It was the American Thanksgiving holiday, my friend Arjana and I were planning to join our friends Rob and Steve in Mumbai later that
day to have our Indian version of the traditional dinner. Rob and Steve were staying in the Colaba District; we had talked about getting drinks at
the famous Leopold Café and eating afterwards, but our Thanksgiving plans evaporated.
Mumbai had been attacked by terrorists.
I heard the news from Arjana’s mother who had told us over several frantic cross-Atlantic cell phone calls. Worried reports from both
our parents came in, interspersed with pleas to come home. Arjana and I were staying at an ashram in Pune, about three hours outside of Mumbai. Immediately,
our day went from calm meditation to stressed and stretched, filled with worry for our friend’s whereabouts. Throughout the day news filtered in – open fire –
Leopold’s – hostages – the Taj Hotel – The Oberoi – Americans - 25 dead – 50 dead. These reports kept us tense and worried, not at all the Thanksgiving we had imagined.
"There were five times more foreigners here, loads of them," Rob stated this fact as we walked
down the Colaba Causeway in Mumbai City. Unbelievable that only 24 hours after the landmark Taj Majal Palace Hotel, known as “the Taj” on the news,
stopped burning, all terrorists were shot or captured, and tourists fled the city.
Our ride into Mumbai was eerie. The metropolis starts about one hour’s drive
before the city center. For three days, this city center had been a war zone, paralyzed by 25 terrorists, young men who had planned to kill many more people. We arrived on a Sunday. We couldn’t tell if the strange emptiness of the city center was caused by the day of the week, or the recent events,
both we figured. The
driver dropped us off at Bentley’s Hotel, one where we couldn’t get reservations previously. Most rooms were available now. The innkeeper spoke,
"Honestly, we know what’s going on, tourists won’t come back, we know we will have empty rooms, and we just try to deal with it." The four of us had
two rooms. We unpacked and went to walk around Mumbai’s ground zero.
Seeing the Damage and Hearing the Stories
We walked to the Leopold Café, the 127-year-old restaurant in the heart of the Colaba District along the
Colaba Causeway. The café was made famous by John Gregory Robert’s epic autobiography, Shantaram. On the first night of the attacks, three young men
opened fire in the crowded restaurant and then went outside and walked, shooting along the way, towards the Taj Majal Palace Hotel. Leopold’s was boarded up -
bullet holes in the windows and ricochet scars on the cement walls. Puddles of white melted wax formed foundations for new candles that burned in vigil for the
Crowds pushed in for pictures.
Outside the café, Rob recognized several shopkeepers he had done business with prior to the attacks.
The businessman’s shop was on this street, the same street where the terrorists had fired on the people. The gunmen had randomly sprayed bullets, hitting whatever
and whoever was in their path. Three of the shopkeeper’s friends had been shot; he had pulled people into his store and closed the door to wait out the rain of
to the Taj Majal Palace Hotel, the gray monolith hotel made infamous to the world as a burning site of death and terror, not as the grand 105-year old landmark
of wealth and grandeur that loomed over the Mumbai Harbor and iconic Gateway of India. The windows along the street were already boarded up, the stone brick
building devoid of life and breath, its own sort of corpse. Bed sheets were tied together and hung from several fourth-story windows. I felt chills as I imagined the
guests tying together the linens for a ladder to escape from the siege.
Later in the internet café, Steve and Rob saw Lorenzo, an Italian photojournalist they
had met at their hotel. Relief flowed between their handshakes as they realized they were both alive. Lorenzo said he was in
his room when he heard the gunshots. Being a photojournalist, his first instinct was to grab his camera and follow the commotion. He ran into the
street. The terrorists had just left the massacre at Leopold Café and were heading towards the Taj Majal Palace Hotel. He saw their backs, the
orange sparks coming off their rifles. He followed them. Inside the perimeter, he bunkered down for 24 hours and snapped photos of commandos running in and around the hotel, gun shots, flames and desperation. His photos were picked up by news agencies around the world; he sold
them for thousands of dollars.
The next morning, we walked for a different view of the Taj, the gray sunlight
illuminating the cream turrets. From here, I saw the burned roof and turrets, more bed sheets strung as ladders from the fourth and fifth stories. The police
moved us along, preventing too many pictures of this infamous site. We saw the waterway where the dinghies had carried a second group of terrorists,
a ramp leading from the water to the street, almost a pathway for the terrorists who landed there to seize the Taj and join with the others from Leopold’s.
Heroes Among Us
India is a wonderful country with so many helpful people and beautiful places to see. A young woman, in perfect English, shared that her and her
friends were doing a school project on what had just happened. They were glad I had come to India; it took courage to stay and not leave like everyone else. She asked if we had anything like this in America. "Not since 9/11", I said, "but people still come to New York. The city has
healed". They wished me well with the familiar Indian head waggle and walked off. I smiled.
Indians are carrying on with their lives, doing what they need to do
to keep the city and their country going. My friends and I had found our own Thanksgiving here in Mumbai – thankful to be together, alive and witnessing
this city and its people healing, ready to welcome the world back to this glorious place.
Check out these tips for having an indie experience in Mumbai.