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Indians never get scared, because God is with us'

Matthew Schneeberger in Mumbai | December 10, 2008 02:00 IST

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KA Khan worked for years, selling his prized Kashmiri shawls at wholesale prices and saving money, in hopes of one day operating his own shop at the prestigious Oberoi Hotel arcade in South Mumbai. 

His life's dream was actualised on November 1, 2008, when he and a partner opened Shawl Collection at the New Oberoi shopping centre.

But less than a month later, Khan's dream took a nightmarish turn, when terrorists stormed the Trident/Oberoi complex and killed over 30 people, including many foreigners. 

Now, with bills mounting and no customers to speak of, things look increasingly difficult for the upstart entrepreneur.

"Bad timing, our opening. These are very tough circumstances," Khan says glumly. "But things will improve. They have to..." he adds, trailing off.   

December is usually the most lucrative month for those who ply in the Oberoi's arcade. And this year, with business already slow because of the creeping effect of the global financial crisis, many shop owners were counting on a strong year-end to reach annual sales targets. Now, they admit, those hopes have been all but dashed, though the Trident is scheduled to re-open on December 21. (The Oberoi will open much later, perhaps as late as December 2009).

 Suleman Shama, of Shama Group - Indian Perfumers, has run his ittar shop in the Oberoi arcade for 32 years. After the 26/11 and subsequent standoff, he and other shop owners were made to shut their doors for nearly two weeks. Only on Monday was the beleaguered Shama allowed to re-open, but by Tuesday afternoon no customers had yet visited.  

"I have many Arab customers, wealthy Indian customers and foreign customers, including those who work for International airlines," he says. "December 6 an Arab sheikh was supposed to stay at the hotel, and he was planning to purchase perfumes from my shop. Now, his trip is cancelled. So, what can I do, but come to work, sit here and wait?"

The neighbouring shop owner, Mohammed Valji, of Leather Touch, a 35-year Oberoi veteran, says that "95%" of his customers are foreigners, and thus, expects his business to take a huge hit. "These are very tough times. I am married and have three children. Already I have lost nearly one month's sales. Now, since there is no work, I just sit and chat with friends, drinking tea. We're hoping that when the (Trident) hotel re-opens, business will get back to normal. Already we're seeing locals begin to shop again. So there is hope."

One such local is Aloka S, a self-described "housewife" and South Mumbai resident, who shops at the Oberoi "probably five or six times a year". She says she made the special trip on Tuesday because a friend had told her that the arcade had already re-opened, and she wanted to show solidarity. "The Oberoi has such great shopping and has always been so important to Mumbai. I think we as citizens should do our part to support the local economy, especially all the shop owners who are taking such huge losses," she says, conviction in her voice.

But one shop manager, Jasmine, of Shahenaz Jewellers, seems less concerned about incurred losses and more concerned with setting the record straight about terrorism. "We lose nothing, terrorists; you lose everything. The world is standing with India right now. India is being given support. Already customers and tourists have been saying they want to come back. So, what did the attacks get you? Nothing! And, remember, Indian people never get scared, because God is with us."

If Jasmine's claims are true, what exactly did the terrorists hope to achieve? A symbolic shot at the heart of South Asia's financial, entertainment and commercial centre seems to have been the goal.

And though defiant and resilient Mumbaikars like Jasmine show how these sorts of attacks are ultimately futile, their short-term effects are still quite devastating, particularly for these local businesses.

Ahmed Mukati, who owns both the Yellow Rose and Red Rose jewellery and handicrafts shops inside the Oberoi-Trident [Images] complex, will be doubly affected. His entire livelihood is dependant on the fate of the two buildings.

"Money will be very tight for some time," he says in a matter of fact manner. "Already 2008 was not such a great year. But, now, there's no way to make up for the sales which have been lost. We can only hope to have strong business in 2009. So far, it is discouraging. I have been here two days since re-opening without any customers. I will hope for the best, as only God knows the future."

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