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Home > India > News > Columnists > Renu Balakrishnan

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The Taj Burns

December 01, 2008

I had no sense of foreboding when I read myself to sleep on Wednesday night, November 26, 2008. I was anticipating fun and frolic -- our wedding anniversary, Christmas, New Year at Kannur -- for the next month. I awoke to lights and agitated voices. My husband was talking on his cell phone and clutching the landline with the other He was staring at the television screen in the drawing room. Churchill, our dog, sat on his toes agog with this unexpected 3 am action.

"They have blasted our city."

"What are you talking about?"

"They took the Taj They came by boat."

I rushed to the balcony. The red ball of fire erupted high above the line of concrete blocks which stood between us and the Taj. Muffled shots added to the eerie semblance of a Diwali night scene. The Taj was on fire. I looked at the sea in front. Serene. The purple water lay still and gleaming; reflecting the firefly flashes of lamps from country fishing boats. Across the harbour, Alibag, where our weekend home is, raised an ebony silhouette against the cloudy night sky. Yachts and speed boats lay anchored still. The sea slept. And to my left the battle raged

During the early morning hours we watched it happen on television while we reassured friends and relatives on cell phones and landlines. No, we aren't at the Taj or Trident and no, we are not at Leopold's and yes, we were safe at home.

***

My friend Fareda down the street from me didn't sleep that night. Her apartment is on Colaba Causeway behind the Taj, close to Leopold's, the haunt of young foreign tourists and students from local colleges. That night none of my nieces or nephews was there.

She told me, "They came rushing into the cafe. Shooting. They shot four waiters and others... anyone, anyone at all. Left to right then right to left. Then they ran, some ran down the lane shooting, past our tailor's shop, and went into Nariman House. The others ran toward the back door of the Taj. And the young people from Leopold's, whom they shot, they crawled; oh God they crawled out of Leopold's, across the road toward the police station. Some were shot in the stomach. And they shot my Xerox copy shop man as they ran down the lane."

My next door neighbour Mridula's maid watched the television screen and then nodded.

"It must have been them."

"What are you talking about, Shobha?"

"Last evening, a small boat stopped near our hut. And these boys in jeans and t- shirts got out. Some sport we thought. They had big blue bags, the ones these babalog carry on their backs."

"Yes and...?"

"And nothing. I had work to do. Some of the menfolk followed them for a while. Asking what they were up to."

"What did they say?"

"Nothing. They were very rude, they said."

"Where did they go?"

"Into Colaba."

"From the sea front past at Cuffe Parade, the check post at Badhwar Park into Colaba?"

"I suppose so."

***

Thursday.

"You were able to come to work Prabha?" I asked my maid who lives in Cuffe Parade.

"Yes, Madam."

"You shouldn't have. There is a curfew."

"What will I do at home?"

"All well at home? Hey, Prabha, all well?"

"Abdul... hasn't come home."

Prabha's son ran a tiny paan shop near Churchgate station. Prabha, aka Fatima, was married to a Moplah, a Muslim from Kerala [Images].

Abdul called. He had downed shutters and was sitting in his shop. He reached home later that day.

"Don't go out, Renu. Don't step out. Promise me?" yelled my sister-in-law Alice over the phone." I heard you want to go to donate blood. Stay put."

She had read about Maria and Salimbhai Harawala. Evacuated from their residence near Nariman House to another apartment down the road, they had stepped out on the terrace to see the action and were shot dead. "I won't." and I didn't.

Seven years ago, my husband and I had stood in a serpentine queue outside St Vincent's Hospital, Greenwich Village, New York City, after 9/11. That time too we didn't donate blood.

"Thank you," the nurse didn't meet our eyes, "we'll call you if we need blood."

She never did. The victims from the World Trade Centre, including the hapless rescuers -- policemen and firemen -- didn't need it. They had escaped unscathed or had died.

Our exhausted men -- police, army, fire fighters and commandos -- put out the fire at the Taj. They rescued the trapped and brought out the dead. I got an SMS asking to join a citizen's group meeting at the Gateway of India outside the Taj this Wednesday. I will go.

We watched the helicopters fly by carrying the commandos to Nariman House. We saw the nanny and the rabbi's child coming out of the house on television. The nanny, distraught disheveled, clutching the bewildered child as they made a path for her to safety. The next evening they announced the death of the five Israeli hostages. Would the orphaned child ever come to terms with this madness?

I think of my niece Rachel in Manhattan sitting peacefully by the window, the mild winter light falling on her and her baby Kiran. He burbles and crows, gulping his mother's milk. One chubby fist closed tight lies against her breast. But it was not always so.

Like New York, let us rise from the gray ashes, shaking off fear and despair to find peace. But let us find answers without darting down dark alleys of suspicion and down hawkish labyrinths. May we have the courage to do what it takes to rebuild a safe world for our children.

Renu Balakrishnan, who teaches creative writing, can be reached at renu@rediffmail.com
If you want to tell your story too about what you went through that horrific night and its aftermath, please do write in to citizen.speak@rediffmail.com


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