A Taj Story – Nina Mathur
I love the coffee and club sandwiches served at the Sea Lounge. I love its rustic interiors, I love the quiet ambience it radiates, and I love that beyond 8 it’s nearly empty.
And for precisely that reason, my husband and I were in the Taj that night. We entered by 8 and were ready to leave by 9:40. We took the lift and 2 minutes later it opened into the lobby. My ankle was sprained so I stayed inside till our driver could fetch us. That’s when we heard the first sound of commotion. At the same time, I also heard the sound of gunshots.
While we were looking around for the source of this noise, a part of the chandelier fell from above. I don’t know why, but the sound of the gunshots combined with the falling of the chandelier, agitated me. Like somehow, they were linked.
When I told my husband about the gunshots, he thought I was hallucinating. It was so evident to me and yet, no one else had heard it! At that point, even though I was unaware of what was going to befall us, I felt an unsettling feeling seep its way inside me.
Beyond the lobby I could see the swimming pool and by the pool I noticed a whole gang of Korean tourists. I kept telling my husband “Yogesh, someone has been shot!” but he didn’t listen. Then, in a span of five minutes, two things happened: my husband almost crossed the lobby and the Koreans by the pool, ran towards me. I was close to the steps, so before they could trample me, I ran up, back to the Sea Lounge.
Just as I reached up, below a stampede broke out.
Suffice to say, but this time everyone sensed that something was, amiss.
A few minutes later, through another staircase, Yogesh joined me. Instinctively, we sat down at our old table – even my glass of water was still there. I popped in 2 pills for my migraine, but I was still hysterical. I kept on yelling about the gunshots, while my husband sat in quiet embarrassment. Hearing the tribulations of my hysteria, the lady behind me informed us, “I have just spoken to the Commissioner, a cop has been shot at Leopold, nothing is going to happen here. Don’t worry.”
But by now a lot of staff had accumulated inside the lounge, and while everyone tried to pacify me, suddenly one staff member spoke in a loud, rapt voice “Switch off the lights and get under your tables.” And just as the Lounge dissolved into darkness, people’s relaxed temperament transformed into seriousness.
I slid under the table, but because they are coffee sized, Yogesh sat in front of me. Unfortunately, as the Lounge is surrounded by glass windows, we weren’t in complete darkness. Shards of light fell inside from the streets outside, and parts of him could be seen.
I faintly remember it was at this point – sitting in partial darkness – when someone declared we were under a terrorist attack. It wasn’t climactic, but even with my limited vision I could tell, none of us really knew how to react.
Right from the first gunshot I heard, the agitation I felt, the ensuing chaos, up until the darkness – nothing really prepared us for this. All this time I thought this was – at worse – a gangster war and sitting in the Sea Lounge I was safe! But with this tiny, imploding sentence… everything seemed to change.
Here’s the thing: Yogesh and I, never let negativity cloud our optimism. We were terrified, but still calm. And like everyone sees in the movies, I assumed the cops would soon come and the situation would be contained.
At least, that was how we felt at the start.
As for the others: the 2 ladies behind us, stayed hidden, the Koreans sat quietly in a line on one end, and an Englishman in his mid-twenties, paced around the room. I had a sad feeling that he was separated from his family.
On the other side of the Sea Lounge, there is a door that leads to the Ballroom. In the Ballroom, I think, some kind of event had taken place, because it contained the service ‘Entry’ and ‘Exit’ doors. I was speculating, but I felt that the terrorists had entered the Taj through those doors.
That was possibly why we could hear the constant footfalls of shoes, the constant gunfire, the rushing and the screaming. We couldn’t see anything, but we could hear almost everything. Every time someone got shot, there was an uproar of screams, followed by an agonizing cry of pain. It was dreadful. The thought of what was happening made our stomachs turn, and the idea that ‘I could be next’ made us numb.
When 10 pm turned into 11 pm and then 12 am, and no cops came to rescue us, Yogesh and I accepted the situation; internalized and even improvised on it. If someone’s phone screen flashed, we took it as a sign to switch off our own phones; if someone made a sound, we tried to be even more quiet. No one told us these things, it was just instinct.
There was a stretch when no one spoke a word. Neither the staff members amongst themselves, nor any of the other guests to each other and not even Yogesh with me.
But being the India head of his company, Yogesh had to inform his colleagues in the US and in India about his situation. It’s through this constant correspondence that we grasped the severity of the reality outside.
As the grenades blasted in the background, assuming the building would eventually topple over us, Yogesh and I shifted under an arch. We made it our safest bet for that night. Like us, a lot of people shifted too; moved into their own safe places.
Then there was the bathroom situation. It was a combination of fear and anxiety, but more to the point: it was cold! The AC’s were still on, and we were shivering. I suggested to Yogesh to use an empty vase, but for women it was tricky. None of us dared to use the bathrooms outside the Lounge.
Understanding our predicament, a senior staff lady led us to the pantry, where she took out a large garbage bin, covered it in plastic, placed some papers and told us to use it as a temporary toilet. It wasn’t easy, but it was all we had.
