles behind one of the trains. “I told them: ‘They’re coming’ and pointed out where the terrorists were, but they ran away.”
Everyone I’ve spoken to excuses the police inaction by citing the age of their weapons. While the terrorists had the advantage of automatic weapons, there were only two of them. “They should have engaged them in a battle,” says D’Souza. “[The terrorists] were sitting ducks, especially when they walked on the overpass across the road.”
Sunday, November 30
I wake up to the news that the Home Minister has resigned. The three English-language 24-hour news channels now claim via police sources there was a trawler waiting to take the terrorists away after their mission. That would mean it wasn’t a suicide mission after all. (This is a trademark of Lashkar-e-Taiba: missions with an apparent excape route.)
According to the local papers, the police are also saying there were only ever ten terrorists, nine of whom are dead, and that they planned to kill 5,000 people. For ten men armed only with rifles and grenades to kill 5,000 people would be quite an accomplishment, even for trained terrorists demonstrably capable of fighting off India’s best troops for three days.
I grab a quick breakfast in my hotel dining room, surrounded by sunburnt Russian tourists. No one is watching the TV any more and the staff who had been on duty since Wednesday have gone. The Times of India quotes an anonymous police spokesman as saying that the terrorists’ plan was to do “another JW Marriott”, referring to the bombing of Islamabad’s top hotel earlier in the year. Rajiv, a cynical Indian journalist friend, explains: “This is just more arse-covering.” There’s no evidence from their behaviour or equipment that the terrorists wanted simply to blow up the hotels along with their inhabitants.
More outrageously, the police are claiming that the terrorists were planning to attack the Times of India building after the VT massacre but were thwarted “by police chasing them with guns and lathis (sticks)”. This directly contradicts what I was told by D’Souza last night. He said that he last saw the terrorists saunter across the pedestrian overpass and head directly to the Cama hospital down the road.
Moreover, all the city’s hotels, including the Taj, have had security measures in place for a while to prevent a Marriott Islamabad-style attack. There were complaints from Taj regulars when they found they were no longer allowed to drive their cars right up to the entrance. Instead, they had to park their cars away from the hotel – where they were searched for bombs – and then walk to the lobby, where they were subjected to metal detectors and bag X-rays.
On my way to see what remains of Nariman House, I get a call from Kunar Merchant, a young businessman, educated at Wellington College, who was in the Golden Dragon restaurant with his parents when the terrorists attacked and who, after hours in hiding, was escorted out by troops. He tells me that while he was a virtual prisoner in the hotel, “I changed my Facebook profile using my BlackBerry and said that I was at the Taj and if anyone wanted to pass a message to know if a loved one was with us they should contact me. I got SMS updates from relatives at home who were watching the news.” He estimates that some 80 or 90 per cent of the people with him had BlackBerrys. “Some people even had two.” As they waited, “the Taj staff served nuts, sandwiches and beverages and passed out towels.”
After he and his parents were led to safety, they were taken to a police station about 20 minutes away. “When we got there someone shouted in Hindi, ‘Why did you bring them here?’ Someone brought us plastic chairs and water but no one talked to us, and we just sat there until my uncle picked us up.” None of them was debriefed. “In fact,” Kunar tells me, “I don’t think there’s any official record that we were even there.” Pause. “That’s our country.”
I ask Kunar if he’ll change his social patterns in the wake of the attacks. Not at all, he assures me. “My parents and I are going to go back to the Golden Dragon to finish our dinner the day it reopens.”
The shops have opened in the area around Nariman House. The rubbish has been collected. The dead rats have been removed; where they lay there are stacks of live chickens in cages and piles of vegetables for sale. The way to the Taj and the Gateway to India from the Regal Cinema roundabout is still blocked off to vehicles but thousands of people are walking down it to see the liberated hotel. Some of the police and army commanders are lining up to have their pictures taken with members of the public.
I visit Udayan Patel, a well-known psychotherapist, at his home in Breach Candy. The picture window is open to the sea and a weak breeze that brings some relief from the heat. Nine storeys below, children are having pony rides. Udayan has several patients who were at the hotels. He has just visited one patient who was shot in the arm as she escaped from the Oberoi. She and her husband, who also survived, are at each other’s throats. They were at the Wasabi Restaurant on the 22nd floor. She heard shooting and told her husband and their two friends that they should leave. None of the others listened. The staff insisted that they stay for the second course. Undeterred, she called the commissioner of police on her mobile. He told her that he knew there was firing at the hotel but that police were on their way and they should not worry. It was only when the shooting came very close that the staff ushered all the diners out and into Chambers, the Oberoi’s version of a St James’s gentlemen’s club, with panelled walls and humidors. At 3.30am the hotel staff began to move people out in groups of ten. The first group, including Udayan’s patient, was fired on and had to race back into the club. At least one diner was killed. Three hours later, army commandos arrived and escorted groups out through a back entrance.
Udayan knows another woman who survived because she fainted. It was at Tiffins, the ultra-fashionable sushi and tapas restaurant at the Taj. “The waiter was shot dead right in front of her. She fainted. Her brother and her sister, who were sitting next to her, were both shot dead. Then the hotel staff pulled her into the kitchen and out on to the road. They put her into a cab and sent her home.”
A businessman shows me a text message going round the city. It says: “We must not worry about those who come through boats. But we must worry about those who come through votes.”
As dusk falls, there are hundreds of cricketers on the maidans in front of the handsome Gilbert Scott buildings of the university. Young couples lean into each other on the sea wall along the long curve of Marine Drive. The snack-stands are back on Chowpatty Beach. The traffic has slowed to its usual crawl. Ever quick off the mark, the city’s copywriters are already making use of the attacks: a huge banner for the DNA newspaper asks: “Enough of Tolerance? Speak Up.”
As I head for the airport, a burnt-copper sun is dropping into the Arabian Sea through unseasonable haze. As in Los Angeles, pollution makes for amazing sunsets. As we near the airport, a policeman pulls the cab over. It quickly becomes clear that this is not part of some new security drive. The cop takes the taxi driver’s licence and makes him walk back to his car. Through the back window, I see them arguing. The driver returns with his licence, shaking his head. His moustache seems droopier than ever. “He makes me pay him 100 rupees for nothing.” Things are indeed back to normal.