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'Three armed men in black'

Last updated on: December 05, 2008 12:36 IST
Gary Samore, Vice President and Director of Studies at the US think-tank, Council for Foreign Relations, visited India ten days ago with his wife Paula and their daughter Kate, an eighth grader at the National Cathedral School in Washington, DC. After participating in the Hindustan Times summit in Delhi, the Samore family traveled to Mumbai where Dr Samore addressed an Asia Society event on the evening of November 26. He then returned to the Taj Mahal Hotel to join his wife and daughter. Paula Samore recounts what happened next in this account, exclusive to rediff.com

Tuesday, November 25

Delhi airport. The flight to Mumbai is late. Kate thrilled with her role as a youth delegate to the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit. Still wearing her badge. Covered Cherie Blair's speech 'Educating Girls and a Better World for All'. Got two photos of Kate with Mrs Blair, who gave Kate a real hug. Tall woman. Lovely skin; obviously, never sunbathes. She leaves directly after her speech for lunch with the prime minister, whether Indian Prime Minster Manmohan Singh or Tony Blair, is not clear

Looking at a list of schools to visit in Mumbai and hoping to set up low-key visit with girls and head so Kate can compare notes.

Mumbai, or Miami?

Smooth landing in Mumbai. Hot, feels like Washington in August. Car from the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel collects us. Our driver, Marpalli, points out the sights on the way to the hotel -- Victoria Terminus (now the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) train station, cricket club, Prince of Wales Museum. Riding along Marine Drive on the seafront past the old art deco buildings, I get a weird feeling of dislocation. Feels like Miami before its revival.

Tata everywhere: Tata Steel, Tata Tea, a business empire founded by the same tycoon, Jamsetji Tata, who built the Taj Palace Hotel in 1903 after the Brits refused his entrance into an all-white hotel. Turns a snub into a palace. I like that. Good for him. The streets are teeming. Indian women are tiny and ride sidesaddle on the back of motor scooters. Modesty prevails.

Ah, Taj!

The car turns and the Gateway of India comes into view. Massive. Looks like one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Built in 1924 by the British and looks out to the Arabian Sea. Taj Palace Hotel on the right. Not prepared for its scale. Domed towers at each corner with a huge central dome, blending Moorish and Florentine style. Gorgeous. Takes up the whole block, like Harrods. Harrods on steroids.

Two enormous wooden horses getting up on their hind legs flank the entrance. We pass through metal detector into what looks like the hallway of a Florentine palazzo. Central staircase open all the way up to the dome. Everything dim, cool and serene after the noise and heat of Mumbai.

Greeted by young woman in sari and taken to reception. We are seated at a desk and offered refreshments: Sweet lime juice or water. This is check in. Turns out we've been upgraded to a 'heritage' room on the fourth floor in the old wing, room 458. Lovely room. Backlit Moorish screens, massive linen pillows with pattern of tiny water jugs, muted indigos, cherry and gold. Think textiles. Step up to rounded alcove overlooking the Arabian Sea. India Gate to the left, buzzing with activity. Tired, everyone flops.

Wednesday, November 26

Morning. We decide to hit the streets. Need to see the Mughal miniatures in the Prince of Wales Museum and buy a duffle. Everyone busy trying to make something out of nothing. Indians seem very good at improvising and making do. Something we Americans need to emulate, especially during current mood of retrenchment. Into a tiny bookshop. Find poems of Tagore with intro by Yeats and True Grit by Charlie Portis. Mine for Rs 200 ($4). Gary picks up The Wonder that was India by A L Basham (50 years in print!). Kate can't find the Twilight series in Hindi, but scores with the new Jacqueline Wilson from the United Kingdom. Gather up postcards of the Hindi pantheon of the gods: Vishnu, Ganesh, Kali and Hanuman, the monkey god, whom the United States President-elect is rumored to favour. Hanuman stands for devotion, strength and we can't remember the third attribute. We joke about passing out Hanuman cards at the inauguration to get in strong with the new administration.

Head off to the museum. On the way, we see a tiny puppy, all eyes and ribs, trying to make his way across the street on wonky legs. Kate's eyes well up. Urge to rescue is strong. Aren't the Obama girls looking for a puppy?

Back at the Taj for a swim. Pool boy is Bollywood handsome. On the way back to our room, we pass the glass case featuring photos of famous guests of the Taj. John Lennon and Yoko hold pride of place in the centre next to Pandit Ravi Shankar, Alfred Hitchcock, Roger Moore, and President Bill Clinton in Indian garb in the lower right corner looking very chipper. Gary off to speak at the American Centre. Kate and I grab a bite at the Seaview Lounge. Seafood Risotto and Nutella Crepes for desert. Our waiter has a cousin who works near Pentagon City, Virginia. Down to the business centre to check e-mails and get Kate's math homework. Business centre has a resident astrologer or 'destiny planner'. Cool. Always wanted to know who I was in a former life. Keep getting McDonald's. I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth.

Head back to room, but get sidetracked by wedding in progress. A guest tells us that the Taj has its own reality television show, called Hotel by the Bay. The show follows the staff and captures day-to-day life in a five star hotel. Up to the room. Jet lag kicking in. Switch on the television. They've announced the winner for what looks like a reality show called the Bigg Boss. Catch George Clooney doing a commercial for an espresso machine. Sleep.

Gunfire in the hallway

Wake up around 9.30 pm. Gary is back and drinking a Kingfisher. Hear series of loud bangs. Figure it is probably wedding firecrackers. Look out the door and peek over the central railing and see three armed men in black on the floor below running toward the main staircase. Get inside fast and shut door. Out front window, we see security forces and dogs arriving and clearing the area around the India Gate and front of the hotel. Turn on television and see breaking news in English and Hindi that attacks are underway at the Taj and other places in Mumbai. TV cuts out. Call the front desk. No answer.

Around 10 or 10.30 pm, phone call from hotel: Stay in your room, turn off the lights, be quiet, and don't answer the door. Kate suggests we wedge chair under doorknob. Useful tip picked up from the Virginia Tech massacre. Good idea.

We lie down in bed with our clothes on and manage to doze off. A massive explosion shakes the hotel and wakes us up. It is 2.56 am. Within minutes, hear heavy automatic gunfire in the hallway.

Very, very scared now. American consulate e-mails at 3.35 am that hotel roof is on fire. Look out and see fire engines arriving and putting up ladders at the far end of the hotel, away from our room. Around 4 am, we peek out the door and see thick smoke in the hallway. Decide this is it. Time to go.

Ninja moment

Wet towels and grab passports. Gary looks at map on back of door. There is a staircase in the back of the hotel away from the fire. Out the door now and walking fast, towels covering mouth and nose. Ninja moment. Smoke burns eyes.

Reach fire door of stairwell and push through. The air is clear. Down two flights of stairs. Further descent inside the hotel is blocked by a huge industrial refrigerator in the stairwell. Beyond the refrigerator, we see white tile floors like a kitchen and hear an Indian woman crying for help, but we can't see her or get to her.

Turn back and go out an opening onto a flat roof two stories above the ground. Very dark. Pumped up. Afraid we are trapped on the roof and sitting ducks if terrorists find us. Walk to the edge of the roof, which looks over a back alley. Indian soldiers on the ground motion us to get down and go to the right.

Creep over and discover a metal fire escape. Climb down and cross the street. Soldiers direct us away from the hotel. We tell them about the woman crying for help.

It is 4.28 am, Thanksgiving morning.

Complete coverage: Terror strikes at Mumbai's heart

Paula Samore