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Dispatch From An Anxious Mumbai

As columns of smoke rose from the Italianate dome of the Taj Mahal hotel in downtown Mumbai on Wednesday night, I came upon a woman standing a short distance away from the building, waiting for her friends trapped inside. She’d just ordered a steak when she heard gunfire as terrorists stormed through the establishment. The woman, who had been rescued through a window by the fire brigade after hours of hiding under a table, said that her name was Dalbir Bains. I recognised it from the society pages of the newspapers. She’s the owner of a fancy lingerie store in the beachside neighbourhood of Juhu, and, amidst the chatter of gunfire, I found myself involved in a brief discussion about edible underwear.

Everything that evening had been surreal. At 10:15pm, shortly before the attack, I’d been handed a visiting card that read, “George W Bush, Former President, The United States of America (currently seeking employment).” Sipping my glass of merlot, I shook hands with the man who had given it to me. He wore a dark suit and a giant rubber Dubya mask. I was at the premiere of “The President Is Coming”, a mockumentary about six young Indians taking part in a competition that offered the winner an unforgettable prize: the opportunity to shake Bush’s hand on his imminent visit to the subcontinent.

Less than two hours later, Mumbai didn’t have very much to laugh about. After a flurry of text messages alerted me to rumours of a bloody gang war downtown (Nigerians or Somalis were suggested as the likely culprits), I found myself 22 kilometres away from the movie theater, outside the Taj. The hotel has been the rendezvous of choice for the city’s rich and powerful every since it opened in 1903, and, because it has been featured in dozens of Bollywood films as the ultimate symbol of privilege, it is familiar to Indians everywhere. The scene that greeted me, though, didn’t remind me of any of those celluloid fantasies. Instead, it took me back to a bright summer’s day in 2001 when I stood at the window past my desk at the Wall Street Journal’s offices at the World Financial Center in downtown New York and watched bodies drop lightly into the street below.

Shortly after I arrived at the Taj, a hollow tapping echoed across the plaza outside the hotel. I saw the taut silhouette of a man on the top floor of the banging desperately at his window with a bedside lamp. But the glass refused to yield. The fire brigade was unable to get near the building because the terrorists inside were hurling grenades into the street. The cool night was punctuated by thin screams for help, mixed with occasional grenade blasts.

I had a special reason to be anxious. I’d been told that a colleague of mine, attending a wedding in the Taj, had his drink shot out of this hand. I’d assumed that he’d scampered to safety, but it later became clear that he was still inside. He kept phoning colleagues with descriptions of the terror in the dark rooms until he heard gunfire right outside the door. Then he switched to using his fingers. Miraculously, his mobile battery was still holding out.

To be sure, Mumbai is no stranger to terrorists’ attentions. On March 12, 1993, thirteen bomb blasts ripped down the city’s spine over the course of two hours, killing approximately 250 people. Then on July 11, 2006, seven trains packed with rush-hour commuters were targeted, leaving 187 people dead. But Wednesday’s attacks were by far the most audacious. Television images showed boys with automatic weapons--they didn’t look older than 20--swaggering through the streets like figures in a video game. Though reports on the newswires suggested that Westerners were the focus of the attacks, the vast majority of the dead are Indians, working-class folk caught in the random blasts as they walked in the street, or were mowed down on the platforms of the exuberantly Indo-Gothic Victoria Terminus station as they waited to ride the commuter train home to the distant suburbs.

Twenty-four hours after the carnage began, the authorities have listed shootings and blasts in 20 locations. Gun battles are still in progress in three places. The toll has reached 125. Amidst the chaos, I have a couple of reasons to feel relieved. About two hours after I first heard the knocking on the Taj window, I saw a fire brigade snorkel bring the occupant down to safety. My colleague was evacuated in the afternoon. But never before has Mumbai, a city celebrated for its never-say-die spirit, seemed so anxious.

Naresh Fernandes is the editor of Time Out Mumbai.

By Naresh Fernandes