26/11/2023, it’s been fifteen years since then, we have moved on but memories of that unforgettable incident remains deeply etched in our hearts.
There is something exceptional about Mumbai!
Known as one of the oldest cities in the world, it is the commercial and financial hub of India. Mumbai is also synonymous with “City of Dreams” and a “City that never sleeps.” Mumbai is a bustling cosmopolitan metro. It’s a simple city yet chaotic. There is wealth and poverty surviving side by side. In many ways, it thrives in contradictions. If it takes away something from you, it also gives back in abundance.
A resident for seven years, I had seen most of the facets of Mumbai-so much good, a little bad, and sometimes ugly. Yet, this is the city I would want to spend the rest of my life in. This is where I had lived in opulence and achieved major milestones. She has taught me life skills and has given me the most precious gift of everlasting friendship and wonderful memories. But amongst the many happy memories, there is one in particular that is bitter and rattles me to the core- 26/11
Safe no more
Mumbai is considered to be one of the safest cities to live in. But 26/11/2008 changed everything. It will go down in History as one of the most terrifying and shocking incidents that unnerved the entire nation. One can never forget what happened on that ill-fated night. Needless to say the impact it had on the collective conscience of a city that was always considered the safest to live in. It is etched in every mind and heart, whether or not they were directly affected by this incident. The visuals of the attack beamed by every media outlet are still fresh in many people’s mind. Fear, anger, helplessness, and frustration still overwhelm us at the mention of 26/11.
The history of the attack, the aftermath, the lapses and everything significant has been carefully chronicled. It not only tells us about the tragic incident but also presents stories of courage, personal sacrifice, grit, and the resilience of Mumbaites. Yet there are personal experiences, which have never been shared. They have been equally consequent and life changing. I am one of that story.
Living in Colaba, I was literally in the storm’s eye. My husband Sushil was a senior Manager with the Taj Group during that period. At the time when the attack took place, he was concluding a meeting with a client at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, meters away from our residence. The horrifying experience began from there and the next four days left a mark on our lives forever.
26/11/08 was like any other routine day for us. My husband was busy at work and my both the daughters, all of 5 and 7 years, were preparing for school the next day. I was busy with the household chores when I received a call from my sister in Pune. It was around 9 P.M. She mentioned that there was news about a shootout in Colaba area, where we lived. This is a bustling upmarket locality in South Mumbai, considered to be one of the safest areas to live in. Moreover, our flat was in a residential complex just behind the house of one of the top politicians. Hence the area was secure and guarded like a fortress. I took it lightly and told her not to worry as these things were quite common in Mumbai. Till then the severity of the situation had not hit me. I disconnected the phone and went on with my work. A short while later, she frantically called me and asked me to watch the news. The situation was grave and apparently there was a terror attack in Colaba. There seemed to be unceasing shooting behind The Taj Mahal Hotel near The Gateway of India.The terrorists were going berserk attacking passerby. My heart was in my mouth. I knew that Sushil was present in the hotel at that moment. I switched on the television and what I saw was unbelievable; it was nightmarish. My hands turned cold, and I immediately called him. I asked him about his whereabouts, He informed me that he had just finished a meeting with a client and was about to leave the hotel. I was gasping and in broken sentences told him about the situation and asked him to immediately leave the premises.
The massacre continues
Meanwhile the insane shooting continued behind The Taj. Never in our wildest dreams did we imagine that the terrorists would casually walk into a well-guarded hotel. Sushil was paranoid but gathered his wits, and headed towards Taj President Hotel, where he worked. By then this news had spread like wildfire across the world and I started getting calls from well-wishers to enquire about our wellbeing. I had nothing much to tell them; I knew as much as was being reported by media on the national television. I continued to call Sushil for his safety and updates. Maybe I was being selfish. I knew there were many people in worse situations but for me his safety was of utmost importance. There was utter chaos and no one knew exactly what was happening. Numerous rumors were floating and that increased our apprehension and anxiety. There was a lot of ambiguity and confusion. Slowly he stopped taking my calls and sent messages to inform me of his wellbeing. Gradually, the frequency of messages reduced till they completely stopped. The calls kept coming instead from relatives and friends and even people I had not spoken to, for over a decade. The night of 26/11 was the most harrowing night of my life. These calls were the only solace. The area around our house became like a well-guarded fort because of high alert. I was worried for Sushil and many others who were trapped in this situation.
