It was about 10 in the night, on 26th November 2008, when television news channels first started airing reports of Mumbai’s business district – Nariman Point – being taken hostage by terrorists. Multiple blasts were reported at the VT station (now called CST), Madam Cama hospital, a popular cafe in Colaba (Leopold’s) and the prestigious Taj Mahal Hotel and Oberoi-Trident.
Like myself, many of us in Mumbai, having witnessed multiple serial blasts in the past few years, did not know how significant was this strike…. Was it over already? Were there many casualties? This was certainly not designed to cause mass destruction; otherwise why would the operation be scheduled for so late in the night?
At that time, many of us would’ve believed… wished… hoped… that this was just a few fundamentalists running amok with guns or grenades, and the worst was already behind us. After all, most of the city was already tucked away, safe in their homes with their loved ones.
But, we were wrong. As it turned out, the initial TV reports were simply the beginning. 8 hours later, the drama was just getting warmed up.
Throughout the next day, the gunshots and explosions continued. 800 army men and over 100 NSG commandos were deployed. An unidentified number of hostages were held captive across the Taj and Oberoi properties, with many of the assailants still hiding within the hotel rooms. Of course, it did not help that both the Taj and Oberoi had hundreds of rooms to be searched. It also did not help that the terrorists were armed with AK-47s and grenades, while the city’s finest were well-equipped with .303 rifles – a World War II classic!
Meanwhile, SMSes and calls started pouring in from friends and family all over the world, to make sure that we were all safe. Political leaders across the globe issued statements condemning the attacks and offering support. Famous personalities lamented, once again, about how Mumbai pays millions of rupees in tax to the country’s coffers, but receives very little by way of security, infrastructure and support. Even our esteemed Prime Minister made a ‘robotic’ television apperance uttering words that were only noteworthy for how forgettable they were!
Schools and offices were closed for the day. Mumbai’s stock exchanges also remained shut. Predictably, most of the city stayed at home, watching the tube. Not so predictably, my four-and-a-half-year-old daughter added a new word – terrorists – to her fledgling vocabulary!
As always, the city’s administration and media did a splendid job of managing the mayhem. There were no helpline numbers that citizens could call for information on missing friends or relatives. There was no visible means of obtaining the names of those who had been injured or killed. Even telephone numbers of places where volunteers could donate blood to help the victims, were only flashed on TV channels, an entire day after the madness began!
What would you do if your wife or child or parent was in one of those locations, at that time? Who would you call to find out which hospital they’d been taken to? How long would it be before you’d know if they were ok or not? All of us want answers. But, answers, and accountability, are hard to come by in this country…
More than 36 hours after the first gunshots were fired, defence personnel and police were still attempting to rescue all the hostages and bring down the terrorists. Of course, for the benefit of their viewers, all the news channels almost covered the entire operation live! Watching the news that day, it would’ve been difficult for any one to distinguish between Bombay and Beirut…
Once again, a “Black Swan” event had taken the world by surprise!
The following morning, as was expected, the “resilient Mumbai spirit” was back in action. Some schools chose to remain closed, just as a precaution. And, the government ordered cinema halls closed until further notice. But, office establishments resumed work. The stock market was thrown open in a move to boost investor confidence. And, our streets were once again filled with private cars and taxi cabs, instead of army trucks and police vans.
The only thing different was that the security guard at my office gate – who usually wishes me a cheerful Good Morning – insisted on checking the boot and the hood of my car, before letting me through the gates. And, the door attendant – who usually greets me with a smile – insisted on going through my office bag before letting me through. And, my daughter, now had a new word in her vocabulary!
Long live the resilient spirit of Mumbai !!!
Update : 10th Dec 2008
Thanks to an email forwarded by my good friend – Satish Venkata – I came across an incisive commentary on the Mumbai attacks by Tamil writer Gnani Sankaran. The essay makes some interesting observations on the way the media and the security forces went about doing their jobs. Read the entire piece, here.
UK’s Guardian : A map-based summary of the events
Indiblogger : All posts related to Mumbai Terror Attacks