The scary part about this was, every time we opened the door to the pantry, this opening and shutting motion could be seen. That was the time we were the most fearful, because had even one terrorist seen the door move, it would have been the end of all of us.
In this wait time, there was a moment when Yogesh considered breaking the windows and jumping down. Even with my aching ankle, compared to death, this felt less painful. But like many things, neither of us had the courage to go through with it.
Then, by 1 am, things got worse. I’m not sure how it happened, but somehow a grenade landed into the Sea Lounge. We saw it roll past us and settle into a corner. I can’t even explain the emotion that gripped me – it wasn’t terror; it was something beyond. Almost like it killed us, without killing us.
By some stroke of luck, it didn’t burst, but around the same time, the first real bomb blasted in the dome, above. And I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced a bad earth quake, but in that moment, it felt as though the whole building – the stone, the marble, the glass – shook. Almost as though it shook the last dregs of hope out of us.
In the 34 years we’ve been married, I’ve never seen my husband know fear. Of any kind. Ever. But after the grenade rolled in and the bomb blasted above us, even in the bleakness of our room – for the first time in my life – I could see his knee shaking. It was such a foreign reaction for both of us that when I gently put my hand on it, even in this literal, despondent darkness, we managed to illuminate the night by sharing a silent laughter.
Sometime after this, with the ACs off, and the accumulation of the smoke, the Lounge was engulfed in an undecipherable fog. It was hazy and suffocating. But as luck would have it, a pipe burst above us. First the false ceiling fell, and with it we saw a waterfall of pipe water. It doused the smoke but it flooded the floor. We used cushions to raise ourselves from the ground.
In the water, in the darkness with bits of cement hanging from our skin, we were convinced we weren’t going to make it out alive, so at 1:30 we decided to call our children. We called our son first, in the US and then we waited till 3 to call our daughter in Singapore. It was heartbreaking to hear them grieve for us.
To be honest, I wasn’t worried about them. Both of them are married and well settled in life. The only person I was worried about was my mother-in-law. Not because she was in her mid 80’s, not because she wouldn’t be looked after. But only because she really loved her son and it felt cruel for her to have to endure something like this happen to him. Back at her home, she was fast asleep and unaware. Inwardly I decided to let her stay that way.
Maybe it was my fear mixed with despair – but despite not being a religious person – I remember praying that night. I only had one request: if I had to die, I wanted it to be quick and painless; I wanted the terrorist to come and shoot me in the head.
But just as things get better only after you’ve reached breaking point, by 4:30 I could feel a glimmer of hope shine within me. We got the news that the terrorists had shifted base to the Golden Dragon and Wasabi, in the next wing. This meant we had a small but potential chance to escape.
Over the next hour that followed, it took a combined effort of Yogesh’s boss calling the DNA reporters, the reporters sending the fire brigades outside our window, and a staff member using her phone screen light to communicate with the firemen, before we were out by 5:00.
As scary as it was, I was the first one to come down the ladder and, my husband – as predicted – was almost the last. He made sure all the ladies climbed down before he did. As for one petrified staff member, he even consoled and revved her courage when she froze mid-climb.
As my descent was covered by the news reporters, my children, my friends and my family saw me on the news. My physical appearance was deplorable, but they recognized me nonetheless. I was glad they did, as it reassured them Yogesh and I made it out alive.
Finally, when we reached home by 5:40, Yogesh went to bed and within a few hours he was up and ready to get back to work. He didn’t go though. Which office was really even open?
I, on the other hand stayed glued to the TV. Watching the news was like a form of revelation and also, a devastation. A revelation because it only made me realize how fortunate I was. The whole time I was inside; neither was I hungry, nor was I thirsty; I didn’t see the terrorists, I didn’t see dying people, I didn’t see bloodshed and up until the firemen broke the glass windows to get us out, I hadn’t even seen any real measure of destruction. I heard a lot, but I didn’t physically see anything.
For few days, after that I found it difficult to stay alone after sunset. Yogesh worked 9 to 9; I was okay when the sun was up, but the minute it sank into the water, so did my sense of security. My neighbors, friends and family started to keep me company in the evenings; I got many phone calls; with all the love and support, gradually I got past it.
The one time I felt the pain resuscitate was when I finally broke the news to my mother-in-law. She cried a lot, I think I cried too, but I comforted her and we both felt better.
My children never talk about it. A few years back when I made a joke about it, my son who was visiting me, stopped me mid-sentence and said “please Ma, let’s not speak of it.” I didn’t realize it until then, but when you know someone you love is caught in something so heinous, being on the outside, the feeling of helplessness and the suffering is so much worse.
It’s been 10 years, and being an optimistic person, that incident did not impact my life in any drastic way. If anything it only aggravated my optimism. But if I have to remember it, I’d remember it as an experience that made me feel a tremendous amount of gratitude.
When I think about everything everyone did for us – Yogesh’s boss, the Taj staff, my children, my family, my friends – and how we made it out alive, unscathed… and how far we’ve come today, I truly feel so grateful. I truly feel so fortunate.