November 27, 2008
Last night, if you believe everything you see on television, everything changed. There were references to this being India’s September 11. On live television, anything goes. I was there with my pregnant wife and friends, stepping out of Gordon House after considering a meal, when a wave of people, crying, running, looking disoriented, swept onto our lane from Colaba Causeway and the Taj. One boy draped a coat around his inconsolable partner. She hunched, her face planted firmly in her palms. The boy looked behind nervously, and quickened his pace. I ran to them to ask what happened. “There’s been a shootout,” he said, walking on. Behind them, the crowd that began streaming into this lane grew seriously thick. They were running, the ones further behind going faster. “Gang war.” “Encounter.” I turned tail and ran indoors.
My god. I have never liked this city, but my god. All night long we stayed awake, hearing the muffled rumble of exploding grenades from two streets away. Sometimes we would hush each other and look around, our eyes asking, “Was that another…?” On television smoke rose as the dome took a pounding from inside, and a fire burned in one corner, lighting a century-old balcony that was in flames instantly, and just ash on the street minutes later. Gunshots rang out. Pigeons fluttered unwisely, taking flight from the dome after every tremor and sharp bang, and returning to a new resting place elsewhere on it. We wondered, of all things, about the art this hotel contained. It struck me then, and by struck I mean a deeper realization, that men like this care for nothing, for no human effort or endeavor with meaning, and they care not for the struggles and ambitions and dreams and so much pain that every man woman and child has come through to survive life, for theirs is an unthinking effort of destruction and despair, and there is no talking to them, for we cannot even be from this planet. I don’t pretend to love this city, but I feel for it, and with every explosion and every life taken, I felt my heart heardening. I heard the story, relayed by a cousin, of Hemant Oberoi’s awful time at the Taj. Oberoi is the head chef there. At a point, the police asked him and his staff to help evacuate guests through the escape. Once a batch of guests were on their way to safety, Oberoi and his 15 staff, who had barricaded the way with refridgerators, began to let a few more through. A gunman heard the commotion below in the stairwell and ran down. He pushed aside the fridges and sprayed the crowd before him. Oberoi saw at least three colleagues die. He and the rest escaped, making their way to the basement laundry room. They stayed quiet, mobiles on silent, for three hours until the army arrived. All the while, his wife, her nerves frayed, waited anxiously at home. All along, the gunmen fired without discrimination inside the hotel, like a perverse last stand.
My wife is expecting our first child. Just yesterday morning, as we took a rare walk, we wondered what sort of world we would bring a child into. We had worries about this city – the pollution and what it took out of you. Later that day, my friend Sonia startled me by raising the same question. I told her no other place offered the opportunities Bombay does right now, even if it sucked the life out of you.
This morning, when we learnt of the impending curfew, we jumped into our cars and sped back to the suburbs. The army was everywhere. The roads were empty. Yet some joggers trotted by on Marine Drive. Men and women, freshly bathed, waited at bus stops. I watched a man raise his store’s shutters, and it made me disproportionately happy.
We hurried home, slowing down only when we reached Andheri. Colaba, 30 kilometers away, felt like a different city. The night felt like a dream.