Monday, December 15, 2008

Mumbai meri jaan...

"Have you lost faith in the city, memsahib?” Asked the driver which broke my reverie. "Why do you ask?” 

“With all these attacks and blasts, you must have felt very scared..." 

Little did he know, of what I had been through when the attacks and blasts had occurred. "The city is and shall always remain dear to me, come what may". Hearing this he smiled, and turned up the volume of his radio...

Having elaborately planned my tour to the sub-continent, my parents weren't happy that I was doing this alone. Their fear about my safety wasn't unfounded either, with incidents of harassment of tourists in the Metros being reported frequently. But I realized that with some street-smartness and compliance to the basic Do's and Don’ts while visiting these countries; I could do very well for myself. And enjoy a good trip to India...

My first stop was Mumbai. A pretty easy choice, considering it was the HQ of a dream factory, one could say. A factory that churned out motion pictures by the dozen, which carried with it the hopes and aspirations of those working with it and those to whom it was made for. Although their total disconnect with the portrayal of the Real India is a bit of a bother, it does provide a temporary escape from daily grinds of life for the audience, which is worth their ticket price.

The city's role in the colonial rule of yore and also in larger time frame of Indian history also made it easier. The monuments, the bustling and vibrant city life, the novels which had the city as its premise; just led me to it.

I was staying at the Trident, Oberoi, the preferred hotel among foreign nationals. Many of online travel buddies had nice things to say about it. The wonderful view of the sea among other things. And at the end of a tiring day roaming around the city, you would want to soak in with some comfort ;).

Three days had passed, since I landed in the city, when the sun rose on the 26th Thursday. It was my last day here and i hadn't planned on anything stressful. A visit to the Jehangir art gallery and Mani bhawan followed by an evening saunter by the Juhu beach was on the agenda.

I returned to the hotel by about 6pm and headed straight for the Spa. After having finished my dinner by 8.30pm I headed back to my room to start packing. My flight was at 2.00am. Later I found my diary replete with jottings of the journey. Going through the pictures I had clicked, as and when I mentioned something in the diary, I relived my stay, picture by picture, page by page. 

The Taxis, the Best buses, the Dabbawalas, the chats at Chowpatty, the oi-look-at-the-gori-chori ogle. {Although the attention was unwarranted} was so much fun. One thing about the Mumbaikar is that they never fail to lend a hand or offer a smile to the ones in need. Maybe I was lucky in encountering the good ones…

24 hours had passed since the terrorists had taken us as hostages. Sitting beside me was Vijay, a project leader in an IT solutions company who made a business presentation yesterday, at this very conference hall. Then there was Ahmed to my left, a server who worked in the day shift at one of the restaurants above. The others were scattered across the hall. 

We introduced ourselves to each other, keeping our faces straight, making no expressions whatsoever and keeping our voices to a whisper. 

A good number of foreigners were present in the hall. It took me a while to get a feel of the situation, to know what was happening around me. And the thought, of the anxiety that folks back home would be going through, churned my stomach. 

The terrorists were moving around with sense of purpose. There was a method to their madness. It was evident that a lot of planning and training preceded this operation. Why was I assessing them like a professional team doing an honest job? I had to keep myself sane and positive in these trying times. The smell of the two rotting dead foreigners, was overpowering us.  

We held each others hands and Ahmed lent his shoulder and also kind words of consolation, when I broke down from time to time. Why wouldn’t they understand that this approach led them nowhere? If they really cared about righting the wrongs that their brethren had suffered, weren’t other means available?...

The sounds of staccato fire and grenades blasting shook us now and then. What I later came to know as a NSG counterattack, was making its presence felt. Sheer exhaustion due to hunger and dehydration made me doze of for longer periods of time. Vijay was getting agitated about the state of affairs. That innocent people were caught in something this terrible, for no fault of theirs, irked him. Ahmed tried to console him, but to no avail. I was a mute spectator to the happenings…

Two more foreigners were shot dead on the second day ruthlessly, without remorse. The remaining hostages were too shocked to respond anymore… We were given some water to drink. The thirst remained unquenched… 

Later in the evening a unit of the NSG stormed the hotel. The terrorists agitatedly ordered us to move in to another hall, a floor below. 

