By Sanjay Jha
I was at Wasabi , the ceremonialized Japanese restaurant at the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai a few days ago. Taj Mahal after the nightmarish violence of 26/11 televised non-stop world-wide has become a must- see monumental structure like its magnificent namesake at Agra. Often backpack tourists stare awe-struck at the 108 year old building, their backs to the iconic Gateway of India, perhaps reminiscing those bloodcurdling moments of its hideous siege three years ago. Terror tourism is our brutal reality, as people relive a vicarious horror.
It is human to rewind events; at Wasabi I feel completely overwhelmed , imagining the chaotic last moments of innocent people making desperate attempts for survival against an unexpected unrelenting enemy. So close to open skies, the Arabian Sea, police headquarters, the buzzing , pounding energy of Colaba. And yet tragically enough even closer to death.
It was approximately 10.13 pm on a Wednesday three years ago when I saw a missed call message. It was from my driver of eleven long years, still unfamiliar with mobile technology and prone to eccentric bouts of making accidental calls. Slightly unusual though I surmised as he had clear instructions to be on a long evening duty and there was no apparent reason for its abrupt abbreviation. My elder daughter was out attending a friend’s birthday dinner. Albeit a wee bit exasperated, I called him back.
“ Sir, there has been some shooting in the Taj Hotel. Gunfire. Also in Colaba.” The panic in his voice was evident “ Which Taj? I asked nervously fully aware that my daughter was at the Taj President at Cuffe Parade, not far from it’s more illustrious cousin. Before he could answer I did what millions did, switched on the TV instantly on hearing of the sudden attacks. The first news break stated that there was firing reported at Café Leopold , a seaman’s anchorage and yuppie hang-out , where over agreeable omelet and chicken fry, beer consumption beats the national average by a whopper. It could always be the handiwork of a loony man gone berserk , or inebriated by excess of bubbly, I thought . Or just some inter-gang warfare. But that was not the case. Within minutes, the initial anxiety had assumed frightening proportions. CST ( Victoria Terminus) and Trident Towers at Nariman Point too had witnessed a similar exchange . There seemed to be a diabolical deadly pattern emerging. This was not just a one-off violent incident .It was a well constructed conspiracy to create havoc on an unsuspecting city just hitting its early night notes . People would die, they were meant to perhaps . Memories of serial bombings in a bloody March afternoon fifteen years earlier came back to me at frenetic speed. It seemed like the beginning of a long chilling night.
The fast-paced frantic journey to fetch my daughter from the Taj President was a hellish experience. The crowd had thinned considerably in minutes but the traffic signals seemed to stretch to infinity. Just a few kilometers away the terrorists had pumped bullets into our senior police officers. Trident Towers was already barricaded with siren-blowing police vans and resembled a towering skyscraper in spectacular loneliness reaching out to unresponsive skies for help. Marine Drive , usually a late-night speedster’s fancy wore a deserted expression. For the first time, I missed a traffic jam. The city was fast getting enveloped in a deathly stillness. I drove on.
By the time I had crossed the Badhwar Park jetty where the ten cold-blooded young merchants of death had alighted not too long ago , it seemed like eternity . I kept calling my daughter intermittently , apprehending every time the cold clinical auto recording, “the number is not reachable ”. But soon she was waving at me from the guarded , crowded entry to the hotel porch . Just seeing her , I felt an unfathomable lightness of being.
Over the next few weeks and onwards one has heard the familiar statement : “Mumbai will never be the same again”. But we forgot Mumbai has never been the same since 1992 when insane fury ostensibly termed as religious convictions over a disputed temple site wreaked havoc on India’s most cosmopolitan city. When political leaders conveniently presided over the planned destruction of a historical mosque. When nefarious elements danced atop it’s falling dome celebrating the success of their organized devastation of age-old bricks. When a state machinery targeted a specific community as riots broke out. The serial blasts that followed in 1993 as an aftermath was a reminder that retribution would be lethal. A decade later Gujarat refueled the hate-tank. The fact that India has looked sideways instead of addressing the harsh reality of emerging militancy has only accentuated matters. The bottom-line is that we have unleashed upon ourselves a difficult local monster, which has now mingled with disaffected global disruptive forces with their own sinister agendas. It is a toxic combination. It is imperative that the infiltration by rogue terrorist bodies appropriately buttressed by an unfriendly neighbor does not impinge into impressionable minds in the minority community . There are many vulnerable borderline youth caught in an unfortunate cross-fire. It is like a ticking bomb. There is a lot of hard work ahead, and as the July bombing this year demonstrated, perhaps even more pain. Worse, it has resulted in the rise of extreme Hindu militancy, thus exacerbating an already volatile state of affairs. Religious fundamentalism is assuming ominous scales from the majority community as well. Mumbai is a soft sitting duck vulnerable to every disruptive group conceivable.
And yet, life must move on , like an inexorable formidable machine in an assembly line where even a transitory pause is considered a fatal disruption. The third anniversary of 26/11 is upon us. As I departed Wasabi one could hear the archetypal loud conversations of happy souls , animated chatter near the sushi bar, the pulsating energy of Mumbai’s night-life vibrating through its bright-red colored spiral steps and wondered about this amazing unseen, untouched, and yet unmatched thing called the human spirit.