Mumbai: For three days, the signboard above the shop read “Mahavir Lug”, the final section (spelling “gage”) having been sheared off by an explosive lobbed by terrorists on their way to Nariman House on 26 November. The explosive, aimed at the petrol pump next door, missed by a few metres, hit and blew up the air pump instead, punching two big holes in the adjoining wall of Nilesh Gala’s shop.
The Gala brothers, sequestered in their apartment down the road for three days, saw the damage only on Saturday, after the terror attacks were confirmed to have ended. But then another type of ordeal began: the arduous challenge of rebuilding business in the aftermath.
Shaken and stirred: While Café Leopold, where 10 people died during the attacks, was packed within 20 minutes of its official opening on Tuesday, most businesses further from the epicentres of the attacks reopened shakily. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
For the Galas, the rebuilding is literal. “On Sunday morning, MHADA (Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority) came out here and put up a wooden frame to support the roof, because that was a load-bearing wall,” Gala said. “But they said nothing about repairs, so we decided to just go ahead with it ourselves.”
Gala estimates the damage to the shop to be roughly Rs2 lakh, but he doesn’t as yet know where that money will come from. “There’s been no word from the government either way, about whether we will get any sort of compensation,” he said. And then, somewhat bitterly: “If the government was that efficient, would any of this even have happened in the first place?”
Businesses further from the epicentres of the attacks opened shakily on Sunday, even if they were operating at half-strength. Theobroma, a dessert parlour down the road from Mahavir Luggage, had baked in two shifts through Saturday night, but many of its cakes were still missing. Waiters at Tendulkar’s, the restaurant near the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower hotel, regretfully refused orders for lamb chops, because they had yet to be pulled out of the deep freeze, and for various desserts, because they had yet to be made.
But if the present looked rocky for some, others worried about their long-term future. Right next to the Taj runs a strip of shops that cater almost exclusively to the tourists from the hotel, shops that are likely to suffer as the hotel remains closed indefinitely. On Monday, the Mughal Art Co. (“Specialist in nautical items: Sextant, telescope, compass, astrolabe, clocks…”), the Carlton Hotel and Pasupati Arts were still closed, the road on which they sit barred to traffic and pedestrians.
Jamal Mir, a shop that has been selling carpets and handicrafts since 1910—making it nearly as old as the Taj itself—reopened on Monday, but business was so comatose that it began pulling down shutters at 2pm. “You see how the police are preventing people from coming onto this lane,” said Sajid Ahmed, a sales executive. “And, of course, it will be a long time before there are guests at the Taj, so business will be bad.”
Jamal Mir has already stopped ordering stock, since there has been no indication from the police about how long entry into the lane will remain restricted. One possible clue is the hastily printed identification badge worn by Taj employees for access through the barricades; the badges are valid till 20 December.
More gloom prevailed in an adjacent alley. Vivek Shetty, the owner of a restaurant named Laxmi Vilas, pointed out that his employees were no longer allowed to carry trays of food to shops and offices in the area. At Waghela Tailors, the shutters were coming down for the day, as the family departed for the fourth day’s rituals for Subhash Waghela, a relative who was shot dead by a pair of terrorists as they ran through the lane towards the Taj.
Two doors away, however, the iconic Café Leopold had reopened, and within 20 minutes, every table was occupied. Just outside the doors, crowds thronged to peek in, kept at bay only by a troika of bouncers. “We reopened for an hour on Sunday, but we were mobbed by media and onlookers, so we closed again,” said Farzad Jehani, the owner. “That was symbolic. Today’s the official opening.”
Ten people died at Leopold, including two members of the waitstaff, and at least in the imagination, the smell of disinfectant still hangs in the air. A bullet has scarred a pane of glass at the back; another hole gaped in a wooden window bracket, like a missing tooth. But the beer flowed, and Jehani played the role of the jolly restaurant owner to the hilt, moving between tables and shaking hands and sitting down with old patrons.
Leopold went through a harrowing few days. “On the first day, the police came, but then they were drawn away by what was happening at the Taj,” Jehani said. “On the second day, they came in and collected blood samples, the empty AK-47 shells, damaged mobile phones, even samples of crockery. Then we spent all of Saturday just cleaning.”
His brother, Farhan, offers a less cut-and-dried memory. “You know, the police would just call us, any time of day or night, and ask us to come down and open up the café immediately, for them to work,” he said. “I had no sleep for those few days, and now I still can’t sleep. I can still hear that sound, that rat-tat-tat sound, at night.”