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Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Mumbai attacks anniversary: How a wedding reception turned into a life lesson for a reporter

A former Mint staffer chronicles how she escaped the Taj Mahal hotel during the Mumbai terror attack. Now, a decade later, she looks back at the life-changing incident and says she has new learnings, more relevant to the times that we are living in

The evening started rather innocuously at The Taj Mahal Palace and Tower’s Crystal Room, with a glass of musk melon juice. It was 9.30pm on 26 November and I was at Mumbai’s oldest five-star for a friend’s wedding reception. A friend and I had driven the car into the porch (a practice the management had discontinued for a while for security reasons) and passed through the doors with minimal security interference. We had just been asked to walk through a metal detector and my friend commented on how inadequate the security seemed.

After we got to the Crystal Room in the Taj’s old wing, we met friends, picked up our first drink and nibbled on a few appetizers.

We hadn’t been there 15 minutes when we heard sounds that we dismissed as construction work or fire crackers. When the boom boom went on and got nearer, it was apparent that they were neither. The staff had secured the doors of the room by now. We were standing in the middle of the room planning our next move, when a glass window that looked out into the main corridor shattered, and shots rang through the room. Instinctively we ducked and crouching, made our way to the service door, which led to an alcove. We crouched there for a minute, and then were ushered by staff through corridors, kitchens and other areas, till we reached the wood-panelled Chambers, an elite, by-membership-only club, whose patrons are the country’s top industrialists. We passed by executive grand chef Hemant Oberoi, who was surrounded by chefs and staff in white, but was gracious enough to smile at us.

Once at the Chambers, we met other members of the wedding party, foreign guests living at the hotel, as well as patrons of the hotel’s restaurants such as Wasabi, Golden Dragon and Masala Craft. The staff kept ushering in new refugees, and soon the place was full—there were probably 300 people now. There was a large room leading to a terrace and a smaller room next to that. The Chambers also consist of a few corridors and waiting spaces, besides ladies and gents restrooms. The doors were locked and the staircase and elevator secured, we were told. By then we could not hear any more gunfire, and felt safer. People were bewildered and phone calls coming in confirmed that many places in the city had been similarly targeted.

That’s when the Taj’s staff kicked in. Crates of Himalayan water bottles started to come in, followed by tins of potato chips. These were soon followed by chutney and cheese sandwiches and trays of canapés. I spotted some paté and smoked salmon, but was too churned up to eat anything. Tray after tray of freshly made sandwiches kept coming through, followed by cans of aerated drinks. Soon, we had towels and crisp white bedsheets to wrap around us as blankets. Extra chairs were brought in.

They didn’t have to make sandwiches for 300 people or give out bedsheets—we would have managed just fine without them. They were in the same dangerous situation as us, but besides looking slightly strained, their training showed through. They listened patiently and replied courteously to even the silliest questions. Their grace lifted our spirits, even enough for people to make silly hostage jokes.

A group of about 4-5 men were led in, with blood on their clothes. They had been outside the hotel, they explained, when two of their friends had been injured by the gunmen who were running past. They got help for their friends and then ran into the hotel for shelter. A red-eyed and petrified couple stood there as well. They had been dining at the Shamiana and were forced to run towards the pool and huddle in the surrounding bushes. Their 10-year-old son, who had gone to the restroom was still trapped there. The staff listened to their story and passed word around to get the boy out of there.

Though we were frightened—by now we had heard a few blasts and rumours that the heritage dome had exploded and was on fire—we were not really in fear of our lives. The cops and special forces had come to the building, we were told, and everything would be cleaned up soon. At no point did we see the gunmen or were even aware of how many there were. People lay down on the floor and tried to get some sleep, while others paced. As usual, the ladies room was where all the gossip was shared. Two women were in the Harbour Bar, waiting for a table at Golden Dragon. As soon as they took a step into the bar, the shooting started behind them in the lobby, where they most probably passed the gunmen. Everyone ducked under tables and were slowly led through service entrances, to the Chambers. A foreign guest was in her room when she heard the shooting. She ran down with her friend and saw bodies in the lobby. A staffer led them to safety.

It helped to not focus on the moments of terror and hate but on the acts of heroism we saw-

We soon heard whispers that we were going to be evacuated. That the Anti Terrorism Squad (ATS) had arrived, the Army had arrived. Then the news that the ATS chief and our top encounter specialist had been shot. But we were still getting out.

