In the mood for some contemporary Indian cuisine and invited by a friend for dinner on the night of 26/11, we were barely 200 meters from the Taj Mahal Hotel when what sounded like a barge of ear-deafening noises changed my life forever. That night I survived, survived to narrate my grisly story of escape and horror, however, hundreds; fathers, mothers, children, friends, family did not. As my friend and I tried to decipher what was ensuing, little did we know, a night of hell was descending swiftly on Mumbai, the city that never sleeps, perhaps never will.
It was a pleasant night and as usual, India’s teeming financial and entertainment capital was beaming with life, business was brisk. We had arrived at the idyllic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, our first choice for dinner, along with my friend and her husband. It was a busy night and the restaurant was running behind schedule. The manager apologized and we decided to go to the small eatery right outside the Taj that served delicious kebabs and sheeks. Unbeknown to me, this one small inconvenience would be the difference between life and death.
10 heavily-armed militants had quietly docked at the waterfront, close to the Gateway of India, split into groups and were on a slaughter carnage attacking landmarks across the city, ruthlessly killing even hapless patients at a hospital. In a flash, Bombay as I still like to call it, was in the throes of one of the most shocking terror attacks the world had ever witnessed. I was in the middle of the battered city with memories of my family unspooling in my mind. I’d thought my time had finally run out. Barely a few feet away, from a small window in the cafeteria I was in, I could see the iconic dome of the Taj, ablaze. People running helter-skelter for shelter. My parents sitting in Bangalore were hysterically trying to get through my phone, frantically trying to get any information if I was dead or alive, desperately trying to muster courage should the worse be heard. At my home, my parents with my toddler on their lap had followed the attacks on TV all night. They had prayed and howled when the news of the ambush broke.
Finally, after 5 hours, when I could get through to the landline in my parents’ home, all I could say was, “Ma, ami!” (Ma, it’s me!) On the other end of the phone, there was utter silence. My mother was in relentless tears; her daughter was alive. The attack would become part of what remains one of the most violent and deadly terrorist attacks to have occurred on Indian soil. More than 160 innocent people lost their lives, including 31 at Taj Mahal Palace Hotel where I was supposed to dine that night. For two nights and three days, the burning dome and spires of Hotel Taj were a sight that scarred the nation’s psyche, exposing how vulnerable cities were to terror.
Laying there on the ground, I didn’t know if I was going to live. I didn’t know if I was going to die. My thoughts were chaotic; my senses were numbed. I remember thinking, “This is all I got? This is all I did with my life?” It shook me to my core. I remember hearing the chirpings of my 15-month-old and the terrified whimper of my friend. I remember watching Swapner Din with my parents 2 days before I came to Bombay and planning to take Ma shopping the day I got back. What was unfolding in front of eyes was beastly, savage and unfathomable, a period, no matter how many years pass will remain etched in my memory.
Peace of mind can be difficult to attain after such an incident. Death is irreversible and so are experiences. While sitting within the safe confines of your home, watching deadly terror attacks on television or in films, it’s very easy to empathize, but, if you have lived it, you’ll know, the experiences wound you for life. Even now, when I wake up at night, I cannot put myself back to sleep. My mother still has to snuggle me like a 2-year-old, just like she had, when, 7 days after the grisly attacks, I’d finally made it home. Some of the memories of that night still haunt me. I often think to myself, how did I come out alive in that carnage? Was I plain lucky? Was it karma? Was it my parents’ prayers? I guess I will never know. But, I have realized that a little piece of good that comes out of going through something so horrible is that it leads you to reevaluate your life and the way you have been living.
In this age of infinite information and as the world gets smaller as a result of the digital revolution, horror stories such as these become blurred together and can be summarized merely by names…Mumbai. New York. Beslan. Peshawar. London. Istanbul. Boston.
Today, after a decade, the pain hasn’t dimmed, but survivors have grown in courage and resilience. My friend still lives in the maximum city. I often pay her a visit and we, in spite of everything still visit the small eatery, the roof that had sheltered me that fateful night. Mahatma Gandhi has explained something beautifully. He’s said, “I believe in the absolute Oneness of God and, therefore, also of humanity. What though we have many bodies? We have but one soul.” Our Upanishads tell us the fundamental maxim of Tat Tvam Asi. This simply means, each individual is tied in with the larger truth. All religions need to get together to define what they have in common and work together for the benefit of humanity.
For today’s young, 26/11 was a historical event, whereas for most, it was the day their world turned upside down. My hope is that through stories like mine, the events of November 26th 2008 are not merely remembered as a date or a statistic, but people appreciate that hundreds like me live to tell their tale and the impact it has had on our lives.