My helpless feelings after the 26/11 attacks on Oberoi & Taj hotels in Mumbai, India.
My place of work was attacked. The walls of the restaurant where I welcomed my first guest as a bright-eyed trainee lie riddled with bullets. It is here in Tiffin, the erstwhile Brasserie, where the terrorists used their cell-phone to seek their master’s instruction to let the AK-47s lose. The bullets found the guests while the wait staff watched, sure to be the next in line. It could have been me, helplessly watching my guests die even when my own death stared me in the face.
News reaches me of the man who inspired me, chastised me, and who welcomed me into the fine tradition of Indian hospitality. He looks on as the vast shelter that he built turns into a graveyard. Many who have taught me my craft as a hotelier have become the victim of this attack, as have those who I initiated into this wonderful world. One of the murdered is a bright girl of 21 years old, ironically the same age as that of the captured terrorist. Her father, an army-man, accompanied her to the various Interview rounds and finally the Orientation day. He left his little girl in my hands, his mind at peace after all his questions were answered. And look what we have given her! She was killed at the bar of The Oberoi while she went about her training. The attack started at 9:30 pm and the report of her death had reached Delhi by 11 pm on the first day itself.
The General Manager of the Taj watched his suite burn while he continued the rescue operations for the guests. In the suite were his wife and two daughters who are no more. Someone else at the Taj later requested the fire tenders to expedite dousing of the fire that blazed on that floor. He must have felt selfish in making a personal request, while there was any chance of averting a similar fate for his guests. A boy in another part of the hotel cheerfully made sandwiches for the hiding guests. A food critic is dead - a lady who made many stand to attention while she took the first sip from her soup bowl, and made just as many cut out her column from the newspaper as a medal pinned proudly to the chest.
The guests must have their own stories that they were playing out at the ‘home-away-from-home’. They always do. They check-in and make the hotel come alive. Some make memories that they will cherish later, while others just pass-by. In that space and time they make the room that they occupy or the table that they have their breakfast on, their own. Many such stories have been cut in mid-sentence.
My eyes become big in disbelief as I hear accounts of how intelligence units, both domestic and international, issued warnings about the likeliness of such an attack. I see a great man helplessly realise that even though his hotel was asked to strengthen the security, nothing in his power could have deterred the terrorists who had the ‘operation’ planned to a meticulous detail.
It is incredible how we Indians lived through ‘a-tragedy-a-month’ over the last 6 months and moved on. We called each other, gave vent to our emotions, and returned to the business of living. The horrific events of the last four days have stopped us dead in the tracks, and the public outcry has found a common refrain. The politicians are avoiding the media for fear of being lynched verbally even as the cadence rises continuously. A few who do offer a statement end up messing their lines. Like the Home minister for Maharashtra who stated placidly ‘these things do happen in a big city such as Mumbai' while replying to a question from the media. In my opinion this answer makes him eligible for an exclusive city for himself, preferably one that will be used as target practice by the terror organisations the world over.
But there is more. I see a film-maker whose favourite muse is the Mumbai underworld, stroll by the corridors that I have accompanied guests through. Talk about looking for inspiration in the most unseemly places! In a profession where timing is all, he is clearly missing a trick or two.
Even before the candles lit by the hapless people who clamoured to the two sites yesterday could fade away, a leader of the Opposition labels them as apes of the Western society. Is there any hope that he will ever be able to learn the first lessons taught by the great leaders the word over?
While these post-facto gaffes divert my attention, facts trickle in. The government recounts the numbers rescued and those in the hospitals. They number the dead and call out their nationalities or states in a press conference. The hotelier in me attempts the math but fails. Two hotels with a 80-90% November occupancy in the 1000 plus rooms between them, with banquet season at its peak and many popular restaurants. Two hotels with staff to rooms ratio of over 1:2, ie over 2 staff for every room in the hotel. Only 200 dead? Two hotels who were under siege for over 2 days where tinkling conversations were replaced by gun-battles in the restaurants, and grenades became the plat-du-jour?
It just does not add-up.