Living in fear
As the night progressed, we heard that the terrorists had seized the Nariman House. We lived between the two primary targets, The Taj Mahal Hotel and Nariman House. For our safety, we were asked to stay within the confines of our houses without making any noise. By then both my girls knew something was wrong, they kept questioning me and I hushed them quiet. It terrified all of us. Didn’t know how long we could control our anxiety and ultimately have an emotional outburst. But I knew I had to stay strong for my daughters. Luckily all the neighbors were in touch over the phone, as no one could risk stepping out. As the night progressed, things only got worse. We lived on the 7th floor and my bedroom window overlooked the dome of the Taj Hotel. The most unimaginable thing happened. I saw the beautiful vintage dome of The Taj in flames. It was an emotional moment for many of us because The Taj Mahal Hotel is a significant landmark and an identity of Mumbai. We being from the Taj Family; for us the feeling was overwhelming. I could not control my tears. The girls clung to me and I tried to underplay the whole thing. There was zero communication with my husband now and we could only hear gun shots from either sides, The Taj and Nariman House. It was a sleepless night for all of us and we did not know how long it would all last.
The night somehow passed, and it was impossible to stay awake the next day. With the television on, we three were huddled in bed, taking short naps. Luckily the ration was stacked and a store close to our home had ensured we didn’t run out of stock of emergency needs. Another example of kindness and support that Mumbaikars are so famous for. They delivered through the next four days since we were too scared to step out. My primary concern was to know about the safety of my husband. We were stuck to the TV for all updates. Wednesday and Thursday passed and we prayed for his well being. We kept our faith alive that no news was good news.
Finally, on Friday I received a call from him. With God’s grace he was safe. The hotel authorities had purposely disconnected the electricity in their hotel. They did not want to come in the radar of the terrorists who were on the prowl. The phones were out of charge and they had no way to contact anyone. Taj President Hotel was transformed into a temporary hospital and the injured guests from Taj Mahal were shifted to Taj President for first aid and emotional healing. All the Taj employees stayed back in the hotel to take care of the ones in need. This was a test of humanity and the staff proved they had won millions of hearts in those four days.
A Moment of Relief
Sushil returned home for a couple of hours on Friday to freshen up. When we saw him, all of us just hugged and spent some emotional moments together. We were so proud of him and hundreds of others who spent sleepless nights taking care of the ones in need. The staff and management wanted to be in the hotel as the ordeal wasn’t over yet. Terrorists were still not arrested. Sushil returned to the hotel with the assurance that he would take care and be in touch.
Things were more in control of the police forces and the Anti-Terrorism Squad. By Saturday, the 29th, the situation had stabilized. But it had left behind a scar on everyone’s hearts. I am glad we could give back to the industry that gave us our livelihood and many beautiful memories. There was no better way of paying back. It’s been 11 years since then, and minute details may have erased from my memory but the pride of being there when needed makes it irrelevant. This commitment is inherited from the leadership. Mr Ratan Tata, the head of the Tata Group of companies who led the path for the others to follow, they did and how!
Since the tragedy, the iconic Taj Mahal Hotel resurrected itself gradually in its grandeur as well as its spirit. The heritage wing was completely revamped to erase any sign of the massacre. We are proud to be part of the Taj family. Each and every member helped to rebuild the hotel and they proved to the world that they will not be bogged down by threats and fear. Mumbai is known for its resilience and its spirit that allows it to bounce back with greater zeal. It took a while for people to overcome from the fears and recover from this harrowing incident. Many young kids had lost either one or both their parents in the massacre. Prayer meetings and healing sessions were conducted in schools for the children, to normalize them. Staff members in the hotel were applauded for their bravery and commitment and rewarded generously.Financial aid was rendered to everyone who lost their loved ones, be it in the hotel premises or other locations where the terrorists had attacked. My husband and his other colleagues continued with equal dedication, their commitment is commendable. The top management acknowledged the contribution of every staff member.
It’s been fifteen years since the attacks but memories of the horrible carnage remains fresh till date. Many times it crossed my mind to pen down my thoughts about this incident but I could never gather enough courage. It gives me jitters till date and I get goosebumps just with the thought of the fateful night. My hands turned cold while writing this. The four-day seize in Mumbai awakened us. It has taught us a valuable lesson. Not to take life for granted and not to forget to express gratitude to God for his blessings. You never know when your prayers get answered. If I was asked to ever erase an incident from my life, one would think it would be this. But on the contrary, it would not be, as 26/11 has taught me valuable lessons of humanity, courage, and brotherhood.