First Person

26/11 and the Mumbai Spirit of Moving On

The excitement of my 32nd birthday had just begun to dissipate, and the 26th of November 2008 was a routine day coming to an end. At about half-past nine in the evening, my wife and I decided to go for a short drive with our 5-month-old son. Just before stepping out, I turned on the television to see ‘what was happening.’

By Binu Philip , 30 Nov 2021

Sunetra Choudhury of NDTV 24×7 was breaking a story of a ‘gang fight’ in Mumbai. It was unclear who was involved but was this gunfight was happening close to one of Mumbai’s most iconic landmarks.

Flipping through other news channels, including regional ones, the same story broke in. Nevertheless, we stuck to our plan and went on the drive, but the tone of the news presentation kept bothering me.

On returning, somewhat quicker than usual, I switched on the TV again, and News Anchors like Arnab Goswami and Rajdeep Sardesai were repeatedly hammering in the news with their adamant voice and tone – “terror strikes Mumbai yet again.”

Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, Vikram Chandra took over at NDTV, and the terror news got established beyond doubt, though we still didn’t know the extent.

Along with this, came ‘fresh’ visuals of a vehicle passing by a crowd of people and shooting indiscriminately- something we’re used to seeing only in movies. Then reports came of a fire at the Trident hotel. The scene quickly changed to one of India’s most iconic and beautiful buildings – the Taj Hotel. More bad news began to trickle in, like a movie plot unfolding.

There were conflicting numbers and news of terrorists inside the hotel, indiscriminately firing at guests and staff. The screen was now filled with large balls of fire coming out of the hotel’s windows. These were unforgettable scenes on Indian TV that unleashed a sense of disbelief. One by one, TV journalists began to mention the high-profile nature of the terror subjects. The airwaves were filled with names like ‘The Chambers,’ ‘Kandahar,’ and other well-known restaurants

High-profile guests were reportedly inside these hotels. Some had probably just finished a piece of Lobster meat, while others had probably just sipped some Wine. Some businessmen might have been in the middle of negotiating a major investment which would have provided a few hundred jobs. A couple on the 5th floor of the hotel would have been enjoying a candle-lit dinner in the quiet privacy of their first moments together.

In the kitchen, India’s most celebrated chefs might have been fist-pumping excited of repeat orders of their hand-crafted dishes of the night. A ‘Housekeeping’ staffer may just have returned from a room after delivering just the right kind of pillow to a guest from Finland who perhaps had three sleepless nights and two hectic days of business meetings.

The doorman may have just been greeting a special loyal guest from the Middle East, while electricians and maintenance engineers may have been heaving a sigh of relief that there were no major breakdowns.

On the other hand, gunshots were heard in a matter of seconds, bullets flew around, and people crashed on blood-stained hard granite floors. Imagine the frantic scrambling, screams, shouts, and wails, as well as desperate attempts to flee the worst-case scenario. Suddenly, what appeared to be the best place on the planet must have felt like hell.

Meanwhile, Hemant Karkare emerged as the name to watch. We were told that he and other police officers, including Vijay Sarloskar and Ashok Kamte, were on the scene attempting to combat the terrorists. We found out they had been shot at a hospital, where they were fighting terrorists at the hospital. All three had made themselves known to the entire world in a short period of time for their tenacity in dealing with the underworld and terror networks.

I noticed my heart was racing as I sat on the edge of my sofa. Within 10 minutes, news of the tragic, extremely tragic deaths of three gallant Mumbai officers was broadcast across all channels. A series of fast-paced and obnoxious truths were being aired.

Another surprise was the possibility of Sabina, a well-known food critic, being trapped in one of the Taj’s rooms. Her husband was discussing the last message that appeared on his cell phone, which stated, “They’re in the bathroom of my room.” I knew I yelled when my wife jumped out of bed and came out, asking what the hell I was doing up at 2:30 a.m.!

Somewhere in the middle of all of this, pictures of Kasab, the lone terrorist survivor, pointing his gun and angrily looking at someone flashed across all channels. Thinking about how all of this was happening so close to my place, I got up and ensured that all windows were closed, and the door was shut. For once, I wished there was a crossbar!

It was only much later that we were told about the third site of the Nariman House. The scale of the attack was getting unbelievably bigger every minute.

As a result of this incident, some people’s lives have changed. Others’ lives had come to an end. Those who managed to flee have several stories to tell: of blood, of walking over dead bodies, and so on

I remember standing in front of the Taj during my college days, admiring the architecture and grandeur of the hotel’s old wing. I was sitting still in the middle of the night on November 26th, feeling terrible after seeing thick black smoke coming out of that fascinating structure. The entire country stood still, silent, and hurt because they didn’t know what to do.

About 45 days later, I felt there was this uneasy calm across the great city of Mumbai. There were no smiling faces to be seen. There were fewer people on the roads. There was a palpable sense of rage in the air. Security was “visible” at the airport. The stamp of new Home Minister P Chidambaram (who had announced several measures at the time) could be seen.

The following year, on the first anniversary, on November 26th, 2009. Things appeared to be quite normal. The smiles were back. Chic dresses, men in ties walking and laughing, and cool-looking taxi cabs and the cops were more approachable.

As I waded through the city’s disorderly and chaotic traffic, I noticed a change in the cityscape. Almost all television channel vehicles were parked near the Trident Hote. Cameramen took pictures of the hotel from about the same angles as they did last year. College students, sat on the parapet walls of the marine drive facing the sea and enjoying the November breeze and warm sunshine.

As I waited around the French Consulate building (Hoeschst House), I noticed the buzz suddenly picking up in that area as it was lunch hour. Employees wearing office id badges were out on the streets in groups. Life moved on at a brisk pace – the breath-taking speed which the city is known for.

There were almost no empty tables in the restaurants’ large seating area. Laughter, hurried conversations, and food ordering could be heard throughout the hall – the noise was almost deafening. Every few seconds, someone walked in and out, wiping the last bit of chutney from their shirt or the corner of their lips.

As I got closer to the counter, I realized I had to be super-fast to tell them what I wanted. Within a few seconds, a plate of hot ‘poori and subzi’ settled in my hands. Had I been a tad slower, the guy behind me would have marched right over me! Even as I stuffed my face with crispy poori and subzi, I couldn’t help but overhear loud conversations. Almost every conversation revolved around money. Gossips, like breaking news, spread like wildfire. Interest rate analyses and the Sensex moved faster than the rates themselves.

Outside, on my way back to Hoeschst House, I spotted a well-dressed, middle-aged man striding quickly, his hand to his ear. He appeared to be deep in meditation (or was he listening to something?) and to be thinking of something very significant. Perhaps he was single-mindedly concentrated on some responsibility that life had put upon him. Or was he one of those affected by the events of September 11th?

He came to a halt and leaned against light, as if he was listening to something. By this time, I had approached him and heard a different  sound… “Harbhajan Singh, ek acchi gend diya unko phir ek baad… lekin… araam se khela aur, koi nuksaan nahin…” This seemed familiar but unexpected.

All of this happened just a few meters behind the site of one of the most brutal and dramatic terror acts in history. I wondered whether anyone cared about November 26th anymore. January 2009 was different as it was a little subdued and solemn than usual. That sobriety faded into the old ways of Mumbai, as we had always known them.

‘Life needs to move on,’ they say. They also celebrate the cliche – the Mumbai Spirit (which I feel is just unfair on a city that has seen many crises, from terror and riots to massive rains and floods).

It’s no surprise that the impact of November 26th had faded. ‘Life must go on!’ But where do we go from here?