What possessed Vijay to do what he did remains a puzzle to me. He took one of the terrorists by surprise, shouting expletives and giving them a punch or two. The other snuffled him out within no time. I screamed out and tried to reach but Ahmed pulled me along with the others. I was too weak to offer resistance. 

The rest of the events are still fuzzy and vague in my memory. Vijay’s death had shocked me enough perhaps, to remain oblivious to my surroundings. The NSG came in, there was a lot of commotion, and there were screams, gunshots, orders being shouted out… Ahmed meanwhile, literally carried me out through a fire exit he had known to exist nearby. 

At the lobby, he made me to stand up and hold my hands up in the air as we exited the hotel. I flopped almost immediately outside the hotel, prompting some people outside to rush in and offer some help… Ahmed was dragged away in another direction perhaps. 

“Everything’s okay. You’ll be fine ma’am”. 
“Ahmed, Where is Ahmed….?”  
“Arrey teekh se pakad (the door shut). Achha Ab chalo jaldi”… 
The ambulance zoomed away…

“How do you feel Miss Jacqueline?”, this from a sprightly officer who seemed to me as a compatriot. 

“Very well, thank you. And you are…”

“John Summers, from the office of the British Deputy High Commission here. I am here to ensure your safety and your safe return back home. We have informed your relatives about your state and have made travel arrangements for you, to leave India as early as tomorrow.”

“Oh that’s very helpful of you to do so.”

“The Travel documents including temporary passport and tickets are here. I believe you lost them all in the unsavory happenings. Please do not miss the flight under any circumstances, for the city is yet to be healed from its wounds.”

“Yes, I will. Mr. John, it would also be of great help if you lent me some local currency.”

“Not for sightseeing or shopping, I presume”. “No, I had to attend to some personal matters, before I leave the city.” 

“Memsahib, this is the house according to the address.” I got down, asking the driver to wait for an hour perhaps. I stopped before opening the gates to Vijay’s house. I took a deep breath and went inside. Namrata, Vijay’s wife broke down inconsolably after I introduced myself. I told her about all the wonderful things he had mentioned about the family and told her to accept what had happened. “You are lucky, aren’t you?” she asked me.  

“There isn’t much difference in the ones dead and the ones who survived, Namrata. The scars might have healed on me, but they will remain inside me. The rage within him made him do what he did. He is more blessed a soul than those who took his life…”

After a tearful partaking and a promise to keep in touch, I headed to Ahmed’s house. He was delighted to see me and asked to me to join them for lunch. I refused politely, but thanked him profusely for saving my life. He asked his daughter to come out and said,” this is the memsahib, I was talking about. You should also achieve something in life and be brave enough to travel to another country on your own.” He laughed much to the chagrin of her and she looked at me suspiciously. “She knows memsahib, that Allah wouldn’t forgive the perpetrators of terror and that they have no religion to call as their own”. “That would be the best thing for her to know.” I replied before I left him.

"Airport, memsahib?", "Airport it is..."

Tough questions remained unanswered in me, Why does the political establishment take the Mumbaikar for granted? For how long will they keep bandying about saying the Mumbai spirit lives on? How could such a breach of security take place at the maritime borders? When will the day come, when the people can lead their lives away from the shadow of terror?   

And this song played in the background, curiously enough…
♫Ai dil hain mushkil, jeena yahan, zara hat ke , zara bach ke, ye hain Bambai meri jaan♫  


Somebody Else said...


Akshata said...

Boss level.

"Shola hai..ya hai bijuriya
Dil ki bajariya
Bombai nagariyaa"

Merin Mandanna said...

Nice post,Nakul.
Those questions will stay unanswered for long,won't they? Sad.

@ Aks,
:D some song,that!

Prabhakar said...

Very touching comment on state of affairs in country known for its resilence.One can only pray for the departed souls and hope sanity prevails. Worthy write up

sadhwi srinivas said...

You have been tagged. :)