By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 29, 2008
MUMBAI, Nov. 28 -- Behind the charred and bullet-pocked Taj Mahal Palace & Tower hotel Friday afternoon, a street vendor handed out sugar cookies to the commandos.
Ten minutes earlier, gunfire and bomb blasts had reverberated from the top floors of the opulent hotel as Indian security forces attempted to root out the last of the gunmen and rescue any remaining hostages in one of the worst terrorist attacks to strike India's financial and entertainment capital.
The tense faces of the commandos and paramilitary troops contrasted with the easy smile of the street vendor as he circulated among them with his tray of cookies arranged in neat rows.
He was one of many residents who turned out to help as Mumbai endured another day of violence and uncertainty in what TV newscasters are calling "India's 9/11."
"We just want to help our city," said Srino Vas, 28, another resident, who had joined a human chain formed to keep onlookers away from stray bullets fired by gunmen holding a Jewish center in South Mumbai's Colaba neighborhood.
Mumbaikers say the key to the city's reputation for resilience is the eagerness of its more than 14 million residents to pitch in at times of crisis, whether they are recovering from monsoon floods or deadly assaults by masked gunmen. Many freed hostages praised hotel workers as the unsung heroes of this week's carnage.
John Alexander, a 58-year-old Indian businessman, said he had just finished a presentation and was eating dinner with prospective Korean clients in a rooftop restaurant at the Taj on Wednesday evening when the group heard shots and began receiving text messages and calls from relatives telling them, "Mumbai is under attack."
They huddled under desks and stayed up until 4 a.m. after seeing flames shooting from parts of the historic hotel.
"All we could think of was a 9/11 situation where we would be stuck in a burning building, which would then collapse," Alexander said. Eventually, he said, more than 250 people who had been huddled on the hotel's top floor charged down 21 flights of stairs to escape.
A security team that had been sent to Mumbai ahead of an upcoming international cricket match joined hotel workers in leading many hotel guests out of the building, using walkie-talkies to guide people to safety.
"It's thanks to these men that we are alive today," Alexander said.
That spirit of cooperation is one of the things it is hoped can prevent what many here fear: that as the shock of the attacks eases, anger could rise, feeding tensions between the city's Hindus and its minority Muslim population.
"I'm very fearful, because this is not good for our country," said Mohamed Khan, a Muslim taxi driver who added that he respected police officers for sacrificing their lives. "Anybody, Hindus, Muslims -- I don't have any problem. But people are angry. The terrorists are not good."
Before the coordinated attacks began Wednesday night, tensions also existed between local residents and those they consider outsiders -- economic migrants from other Indian states.
Known as India's New York, Mumbai is a city of dreams that attracts tens of thousands of people a day to its teeming streets. Many of those people are fleeing impoverished lives in remote rural villages.
In the early hours of the attacks, bystanders pitched in to carry wounded police officers to taxis, which had become makeshift ambulances.
But as the violence spilled into a third day Friday, thick crowds of onlookers turned into impromptu street protests, with many people calling on the government to get tough on terrorists. That development has sparked fear in the city's Muslim communities, still anguished over rioting in December 1992 and January 1993 that killed at least 900 people, most of them Muslims.
Mumbai remained relatively peaceful in the first hours after the attacks ended.
"The psychology of our city has changed," said Shobha De, a prominent Mumbai social chronicler and novelist. "But we believe in each other in Mumbai. We will survive this because of each other."