Six years ago, I was in eleventh grade of school. It was a regular evening and we were at home watching the television. Everything was normal. Then, we watched the news flashing the firing at CST Local Station, Mumbai. Terrorist acts have become so frequent that we have grown accustomed to blasts. It is a fact, though unfortunate, that we are not as deeply moved by these incidents as we should ideally be. Same happened that day. We condemned briefly and then proceeded to our dinner.
But, this time it was different. We were startled as we returned back to the TV. The attacks didn’t stop, only multiplied. We then got glued to the live reports. It was unending. We woke up the next day and the havoc was still unbound. The focus shifted to Taj and Trident Hotels and then the Nariman House. Uncertainty continued for days: 26th to 29th November! Even the severest of blasts I had known earlier: 9/11, etc. had lasted at most a day. This one appeared as a live video game, outclassed by the armed men! I couldn’t fathom the terrorists’ overpowering strength; our security forces, despite doing their best, couldn’t control the mayhem for four days! It also appeared surreal – there were reporters and commoners all around the buildings in which the gunmen had settled themselves. In a way, it was helplessness. People were there but nobody could do anything.
This imagery, though via a screen, has remained hard etched in my memory. I stayed in Mumbai for a brief period last year. Every time I visited the CST Station, I couldn’t help visualising the scene. Despite the station being so crowded, it just haunted me. In fact, I was so glad that commuting to my South Mumbai office was more convenient through the Churchgate Station (western line) so I didn’t have to get down at CST (central line).
I also heard of a frightening personal account from a friend in my office: how some of his colleagues had actually got stuck inside the Trident. One, hidden in a pitch-dark room, was communicating with these fellows in the office through his cell phone as the gunshots were audible in the background. Then the phone went blank suddenly. But, fortunately he survived. However, another friend, who left office early that ill-fated day to hang out at Cafe Leopold, is no more. It is too tragic to be described. Among the countless experiences of many, these were the closest I have known personally.
During my stay, I visited Leopold too. That seemed a little less scary at the outset; don’t know why. But as soon as I entered, I felt claustrophobic, more so with the dim lighting. I was imagining how all would scurry and scramble if any awful event should happen here. The bullet marks on the wall were enough to torment my thoughts; I forced my attention to better things – the fish on my plate and the crowd.
I feel this is what typically goes across the mind of a non-Mumbaikar before getting habituated to these places. And getting habituated takes a long time. As I walked around the now-heavily-guarded Gateway of India and the Taj, I couldn’t help picturing a boat anchored by the bay and men jumping out with the heavily loaded firearms. Every morning, as my taxi took the turn round the corner of Oberoi Trident, I couldn’t believe that this grand hotel had been attacked so fiercely.
The 26/11 anniversary programmes, the narratives of survivors, brave policemen and black cat commandos and anything related to Hemant Karkare, Vijay Salaskar, Unnikrishnan, Kamte; all bring nightmares yet courage and pride!