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Bombay Burning By: Raakhee Mirchandani
New York Post | Monday, December 08, 2008


Ay dil hain mushkil jeena yahan. Zara hat ke! Zara bach ke! Yeh hain Bombay meri jaan." - from the Bollywood musical "C.I.D.," 1956

"Oh dear! It sure is difficult to live here. Move over! Be alert and careful! This is Bombay my love."

It could have been a scene out of the latest Bollywood blockbuster - baby-faced terrorists wielding massive AK-47's, storming South Bombay landmarks on the hunt for foreign blood mixed with local flavor.

My friend - a friend so close it's a shame to not call her family - saw him approaching, "evil in his eyes," a "child" clutching a gun and heading into the Oberoi Hotel's restaurant Frangipani. It was dinnertime and instead of heading downstairs to the hotel's other eatery, Tiffin, she chose the upstairs place on a whim.

A strong, brave 40-something - a glamorous hybrid of British-born, Swiss boarding school and Malibu-bred, a breathtaking blend of delicate Indian beauty and charming Western wit - she sat with three other women, contemplating what to order.

The gunman approached, fired into the restaurant, and she felt the sweat instantly bead on her face and neck as she yelled at the girls to run. She was dining with who we would later realize were three prime targets - blonde hair, white skin and holding foreign passports.

In Michael Kors wedges and Jimmy Choo stilettos, the pack of girls - one young 20-something visiting the city for the first time - sprinted into the kitchen, through a corridor and down a staircase, while brave hotel staff slammed doors behind them. They reached a dead-end at the basement - dark and empty.

The huddled together, quiet and fearful, with strangers who became brothers, while the shots continued loudly upstairs. The terrorist was unloading into the restaurant, leaving heaps of limp bodies, leaving orphans and widows, leaving a city in fear.

Upstairs at the Oberoi, the father of a friend and 20 others were lined up execution style on the 18th floor of the hotel and used as target practice. He collapsed - a bullet grazed his neck and another his back hip - under a heavy pile of bodies that coated him in a steady stream of warm blood. Along with two other survivors they snuck away into an empty physical-plant room and sipped filthy air conditioner water to survive until Friday, when they were discovered and rescued by Indian commandos.

Sipping coffee in New York City at 1:02 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 26, my G1 Android vibrated with an e-mail.

"Urgent!!!! Terrorist attack @ hotel. We're hiding in basement. We are safe right now. Attacks happening all over the city." I was stunned, anxious, feeling helpless half a world away while e-mail updated me to my friend's horror. The messages continued for the next 20 hours, some sent via a stolen cellphone and others whispered into the phone receiver while crouched, hiding under a desk in an empty office building across the street from the Oberoi, where she had escaped to.

"Gunfire in the streets."

"But good news is I'm alive"

"Just want to go home"

It became surreal, almost detached, with Facebook status updates and wall messages: "meeera!! are you okkkkkk?????" for a friend who recently moved from North Jersey to Bombay.

On his Facebook status, Sree Sreenivasan, dean of student affairs at Columbia Journalism School and co-founder of SAJA, the South Asian Journalists Association, gave regular updates; "in webcast #6, we got a call from Anil, talking about brother Ashok, chairman of Yes Bank, who was killed." Within hours of the first attack, SAJA set up an e-mail loop and organized live Webcasts with New Yorkers and natives, authors here and filmmakers and writers who were less than five blocks away from the bombing and shootings.

My Bombay was burning.

My friend Harice said India's silver-voiced songbird Lata Mangeshkar wept 300 times that day. My mother sobbed continuously. I didn't cry once. My insides were charred.

Mumbai will always be Bombay to me, the name of my youth. The city is home to my grandmothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, my father's middle school, my mother's university. I spent most summer vacations away from my cozy New Jersey suburb, walking down Colaba Causeway in American jeans bargaining with street vendors for pennies in sharp Hindi (always to their extreme shock as the girl with the corkscrew curls and designer handbag knew her way around a Bombay bargain). Or sipping ice cold coconut water from a roadside cart or watching as street kids turned the commuter class train compartment (first class was for tourists, thank you very much) into a modern day Bombay bazaar, hawking everything from combs and batteries to vegetables and spicy potato chips.

It's the kind of place that runs on sensory pleasures - the sweet smell of pav bhaji cooked on the sidewalk, mixed with the putrid stench of an alley turned into a public toilet; the oppressive smog that wraps its thick hands around your throat every time you leave the house; the half-naked babies and children calling for a few spare rupees; and, yes, an air of lust. A billion people don't happen without some good old-fashioned passion.

Delhi's got politicians and more Louis Vuitton per square foot than anywhere in India. Bombay has everything else. Movies, music, art and millions of sidewalk-sleepers who leave houses and families in villages all over the country for a chance to make it in the city. Delhi is the head. Hitting Bombay was to strike at the country's heart.

My summer romance with it never changed. We met up every year like clockwork. Our nights were hot and heavy. Our days were spent in each other arms. The city was always and still remains my first real love.

Now it had been turned into CNN breaking news, screaming front-page headlines and somber Thanksgiving dinner conversation. And practically the only thing my family has talked about for more than a week.

