Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He worked in journalism for over a decade, and won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007. His bestselling novel, My Friend Sancho, was published in 2009. He is best known for his blog, India Uncut. His current project is a non-fiction book about the lack of personal and economic freedoms in post-Independence India.
This is turning out to be one crazy night. A friend of mine had an opening of her art exhibition a few hours ago, so we ventured to South Bombay for that. We attended the exhibition, sipped the litchee juice, nibbled on party snacks, and then six of us headed out for dinner. First we tried Indigo Deli, which is a couple of hundred metres from the Taj. We were told there would be a 25-minute wait. So we headed to All Stir Fry, the restaurant in the Gordon House Hotel in a lane down from there. They told us we’d have to wait 20 minutes. We stepped out again, and as we did so, we heard gunshots, and saw people running towards us from the left side.
One of the hotel employees rushed out and told us to get back in. “There must have been an encounter,” he said. “Get back in, you’ll be safe inside.”
We followed him in. We waited in the lounge-bar upstairs for a while. The big screen there was showing cricket. India won. Then someone changed the channel.
That’s when we realised that this was much more than a random police encounter, or a couple of gunshots. We heard that terrorists with AK-47s had opened fire outside Leopold’s, the pub down the road. We heard there was firing elsewhere in the city as well, including in the Taj. We watched transfixed, and as the apparent scale of the incidents grew, we realised we couldn’t go home. We asked if they had a room vacant; they did, so we settled in, switched on the TV, and watched in horror.
Uptil this point, these are the things we know from TV:
A bunch of terrorists opened fire in various parts of the city using AK-47s and suchlike. Some of them, it was reported, captured a police jeep and went around shooting people in that.
Terrorists captured parts of both the Taj and the Oberoi. There have been bomb blasts at both hotels. (We heard the second one at the Taj from our window in the Gordon House Hotel.) It is rumoured that foreigners have been taken hostage. It is reported that parts of the hotels are on fire.
At least four top police officers have been killed. Some members of parliament are reported to still be trapped inside the Taj.
There has also been attacks on the Marriott in Juhu, as well as the Ramada. There was an attack on VT Railway Station. There were blasts in Santa Cruz and Vile Parle. There was an attack on Cama Hospital, and, I’ve just heard, Bombay Hospital.
A petrol pump was blown up in Colaba, a couple of minutes walk from where we are.
And, just a minor statistic, no doubt, amid the horror of today: a diner was shot while coming out of Indigo Deli, where we were standing minutes earlier.
I’m fine now, I suppose, in terms of physical safety. If I wasn’t accompanied by the partner, and if three of the six of us weren’t women (including one who is pregnant), I would have headed out to the Taj. But the area is cordoned off, and I don’t have a press pass anymore, so I’d probably have been turned away. A journalist friend of mine is outside the Taj, and speaking from her colleague’s cellphone—hers ran out of battery a while ago—she tells me that she is safe behind the armymen who have now arrived on the scene. I hope that helps. I hope this is over soon.
Earlier today, I was working on a final polishing of my novel before it goes to press. Now I wonder what’s the point. The book will come out in April, and Bombay will be a different city then. This book was written in a Bombay before these attacks; it will come out in a Bombay after these attacks, and it somehow feels, as I sit here in the business center of a boutique hotel a stone’s throw away from mayhem, that it will be inadequate. It is a love story—and isn’t that perverse?
But of course, I say that now, caught up in the moment, a little more emotional than I normally am. Maybe tomorrow it won’t seem so bad. Maybe next week we shall be normal again, and life will go on as it always has. Maybe I’ll come to Indigo Deli for dinner sometime, and when asked to wait 20 minutes, shall loiter in the pavement outside, enjoying the night air of this city I love so much. Maybe. Maybe not.
Update (10.25 am): Right, I’m safe at home now. We hardly slept, and were told early in the morning by friends that a curfew was going to be imposed on the city, and if we wanted to leave for home, we’d better leave right away. The news mentioned that three terrorists were still on the loose in the city, and the Taj still burnt, but we stepped out anyway and made it back safely. We passed the Ramada and the Marriott on the way, perhaps taking the same route that one group of gunmen took last night on the way to Borivali, where gunfire was also reported.
Suddenly, what is familiar seems macabre.
I was on Larry King Live on CNN about three hours ago. They called me and asked me to be on the show as an eyewitness, at which I protested that I hadn’t actually seen anything, I was merely in the vicinity. But they’d read what I wrote in this post earlier, and they wanted me to talk about that. So I agreed, and came on briefly. King asked me if I’d actually seen any terrorists—I felt guilty that I couldn’t offer him any dope there.
Deepak Chopra was also on the show, speculating that the attacks had taken place because terrorists were worried about Barack Obama’s friendly overtures to Muslims. (I know: WTF?) That sounded pretty ridiculous to me, but such theories are a consequence of our tendency as a species to want to give gyan. A media pundit, especially, feels compelled to have a narrative for everything. Everything must be explicable, and television expects instant analysis.
This is foolish, for sometimes events are complicated, and we simply need to wait for more information to emerge before we can understand it. But many of us—not just the pundits—don’t have the humility to accept that. We want to feel in control, at least on an intellectual level, so reasons and theories emerge. But the world is really far too complicated for us. Yet somehow we muddle along.
The right kind of gyan, in the immediate aftermath of this, is historical perspective, which Christiane Amanpour provided on King’s show. Anything else is premature.
The kind folk at the Gordon House Hotel did three important things for us last night. One, they ushered us in when the gunshots began, assuring us that we’d be safer inside than outside. Two, they got us a room for the night, and extra mattresses and so on. Three, in the morning, they refused to accept payment for the room, insisting that we were their guests and this was their duty.
We left them a hefty tip out of gratitude, but I’m still in disbelief about their kindness. I often complain about the poor service in the hospitality industry in India, but never again about All Stir Fry or the Gordon House Hotel. What guys!
We passed Churchgate on our way home at about 8.45. It was obviously nowhere near as crowded as usual. But still there was a steady stream of people headed out, staring ahead, trooping off to work. This city did not sleep last night, I know. But it will not rest either.
Update (November 28): I have a new post up with more thoughts, and a few links: “This City With Arms Wide Open”.
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