Prateek Potdar commemorates the 11thanniversary of the 2008 Mumbai Attacks with a haunting fictionalised memoir of that fateful 26thof November.
I remember that night vividly. Like the branding of cattle, the memory has been burned into my heart and on the back of my eyelids. My experience might have been a mere matter of minutes, but during that brief period, it was as if I had been transported by some unholy force to another universe that was not my own, one that was ferocious and frightening; a journey to hell and back.
There was nothing out of the ordinary at first. Drinks were being poured, music being played, and the sounds of laughter and merry-making reverberated through the midnight air – a typical scene at theTaj Mahal Palace Hotel. Golden chandeliers hung overhead, illuminating the antique furniture dotting the lobby, while the walls were lined with centuries-old paintings of mythological epics. I had served as the hotel’s head waiter for nearly twenty-eight years by then, and I took enormous pride in my job. A child of poverty hailing from an unknown village, I felt honoured to call myself a member of the staff, even if I was just a miniature cog in the complex yet incredible machine that was the Taj.
I ran my hand through my greying hair as I checked the time – my shift had just ended, and it was time to leave. Despite my dedication to the establishment, I was relieved to be able to go back home. Exhausted, I had hoped to take a good night’s rest and prepare myself for another day of hard work. That was when it all started.
As I was walking out, I heard a sound that made me stop in my tracks, although I didn’t recognise it at first. It was thunderous and rapid, like the stampede of warhorses. I felt it hammering my skull, echoing through the rest of my body, while my mind raced to identify this auditory assault. When I did, I could not believe it, but a second discharge confirmed my assumption. Gunfire.
Others were confused as well, but the entire restaurant was met with reality’s cruel touch when the gunmen entered. Like a defenceless herd of grazers startled by a passing cobra, the patrons of Taj Hotel went into hysteria, running amok. These attempts to save themselves were rendered futile by another round of gunfire into the air. Through threats and intimidation, the gunmen organised the disoriented cattle back into a forced calm.
They all wore masks, except for one, the apparent leader. Barely in his mid-twenties, he could have been my grandson. He dragged a nearby waiter to the centre of the restaurant. No one could have anticipated what would happen next, what inhumane thoughts roamed in the dark crevices of the gunman’s mind.
Amidst the several innocent souls present, a single man was chosen.
Amidst the hands raised in honest prayer, a single rifle was raised.
Amidst the tense, painful silence, a single gunshot rang out.
Amidst the men and women looking up in search of salvation, a single body fell.
Amidst the horrified expressions rounding the restaurant, a solitary, sardonic smile was seen.
The gunman’s smile. The devil’s rictus.
All sound from the restaurant vanished abruptly. Incomprehension didn’t leave room for thought. Closing my eyes, I tried to imagine what the young man might have looked like before the light behind his eyes was snuffed out so ruthlessly.
When I opened my eyes, people were hiding under tables. Children were crying profusely, and mothers made desperate, unsuccessful attempts to console them. Waiters and dignitaries, the known and the unknown, clung to each other, united by fear. The restaurant was shrouded with panic; the very air passed through a filter of desperation. Everyone had become a prisoner, turned to stone without consent.
As I was counting the forlorn faces around me, I noticed one gunman throwing a small black object from the corner of my eye. I did not see what it was, but I ran. As a gazelle runs when it spots a tiger’s trail, I ran on pure instinct. Even then, the explosion hit me, knocking me to the floor.
The impact on my body was not as damaging as the impact on my ears. While the gunfire frightened me with its monstrous roar, the explosion horrified me with its total absence of noise. It was as if some demon had snatched from me the ability to hear and left me only with an accursed ringing, the tolling of death’s knell. The world twisted around me. People opened their mouths, screaming, but all I could hear was the incessant siren. There is indeed something disturbing in losing one of the five senses, even temporarily – anything that happened next was beyond my comprehension.
When I came back to my senses, I was instantly greeted with a menagerie of horrific images. Men and women ran, not with confidence or direction, but with utter hopelessness. They were like mice in cages, choosing to run ceaselessly because they could do nothing else. Corpses littered the floor, some with a single gunshot wound, others mutilated beyond recognition. Humanoid vessels of gore, their lifeless eyes questioned why they were killed and I was not.
Fire raged from all directions, consuming people and objects alike to satisfy its hunger. Inhumane screams echoed through the restaurant chambers. Surrounding me was misery, anguish, and terror. This was not the restaurant I knew, the place I had worked my whole life. This was hell.
The gods must have taken mercy on us, for one of the exterior walls caved in. Almost trampling each other, we escaped through the resulting hole. I ran and ran until my legs failed to support me, and I fell to my knees, the full impact of what I had gone through crashing down on me. I only remember brief flashes of me being carried to an ambulance and being laid down in a hospital.
After regaining consciousness a few hours later, I learned the gunmen were part of a ten-man team that had taken hostage the Taj Hotel, the Oberoi Hotel, and the Leopold Café. A total of one hundred and seventy-four people lost their lives. We who had escaped were lucky. This knowledge did not soothe my conscience; in fact, it only served to further sadden me.
It’s been several years now. I no longer work for the Taj Mahal Hotel, but every time I pass by, I still remember the trauma, as if it happened yesterday. I see blazing fire. I see people being tortured. I see demons spreading suffering. I took a journey that day, one which scathed me beyond repair and stole away my faith in humanity. A journey to where the collective misfortunes of the entire human race have been condensed into one wretched place. The journey to hell and back.