Mumbai: Before the shattered glass had been cleared from the road, before the last of the firemen had gone home, before even half a day had passed since the death of the last terrorist, the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel had begun to fill the role it will play for at least the next couple of months—as a tourist spot of regrettable notoriety.
On Saturday evening, gawkers filled the promenade outside the hotel, pointing to the parts of the façade that had featured in the ceaseless television coverage, taking photos of themselves with commandos or in front of a particularly damaged section, or just watching the muted hum of activity.
There was still a lot to see. A Mercedes-Benz pitted with bullet holes, its glass shattered, still stood to one side of the road. Large smudges of soot still seemed to creep like strange fungus over the hotel’s outer walls. The windows in the heritage wing gaped empty, some of them now starting to be boarded over with sheets of plywood.
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Almost continuously, for the two-and-a-half days of the terror attacks, Kamini Sheth had watched the events develop on television. “When it was over, I wanted to show my daughters the hotel,” she said, gesturing to two shy young girls trying to hide behind each other. “My elder daughter was too scared to even leave home at first. But I wanted to come, to light a candle, but also to see where everything had happened.”
And where there are tourists, there are, invariably, self-appointed tour guides. The bespectacled Digvijay Gaikwad claimed to be from a “coordination committee” of the government, although he offered no identification to that effect. Gaikwad held court to a small ring of onlookers with questions, answering them breezily, all the while picking apart and putting back together the two empty halves of a pistachio nut.
“Everything you saw on television was wrong. I was there, I know what happened,” said Gaikwad, during one of his fulminations. “For instance, some news channel said that the terrorists would booby-trap their own bodies as they died, so that any attempt to move them would cause an explosion. It wasn’t true. It was just said to improve ratings, to stir some excitement.”
Others attained minor celebrityhood. Nilesh Kadam, a 23-year-old security officer at the Taj Mahal hotel, found himself shaking hands repeatedly with people who congratulated him for his courage. On Wednesday, he had already returned home from his day’s shift; so had his older brother Rajesh, who is, in a curious coincidence, the assistant chief security officer at the Oberoi hotel, the terrorists’ other target.
Centre of attraction: People take pictures of the Taj hotel after operations to dislodge the terrorists ended. Reuters
“Around 9:30pm, both of us got calls, from our hotels, saying that there was trouble, so we both headed out. I was here the entire first night, and he was there,” Kadam said, summarizing what must have been a nightmare for their mother. At that point, one woman, saying she was collecting pieces of debris from the site, asked if there were any bullets to be had. “Not here,” Kadam said, looking a little put off. “Inside, though, scores of them. The place is littered with bullets.”
The various arms of the security forces seemed unsure about how to deal with the tourists. There was clearly a pecking order in operation, and when the onlookers sidled up to the barricades to compliment members of the National Security Guard or the Rapid Action Force, the Mumbai police and the personnel of the private Checkmate Security outfit hung back, unwilling to interfere.
The minute the commandos were left alone, however, the public was driven away by the police and the security guards, to the accompaniment of shrill whistles and shouts of the patently absurd “There’s nothing to see, move on.” But there was everything to see, and after ebbing for a few moments, the wave of people would start to flow imperceptibly back towards the Taj.