The Siege | Adrian Levy & Cathy Scott-Clark

Last year journalists Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark published The Meadow, a chilling account of the kidnapping of six Western backpackers in Kashmir in 1995 by a group of insurgents demanding the release of Masood Azhar, the founder of Jaish-e-Mohammed, a terrorist outfit operating out of Pakistan. Meticulously researched and presented like a thriller, it combined scrupulous reportage with the breathless excitement of reality TV.

In their latest book, The Siege: The Attack on the Taj, Levy and Scott-Clark employ this precise set of skills to tell the story of the terror attack that paralysed Mumbai for almost three days in November 2008. The result is not only a ringside view of one of the most shocking terrorist attacks in recent memory but also a closer understanding of terrorism, intelligence and geopolitical networks.

A tragedy like “26/11"—which became a leveller between the rich and the poor, celebrities and the common man, and people of various nationalities—is filled with dramatic potentials, which Levy and Scott-Clark exploit to the fullest. As the crisis was unfolding in 2008, the hostages at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel had texted, called and reached out to friends and families on social media—seeking means of escape, reporting their whereabouts and that of the terrorists.

The electronic media picked up some of these messages and started broadcasting them in real time, putting the rescue operations at risk and playing into the hands of the masterminds that controlled the attacks from Pakistan. The coverage was criticized for being irresponsible, hysterical and callous, especially towards those who were affected, directly or indirectly, by the violence.

The Siege—The Attack on the Taj: Penguin, 319 pages, Rs 499
The Siege—The Attack on the Taj: Penguin, 319 pages, Rs 499

The Siege succeeds on most of these counts but also leaves the reader with a lingering discomfort, caused by its propensity to dramatize moments of intense fear and suffering, fleshing out the characters involved in the massacre with details that sometimes exceed the remit of narrative non-fiction.

Written in easily digestible fragments, The Siege stands out not for its elegant style but for its power to grip the reader’s attention with sensational details. However, for the ethically squeamish, this may not be the most appealing of narrative strategies. Sample this sentence, for instance: “A sweet ferrous smell pricked Line’s nostrils: blood." (Line Kristin Woldbeck, a Norwegian marketing executive, and her boyfriend Arne Strømme, were injured at the shooting in Leopold Café in Colaba. Their friend Meetu Asrani, who was meeting them there, was killed.)

Food critic Sabina Sehgal Saikia, who died of asphyxiation in the fire that broke out in the Taj, is a colourful presence in the story. But the reflections on the troubled state of her mind and life are but digressions that have little or no relevance to the main plot. Much of her story is also pieced together from the testimony of friends, with very little coming from her husband and children.

While such piling on of human details may add to the poignancy of the narrative, such an approach does not take away the unsettling feeling of trespassing on other people’s private spaces. Does becoming the victim of a national tragedy entail, by default, surrendering access to one’s personal life as well? What is the line between storytelling and titillation?

Even as one grapples with such questions while reading The Siege, sometimes a succinct observation about a character does stand out with a singular force. “Sallow and greasy, he reminded the cop of the kid manning the deep-fat fryer at the sweet seller’s in Zaveri Bazaar," reads a passage on Ajmal Kasab, the only terrorist who was captured alive by the security forces.

Apart from the striking, if somewhat unsubstantiated claim of an “Indian mole" being involved in the execution of the attacks, The Siege remains memorable for its vivid depiction of the full horror of modern terrorism—how boys “from impoverished rural communities, who knew only about chickens and goats" used a combination of GPS, Google Earth and sophisticated but easily accessible technology to plan and execute atrocities on a scale that have few parallels in the contemporary world.