It was probably about 3am when we gathered at the service door and were asked to be silent. It was a crush as everyone wanted to be the first to get out, but it was orderly and people didn’t panic. People were talking in whispers and there was much shushing for anyone who raised their voice. Two of my friends and I were probably in the fourth or fifth bunch of people to be evacuated. About 10 of us were led into a narrow corridor. A large group of people still waiting inside were pressed close to the door. An armed guard was present, as well as some other cops. But as soon as we went into the corridor, they moved away to clear another part of the hotel.

That was when it got chaotic. In the narrow, snaking corridor, where two people couldn’t walk comfortably side by side, we were fired at. We couldn’t tell where exactly the shots were from, but they were alarmingly close. We turned and ran back inside, keeping our heads down. There was almost a stampede-like situation, before the group pressed to the door behind us realized what was happening and moved back. People tripped and fell, but were pulled up and we ran back inside. We had no idea what happened to the rest who had been evacuated earlier. We ran to the larger room at the Chambers and sunk into chairs. After about half an hour, without any word from outside, we heard volleys of gunfire back and forth, from the corridor outside. Everyone flattened themselves on the ground, with their hands over their heads. We were snaked around the furniture and the floor was a tangle of bodies and limbs, each trying to make space for themselves, while doing the same for their companions on the ground. The lights were soon switched off and everyone was silent. We stayed that way till morning, with gunfire going back and forth, and even what sounded like grenade blasts coming from the corridor, probably just 30 feet from us. Soon those crisp sheets were being torn up to stanch wounds—a man had been shot in the arm and a woman had injured her leg. The dawn broke through the stained glass windows that led to the terrace. But still no word from anyone. We heard via cellphones, that the rest of the building had been evacuated.

To everyone’s credit, there was no hysteria; a few people were crying softly but soon stopped. Everyone kept cool, even though, those hours before dawn were the bleakest. We seriously feared for our lives, and everyone was praying. Most softly, but some whispered chants of Jai Mata Di reached our ears. I was frightened, terrified actually, but was too busy praying through the gunfire to cry.

All through this ordeal, I had been exchanging text messages with friends and family. I must have exchanged over a hundred messages with my brother, who was frantic at home. Friends, colleagues, ex-colleagues and family members kept telling me they were praying, and that helped. They were passing on what they saw on the news—“the commandos have arrived, this squad has stormed the building, that one has now come; you’re sure to be rescued soon". But we weren’t, not just then.

It had been silent for a few hours after dawn. At about 8.30am, a commando, with a machine gun and a bulletproof vest rushed in. We lifted ourselves off the floor at his instructions, with our hands in the air. “Does anybody have any weapons?" After we all whispered no, we were asked to line up. Just then, some commotion caused us to panic—I cannot remember if it was more shots, but someone shouted get down, and we all dived to the floor (not an easy feat in a sari). “I want you all to stay calm. Listen to me, there is nothing to worry about. The first bullet will go through me, I’m leading you out," our commando said. We got back up and we stepped out into a corridor, which was strewn with broken glass and bullet shells. Crunching our way through that, I spotted a small restaurant or private dining room, which was in a shambles. We walked down a flight of stairs guarded by commandos and through corridors; in some there were pools of congealed blood. We made our way to the lobby and were led out into the sunshine on the porch, where we had given our car to the valet the night before.

But it wasn’t over yet. As a cop van and BEST bus pulled up and people started getting in, shots rang out at the vehicles from the hotel. Some of the gunmen were still inside. We all ran back to the lobby doors, but there was not much fear; the presence of the commandos and other personnel gave us courage. My friend and I were put into a BEST bus after 10 minutes. We were packed like sardines and everyone was crouched with their heads down. Some of us didn’t lift our heads till we got to Azad Maidan police station. The cops were quite comforting—they laid out plastic chairs for us, gave us water, and took our details, before we were free to leave.

I didn’t leave that hotel untouched; but I realize now I gain nothing by shutting off my humanity.-

Through all of this we were in touch with the bride and groom whose reception had been disrupted. They had not yet left their room in the old wing when the firing started. They laid low with the lights off, listening to the firing that was going on in the corridor outside their room.

One of the blasts blew open their room door. That was when they moved to the bathroom and locked themselves in there in the dark, with fire raging in the floors above them and gunfire everywhere. They were rescued at around 4am. We heard later that many police personnel and some of the hotel staff lost their lives. We’re probably alive because of them.

The dome of the Taj and the old wing is gutted. It was a much-loved majestic landmark for people like me who have grown up in Bombay. But just like the city, I doubt it will be down for too long. Now I’m just praying for the people still trapped in the Oberoi-Trident.

This is a first person account, published in Mint on 29 November, 2008. At the time of the attack, Parizaad Khan was a features writer with Mint.

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