Report from Mumbai: Feeling Lost in a City Under Siege

December 4th, 2008 - by admin

Sritanu Chakrabarti ? Berkeley Daily Planet – 2008-12-04 23:14:45

MUMBAI, India (December 4, 2008) — It’s been a long day at work and you just need to unwind by having a couple of beers with your friend from college who is in town. He wants to go to Leopold’s, the popular pub at Colaba. You think about the beef chili out there for a moment, then refuse to yield to temptation. For some reason you don’t want to travel today. You meet him at a sports bar close to the office and have a great time talking about old times and catching up with each other’s lives.

Your friend is in a touristy mood and wants to go to Marine Drive after you are done with the drinks. You turn down the offer again. Somehow, you are feeling too lethargic for words tonight. You decide to take a cab back home, even though a train would have been much faster and much more economical.

The roads are surprisingly empty at that point of time. It’s just 10 p.m., and usually Mumbai traffic is at its peak at this time. You don’t give it another thought. You will get to reach home in 30 minutes today instead of the usual one and a half hours it takes. A friend calls up from Bangalore to inform me that there have apparently been shootouts at Leo’s. A gang war or something, he says. You tell him how you would have been there at this time but decided not to go. Another call from Delhi comes just as you are about to reach home. There’s been a bomb blast at Ville Parle. A cab was blown up at a traffic junction. Alarm bells start ringing in your mind. You were in that very spot just 15 minutes ago.

Phone calls start coming in from friends and family members all over the country to find out if you are safe. There’s been multiple terrorist attacks at various places all over the city. Apart from Leopold’s Cafe, they have struck at the Victoria Terminus Railway Station, the Taj Hotel, the Hilton, some of the most prominent locations in Mumbai. You feel a shiver run down your back. Another close shave you have had tonight—Marine Drive is a stone’s throw away from these locations. It’s daytime in America and as the news reaches foreign shores, you start getting calls from Chicago, Boston, Seattle where your friends are based. It’s late in the night, but you can’t sleep due to the inherent tension in the air.

The following morning you decide not to go to the office. Admit it or not, you are scared to go out, scared that you might be the next victim of a bullet or a bomb blast. News has come in that some terrorists have stolen a police vehicle and are apparently on the loose in the city, gunning down anyone in their way. The death count has crossed a hundred and several hundreds have been injured. The terrorists have taken hostages at the Taj and the Hilton. They are singling out foreigners, mainly Americans and Britons. There’s a hostage situation at another relatively obscure building called Nariman House, which houses members of an Israeli sect.

The audacity of the attack leaves you puzzled and confused. This time, it’s not the common man on the streets who has been singled out for embracing the jaws of death. This time it’s the rich, the foreign tourist, the head honchos of multinational companies staying at the poshest hotels in town. The message is loud and clear. No one is safe anymore. The pictures of two terrorists taken by a security camera at the station further shock you. These are young men, barely in their 20s, clad in T-shirts, jeans and sneakers. Except for the automatic weapons in their hands, they could easily be mistaken for college students.

More than 30 hours pass since the siege—the terrorists still manage to hold the entire city to ransom. The streets are deserted, you hardly find any vehicles on the roads, the trains ply with a handful of passengers. There is a fear psychosis all around. You never know where and when they will target next. The only place you feel relatively safe is in the confines of your house. There are reports of fresh attacks in various parts of the city. These eventually turn out to be rumors, but by now you don’t know what to believe and what to ignore.

News that the terrorists came in from across the border and that the government ignored intelligence reports about a possible strike has not been taken lightly by the people. The citizens are teeming with anger. They don’t want to follow Gandhian principles any more, they have had enough. You pray that a communal riot does not break out in the city as it did after the ’93 bomb blasts that ripped the city apart.

Another agonizingly painful day goes by; the terrorists still hold out against the elite commandos who have been brought in to handle the situation. Finally, as you watch pictures on TV of the heritage wing of the Taj Hotel up in flames, the beautiful architecture raped by the assault of grenades and bullets, you hear that the Taj has finally been secured. You heave a sigh of relief, but then you hear reports that a few terrorists have managed to slip out of the hotel by pretending to be hostages.

You know the situation is better for the time being, but the hard fact remains that the city is still as unsafe as ever. It’s a cat-and-mouse game you will be playing with death each time you step out of the house. The vehicle you travel in might be blown up any moment; there might be a bomb explosion or firing in the market, the mall, the hospital, any place you might be in at that point of time.

At one point in time, you would have declared without doubt that Mumbai was one of the safest places in the world. Now you know you can’t say that. May the Mumbai I once knew rest in peace. Amen.

Sritanu Chakrabarti is a banker by profession. He lives in Mumbai. In his free time he likes to blog about nothing in particular and everything in general.