Reflections On The Night Of Terror

1 December 2008

It was sheer luck, providence, kismet, that some of us live to tell this tale, while many of us were not so lucky at all. The pain on the faces of their loved ones is devastating for all of us watching - a pain that seems to come all too frequently nowadays. While television stations are going up the learning curve with each such episode, the Government seems to have not learnt at all. Not even learnt that we need a different Home Minister, someone better equipped to do such a big, important, and complex job. These past few days, as we weep with the victim's families, and listen in horror to friends tell of watching people being killed in front of their eyes, my mind has been screaming, "It is NOT the economy, stupid".

Who cares where the Sensex is, when we have senselessness all around us. Who cares what kind of an economy we will be, if we are a battered nation, run by inept politicians or those obsessed with dynastic succession and/ or vote bank politics? The commonly offered excuse for our Prime Minister's slow responses - that he does not call all the shots - is no longer acceptable. He can no longer choose to be like a weak professional CEO in a strong family managed business, where the owner calls all the shots on everything important, and the CEO shrugs and says "well, its his company, beyond a point, I cannot push". By virtue of being the professional CEO with very little stakes to lose, he should have insisted that NSG be dispatched a long time earlier than they were, he should have insisted a long time ago that the Home Minister be changed, and finally, he should have had something more substantive to say to all of us about his government's further strategy and action plan to combat terror; instead of looking in the rear view mirror and saying "I condemn the attack", "they did it". We were a group of 16, 13 Europeans, many of whom were visiting India for the first time. After dinner at the Trident, we were told that the elevators were closed as there was some firing in the lobby, and could we please just sit for a while and have another cup of coffee. After twenty minutes or so, the situation was not resolved, and the staff requested us to move to another room, in the interior of the same floor. They said that we would be more comfortable, since we had to wait some more, and they had no information, just orders to keep everyone exactly where they were. Even as one of our group was advancing towards the street facing window to peer out and see what was going on, there were two explosions and fire and smoke visible. Switched on the TV, we saw the early news trickling in of killings and explosions in the city and the hotels. We persuaded the hotel staff to let us walk down the fire escape and take our chances. Through a complicated set of maneuvers, and a wonderfully calm and efficient hotel staff, we made it finally to a dark large room, where a whole lot of people were seated on chairs, in pitch darkness. As the footsteps and the alarming noises got worse, the hotel staff opened the street entrance and let us out in single file on to the street. We milled around on the street aimlessly, not knowing what to do, even as the gunfire sounded in the building a hundred feet away. Then came screams and shouts of "stand back", "peeche hato", and the commandeered jeep careered madly around the hotel building, screeching gratingly on the metal rim of its flat tyres. We hung around some more not quite knowing what to do. One of the many foreigners in the street asked one of the Indians standing there what he would advise him to do next, expecting him to have some sort of superior local knowledge to cope with the situation. The Indian ruefully replied "This is new to us also, it isn't as if they teach us in school, what to do in case of a terror attack". After a while, our group started walking cautiously across the neighbouring deserted street into my office building, but soon broke into a panicked run, as that particular noise which I now recognize as gunfire, came more frequently from the Oberoi building behind us. The security guards and the building manager were very empathetic and we rode up the elevator and holed up in my tiny office, and in one more neighboring office, thinking through plan B, since all of our group except us three local Bombayites, were staying at the Taj and now had nowhere to go. At four in the morning, we had an encounter of yet another kind - a call from the Secretary of the building society, presumably focused on maintaining the value of his property, demanding that we vacate the building a.s.a.p because outsiders were a security hazard, and that the security guards who let us in should be punished. He kept up the pressure at the security guards and at me. He rejected all offers by me to stand guarantee or call up relevant people who could assure him that we were no security threat. The ugly Indian in him reared its head "madam, if you are so well connected, why don't you ask your friends to send you a police escort so you can take your guests elsewhere"? How one wishes that people like him will know that foreign investment and his property prices aren't going to come from our wonderful physicality but because we are a wonderful people, high on both IQ and EQ, good people to do business with, courageous and fair. Eventually we worked out a compromise. But what I will choose to remember of that entire night in the office, will be the repeated assurances of the security guards right from the time we entered "aap surakshit hain, hum hain na". And of seeing the lift man of the building coming in at 6AM, via CST station, saying "train chalu tha, to kaise ghar mein baith ta?" Much of Bombay, including my women domestic staff, were at work the next day or on the street encouraging the commandos on. As Sunil Khilnani said at the ET awards last year, instead of obsessing about our economy, it is now time for people like us to also think about what kind of a society we want to be. GDP growth cannot be sustained by a nation battered from the outside by terrorists and from within by vote bank politics. Even if it did, it would be a pyrrhic victory. The objective of GDP growth is for all of us, rich and poor, to lead a valuable and valued life, during our brief sojourn on this planet.