My parents immigrated to the United States from India in the early 1980s, just a year before I was born. They were sheltered neighborhood newbies, the least American people on the block hoping to fall into a deep American dream.

I grew up as the girl who goes to Yankee Stadium listening to vintage Bollywood beats. The one who pairs Chanel shoes with heavy hand-emroidered Indian saris, who wears a salwaar to temple with Louboutin stilettos and lives among a generation identified by trendy Om tattoos struggling to balance our parents old brown values in our new white world.

My grandparents are from Sindh, a fertile Indian plain that became a Pakistani province in 1947, when men with pencils and maps ripped open the country and carved Pakistan out of India. We're Sindhi - the shrewd entrepreneurs and New York garment district kingpins who get an honorable mention in the Indian national anthem, but lost our land in the partition. The Islamic Republic forced us to find new homes.

We chose Bombay and never looked back. The terrorists never looked forward.

We left harboring only a fleeting grudge, the way a kid would toward a parent who forbade them from going to the next school dance. The ones who attacked my love never let it go. Their hate has been growing for 61 years, passed down from generation to generation, a genetic plague.

Now, this city of elephant gods and lion hearts had been infiltrated by serpentine deceit.

Less than a mile away from the Oberoi, the Taj Hotel inferno was roaring.

Tourists and locals - 6-year-olds and 80-somethings alike - huddled in corners and hotel rooms, gathering strength from each other, resolved to survive.

At Souk, a trendy open-air restaurant on the Taj's roof that boasts a panoramic view of Mumbai harbor, a friend's mom, dad and 85-year-old grandmother were waiting for her and her fiance to meet them for dinner. Like a true Mumbaikar operating on IST (Indian Standard Time), she was late. As she pulled up to park her car police banged on her windows and screamed about shots being fired in the hotel and sent her speeding away from the Gateway of India towards her Napensea Road apartment, desperately dialing her parents' cellphones.

Her family managed to escape thanks to a VIP security team dining at Souk who had been hired by the South African cricket team staying at the hotel. They ran through the fire escape, her grandmother carried down 18 floors on the shoulders of two burly strangers with hearts as big as their biceps, and hid in the Rendezvous banquet hall, where the Indo-Korean business conference was underway. They lived to tell her the story the next day.

Her aunt and uncle did not. The couple, dining together at the Oberoi's Tiffin restaurant, were cremated last Saturday, their 9-year-old and 11-year-old daughters joining four others at their school on the growing orphan list.

My mother's sisters could hear the destruction, smell the devastation and feel the ground shaking from under our apartment in the Colaba neighborhood, nestled on a quiet street just blocks away from the Taj and the famed Leopold Cafe, which was also attacked.

My phone continued to buzz with e-mails and international calls well into that Wednesday night. On Friday after restless days of fielding phone calls and murmering quiet prayers, I boarded a flight to London. The UK government had flown all British nationals there, the midway point for British passport holders with American green cards. But since no one had any paperwork - it was all lost in the rooms at the Taj - there were legions of wandering citizens trapped somewhere between hell and home. I loaded up a suitcase, filled my wallet and headed across the Atlantic. There were passports to organize, embassies to visit and visa offices to call. And no one who had lived through the attacks had any resolve to do it on their own.

Back in Bombay, the fire continued to blaze. This time in the hearts of the more than 16 million people that sleep in the buildings and streets. Vigils were organized, more than 100,000 people took to the streets demanding action. The paralysis mobilized the citizens. Most of all, they wanted answers.

The blood of Indians and the dreams of Pakistanis - once joined by soil but never by politics - is simmering into a new kind of hate.

Hate bubbling up every time the news - beamed in via satellite from India, the steady soundtrack of our lives these days - mentions Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistani-based terror group that is reported to have masterminded the plot and trained the murderous team.

Hate growing at an uncontrollable pace every time Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari opened his mouth during his interview with Larry King. Hate from a people and a home where my mother scoops up lost spiders and ants that find their way indoors instead of thwacking them with a newspaper because violence of any kind, internal or external, is never allowed.

It kills me, particularly, to see it in my own home (sometimes even a quiet, nasty side of myself that I loathe) where Gandhi has rock-star status, smiling his toothy grin on everything from T-shirts and rings to framed photos, the way Kurt Cobain hung on the wall of every angst-ridden middle schooler in 1994.

And with that hate and talk of a possible Indo-Pak war - what would be the fourth in the country's short 61-year separation - Gandhi loses, and the kids with guns score a small victory.

The future remains uncertain, just like the healing of my friends and family. But we can't stay away. In less than two weeks we'll all board planes and make the journey to a country drenched with the blood of our lost friends and family. The fear is tragic; home is always meant to feel like the safest place.

After 28 hours on the run, including hiding in a parking garage and under a desk in a dark office, the silence punctuated only by gunshots, grenades and the ring of a stolen cellphone, my friends escaped the madness at the Oberoi Hotel. But they say they will never be able to fully escape the madness it created in their heads.

They wake up crying in the middle of the night, saying the images of the dead won't leave them. They jump at any loud noise, have constant rashes and vomiting. I held them until it all ended, if just for the night.




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