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A Gash in the Fabric of Mumbai

By Mira Kamdar
Sunday, December 7, 2008

Did the kids smile as they pumped bullets into my cousin Reshma and her husband Sunil as they ate dinner at Tiffin restaurant at the Oberoi hotel in Mumbai last Wednesday? Did my cousin have time to understand what was happening? Did she take the first bullet, or did Sunil? It must have been utter mayhem -- glass shattering, the staccato of machine-gun fire, blood spraying, people screaming. Then silence, but for the sound of various ring tones going off for hours among the splayed bodies.

These are the thoughts I can't still in my mind, as I imagine the last terrifying moments of my cousin's brutally terminated life.

Reshma was my connection to posh south Mumbai. She lived with her husband's family just up the road from the Oberoi on Marine Drive, the "Queen's Necklace" that arches in a wide semicircle around the tepid waters of the Arabian Sea in front of a line of art deco residential buildings that are among the city's most coveted addresses. A Bombay girl through and through, she grew up off Nepean Sea Road at the base of Malabar Hill, just around the next bend in the city's long coastline. She maintained close ties with her parents, taking her children for a long lunch with them every Saturday.

Her extended family and childhood friends, settled in the southern part of the city, were a web of support and love from which she never strayed. After the attack began, they came out to wait anxiously, hoping against hope, for word of her fate and her husband's in the Oberoi. They came out again for the couple's cremation a few days later.

Reshma was born into money and married into bigger money: shipping, pharmaceuticals, seats on the stock exchange, the local Toyota dealership. Her daughters, as a matter of course, attended the tony Cathedral school. Like everyone who is anyone in Mumbai's upper crust, she had a social life that revolved around private parties, family get-togethers, lunch at the clubs or the new restaurants and evenings out. Whenever I went to Mumbai, she swept me up into this world to which I never felt I belonged but in which it never occurred to her not to include me, the visiting cousin from America.

At the center of this life were the Oberoi and the Taj hotels. It was the most natural thing in the world for Reshma and Sunil to head down to the Oberoi for a casual dinner at Tiffin. It was just as natural for some of her cousins, who went out to dinner that same evening, to head for the Taj. They left on the early side, escaping the beginning of the bloody siege by minutes. Reshma and Sunil weren't so lucky.

These hotels are the twin suns around which Mumbai's elite social life has revolved for decades. They were extensions of the dining rooms and living rooms (and no doubt, in some cases, the bedrooms) of the city's richest, most famous and most powerful. Yes, the attack on these hotels was an attack on foreign business travelers and tourists. Yes, they were certainly chosen for the media attention that an attack on them would attract. But it cannot have escaped the masterminds of this meticulously planned carnage that the Oberoi and the Taj were not only icons of privilege but also safe havens for the city's rich -- and that by destroying the hotels, they would also destroy both the symbolic and the actual roles that they have always played in the life of the city.

Anyone who looks at the photographs can see: The attacks have left a gaping hole in Mumbai. It is not a physical hole like the one at the site of the World Trade Center. The hotel shells are still standing, but there is a gash in the social life and the psyche of the city's elite, a huge wound that bleeds at the core of the twin cocoons these hotels provided from the heat, the smell, the jostling crowds, the overwhelming festering humanity of Mumbai, vital and alive but also desperate and cloying.

I am haunted by my own memories of the hotels. The interview conducted over coffee in the very restaurant where my cousin died. The room with the views of the sea and the burgundy granite bathroom tile, where I stayed with my small children a decade ago, in what is now known to tourists as the Trident hotel but to the city's long-time residents as the "old Oberoi." The long, twisting corridor of shops on the ground level where I've bought shoes and souvenirs.

My first memory of the Taj is an expedition to south Bombay from the middle-class northern suburbs in 1967, when I was 10, and the supreme treat of eating ice cream in the casual opulence of the Sea Lounge cafe, with its million-dollar view of Apollo Bunder and the Gateway of India. Twenty years later, I celebrated New Year's Eve at the rooftop Rendezvous, drinking champagne as a vampish Russian woman crooned cabaret classics. The Rendezvous was later replaced by a bright, delightful Lebanese restaurant called Le Souk. The Sea Lounge remained frozen in time, refreshed but never transformed, like much of the old wing of the Taj. Two years ago, I was lucky enough to be upgraded to a suite in the original and sumptuous "heritage wing" of the hotel. I have never slept or showered in such luxury. To enter the Taj was to enter a timeless place of pampering where the outside world was kept at bay.

Until Nov. 26. Watching the stately 1903 building with its unlikely blend of Mogul and Byzantine architectures go up in flames, I gasped along with thousands of appalled spectators around the world who have known and loved that hotel. Imagining the agony of the people trapped inside those plush rooms, the wanton destruction of the delicately beautiful staircases and open gallery, the frantic staff heroically doing all they could to get guests out even as many of their colleagues were murdered before their eyes -- it was too much.

Did the attackers smile as they rapped on doors and then shot the people who answered? Did they smile as they exploded grenades and set fires? Was it a dream come true for them to enter these legendary sanctuaries of opulence? Did it thrill them to get their 60 hours of fame? Did they get a kick out of starring in a television drama that held millions of viewers around the world in horrified fascination for days on end? We know that they watched their own spectacle on their tiny BlackBerry screens. Did they sneak a peek between shots? Or did they pull up a few chairs and take a TV break among the bodies of the people they'd just slain?

The boys sent to wage this destruction dressed in the uniform of urbanized youth around the world: jeans and designer T-shirts. The surviving captured terrorist, Azam Amir Kasab, the baby-faced 21-year-old in the faux Versace T-shirt whose picture was widely circulated and who looked like any normal kid but for the AK-47 on his arm, reportedly underwent such sophisticated training that he and a handful of others were able to kill nearly 200 people -- including women and children mown down in cold blood -- injure hundreds of others, nearly destroy Mumbai's greatest landmark and bring a city and a country to the point of crisis.

These kids were turned into precision killing machines by professionals, almost certainly by Lashkar-i-Taiba, a terrorist organization dedicated to "freeing" Kashmir from India that works with both al-Qaeda and the Indian organized crime don Dawood Ibrahim. It appears increasingly clear that both had a hand in the Mumbai attack. Their goals are also becoming increasingly clear: to punish Mumbai, give the lie to India's economic rise by bringing its financial capital to its knees, scare the living daylights out of foreign business investors and tourists, tempt Hindu nationalists into retaliating against India's Muslim citizens, focus the United States and a weak government in Pakistan on dealing with an angry India rather than targeting the Taliban and al-Qaeda elements they work with in the Afghan borderlands.

But what about those kids who were sent in to do the deed and to reap certain death? It strikes me that they look just like the young contestants on "Indian Idol" or the sweet kid who's the main character in the movie "Slumdog Millionaire," who wins a spot on India's version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" and is certain that the girl he loves will be watching. Except that these guys were starring in an action-movie-style orgy of destruction where the millionaires were the targets, dropping like bloodied rag dolls with every squeeze of the trigger. With each furtive glance at their BlackBerrys to check the progress of the international television special in which they were starring, did the terrorists in Mumbai think about the folks back home who might be watching with pride? Did their hearts swell to know that they'd made it, like the contestants on the many game shows, for one brief flash of fame? As my heart bleeds, I imagine that is why they were smiling.

miraukamdar@gmail.com

Mira Kamdar, a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute and a fellow at the Asia Society, is the author of "Planet India: The Turbulent Rise of the Largest Democracy and the Future of Our World."

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