This is going to be one long post!
Even as I write this, two floors of the Oberoi Hotel Towers are on fire and explosions follow gunshots in what can perhaps be a final assault by the security forces aimed at flushing out terrorists holed up inside the Trident-Oberoi hotels and probably holding hundreds of people hostage.
As is a usual pattern now, I was in office last night with three other colleagues of mine, working on an important client presentation to have happened today and watching the fifth one-day cricket match between India and England. As we were celebrating yet another Indian victory and watching the post match presentation ceremony, Nitin got a call from his father asking him to take care while returning home as news channels started carrying the first reports of indiscriminate firing at the Mumbai CST railway station.
We were just debating if we should switch channels and watch some news when Ashish heard some shouting outside. As we ran towards the windows of our 9th floor office, we could clearly hear sounds of gunfire and see sparks flying in the building right across the road. This building opposite our office building is, of course, the now immensely-in-news Oberoi Hotel. It was immensely confusing as people started calling us talking about firing and bomb explosions in other parts of South Bombay while we, a bit ahead of the news, were experiencing something ourselves.
It was just a matter of time when we could see smoke rising through the hotel building, and filling the rooms overlooking our building. We watched in alarm as people broke open the window glass and were hanging out the window ledge in an attempt to escape the black smoke that could be seen enveloping the entire building. There were some people who broke these windows in panic and there were others (like the one I saw) very calmly going about his business of talking on the phone as he picked up a chair and struck the window pane with it. I might just have seen a terrorist!!!
As events started unfolding at a furious pace one after the other, the exclamations only grew louder. As we watched with open mouths, we heard an immensely loud sound and our building shook. Scared for our lives, concern fuelled a little more by the now-panicky voice of Ashish, the four of us (I, Ashish, Nitin, and Sameer) rushed to the first floor of our building just in case we had to move out of the building in a hurry. On our way down, we saw some people sitting in the lobby of Kotak Investment Bank watching the news with as much interest and concern as was almost flowing through our veins.
As we reached the first floor and were peering through the window on the side overlooking Oberoi's, we started receiving calls from everyone from family members to colleagues to the senior most of management (what with Ashish being very senior in the company, of course) as the news finally broke on news channels.
Mumbai was under siege as terrorists attacked some 12 centres, mostly in and around South Bombay. There was indiscriminate firing, and along with it numerous bomb and grenade explosions that rocked the city, killing and maiming people and the entire Government machinery.
I know that I should be probably ashamed of myself but I was actually enjoying the entire event, revelling in the undercurrents of uncertainty, fear, and unpredictability. The scene was no different for the others as all of us switched between watching the TV and looking across the road peering out of tinted glass windows and finally, having a laugh at how outdated the news channels were. As people hung out at window ledges, using white clothes as distress signals, some channel carried a report branding them as terrorists. Pray, why will terrorists hang out of window ledges carrying white distress signals?
As night progressed, police forces enveloped the hotel, spreading across the entire area and cordoning off all nearby buildings including ours. The army moved in at about 3 in the night but nothing was really happening except the incessant firing and occasional explosions that we could prominently hear. Our hunger satisfied by raiding the office canteen, we sat around, resigned to our fate but just as one of us dozed off looking at the same video footage repeated multiple times, we were disturbed by yet another round of firing or yet another explosion.
Things were fast getting out of control and all the fun and excitement had given way to this nagging fear at the back of our minds. Some of the guys went into a panic mode and that was not helping either. I could almost feel my feet shaking every time I went into the room facing the Oberoi's. On one of these visits to check the situation outside, I could see someone strolling on the ledge on the topmost floor, carrying something that appeared like a torch (and perhaps a gun as well). On another, I could see (or imagine?) snipers hiding in the NCPA building alongside. As day broke, we thought it was probably just the tail lights of cars reflecting in the darkness but as per latest reports, snipers actually opened fire on the Oberoi's and guess what, they were firing from the NCPA.
The whole night had passed and the terrorists were still there holding up and the army all across, trying to get in the building in the best possible manner. In the early morning light, things were only prophesising the doom to follow. As we came down to talk to the security guards of our buildings, we could see the army guys in the compound and the entire area seemed to have been converted into a military cantonment. As we asked permission to leave, we were not prepared in the least for the way we would be led out of the back door and allowed to leave.
Sunil, my driver, after having spent the entire night on the streets on the Marine Drive in the middle of action had managed to get the car out by that time. As we rushed out to join him and started getting as far as possible from the site, he recounted his story of how a grenade exploded right in front of him, shaking the cars around, including the one he was sitting in. Dropping Nitin and Sameer en route, I was just wondering if things could very well have been closer and how God was kind to spare me the agony that so many others faced.
Three images will always remain in my memory reminding me of the night when I was almost a hostage, one of that guy breaking the Oberoi's window pane so coldly, the other of the guy strolling on the top floor window ledge and the third of people waving white flags in exasperation, piteously asking for help. God has been kind, may He bless all those affected by this tragedy and those who caused it.
Posted at 09:32 pm by Nitai