Mumbai, Continued

in Personal Essays

A month after gunmen stormed the Taj Mahal Hotel, I took a long-planned flight to Mumbai, India, to visit family. I hadn’t seen the city in four years, but as my uncle drove us to his house in the suburbs, Mumbai looked the same. The traffic was still terrble; the skyscrapers swelled upward in the late-night sky; the smog was still thick enough to block out the stars. Even this late, some of the shops lining the perimeters of the slums were still open, little tiny places the size of a couple of refrigerators, held together by sheets of tarp and wooden sticks.

Upon my return to Yale after the trip, a friend asked me, “How are people in Mumbai doing these days?” I imagined my uncle’s response. He would have told my friend what he had been so eager to tell me, even as we drove away from the airport that first night: that Bombay (as most of us still call it) has not changed. The day after 26/11, he insisted, in a refrain that I would hear throughout my stay and that I found myself repeating to my friend, people went back to work. Life returned to normal.

A cousin of mine who lost a friend at the Oberoi, one of the hotels targeted in the 26/11 attacks, echoed my uncle’s words. She and her husband live in Bandra West—a suburb in Central Bombay that is a popular tourist destination in itself—but on our first night out, she took us to South Bombay, the area that was hit. We walked along Marine Drive, a road that follows the arc of the coast along the Arabian Sea. Nightlife was as lively as it had ever been: People streamed out of markets and bars and restaurants to perch on the sidewalk railing by the sea, dangling their feet over the water. But the shadow of the attacks was everywhere. “Helmet and Bulletproof Vest Recommended for all Mumbai-ites,”
read a sign posted outside Jazz by the Bay, a famous pizzeria and music club. None of us understood why it had been posted there or why someone had not yet taken it down. When we reached Nariman Point at the southern tip of Marine Drive, my cousin pointed out the Oberoi tower behind us with its boarded-up windows. As we passed the crowded Leopold Café, she turned to me, wide-eyed: “This is where people were shot!” South Bombay wasn’t a ghost town, but we were all seeing ghosts.

On December 21st, the Taj and the Oberoi reopened their doors in a VIP-only event. As actors and politicians gathered for high tea, Indian newspapers trumpeted Bombay’s speedy recovery and celebrities applauded the hotels as enduring symbols of the city’s spirit.

The Taj was India’s first luxury hotel, built in 1903 for a quarter of a million pounds. It has always been one my clearest memories of Bombay and a favorite spot to visit when I go back. Guards in snappy uniforms would open the entrance doors to reveal a richly furnished lobby with marble tables and a ceiling peppered with skylights. Men in dark suits would lounge in plush chairs, speaking in soft voices, probably talking business. I had always loved the restaurant, with cups of tea at 200 rupees (about $4) a pop, non-bottled water that was safe to drink, and desserts with umbrellas sticking out of them. Although I didn’t admit it to myself at the time, the Taj was a haven—a retreat from the outside world, from the smog and the blaring horns and the children selling fake paperback bestsellers and wilted flower bouquets on the side of the road.

We visited the Taj a few days after it re-opened. As soon as we emerged from the auto we saw a long line, of at least fifty or sixty people, stretching all the way down the block. It took us a few minutes to
realize that people were waiting to get past a security barricade and onto the Apollo Bunder, the pier across from the Taj. When we finally reached the front door of the building, a security guard stood beside the front steps, pointing a rifle at our heads, just in case.

Inside, we ordered tea. I wanted to feel normal; we all wanted to feel normal, to talk with ease. But the conversations around us inevitably turned toward the attacks. A person at the table next to us remarked that the gunmen had stormed the place as guests were settling in for dinner. At that point, my cousin excused herself and went to the bathroom. My mother and I followed her.

My mother eagerly hurried inside the bathroom, nostalgic for the days when she was small, when her father would bring her to South Bombay and to this hotel and to this little room, which in a city teeming with dirt and mud was an icon of all things clean. Inside the bathroom, everything is pure white: white-tiled floor, stall doors with a white glossy finish, white marble sinks, faucets plated in white gold. When we had washed our hands, the attendant, a slight, bony-handed woman in a faded sari, handed us white towels to dry them. Unthinkingly I dropped the towel into the wastebasket; she retrieved it before I had a chance to apologize.

My cousin asked the woman if she had been on duty on 26/11. She replied that she had; she had hidden in her corner by the marble white counter for more than ten hours before daring to venture outside. I imagined her peeking outside the door, into a hallway lit with crystal chandeliers, for a moment before retreating. Perhaps she saw the shadow of a gunman’s haggard face or of the barrel of a rifle pass over the portrait of Neil Armstrong, one of the Taj’s many illustrious visitors. The flash of high heels across a wide, rich red carpet followed by heavy black boots. A body, half-hidden from view by a display case with shattered glass doors. She might have seen all this before retreating to her enclave, to the white walls and the white sinks and the white towels.

Just twenty or thirty feet out from the Taj is the Arabian Sea. From other vantage points along the coast, it appears a dirty grey and brown from a mixture of mud and trash. But from the hotel, a bit farther out than the public beaches, the water sparkles like shattered glass. As we walked out of the Taj that day after tea, the tips of docked yachts and cruise ships and sailboats bobbed gently up and down in the afternoon sun. A cluster of triangular flags that distinguished a group of fishing boats rapidly receded in the distance. Authorities have speculated that it was by hijacking such a boat as it left from
Karachi, Pakistan, that gunmen were able to reach the shores of Bombay.

We hired a small sailboat at the pier from an old man with blackened teeth to take us out to sea. Even just meters from shore, the palace wing of the Taj, which will take several months to repair, looked untouched. The Gateway of India, built to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to India in 1911, arched impressively to its right. Designed to present an imperial first glimpse of
India to travelers approaching by sea, it now blocked any view of security barriers or policemen. As the sun began to set, we watched tiny lights in each window of the Taj’s palace wing begin to take form.

When celebrities or politicians speak of the Taj as an enduring symbol of the city’s spirit or dignity, I imagine that they envision something like what we saw that night, a palace lit with candles beside a tall and imposing archway worthy of welcoming a royal monarch. The Taj, like the Gateway, is meant to be seen from the water. Imperial visitors could step directly off the dock through its majestic
waterfront doors. Perhaps they never even saw the rest of the city, what lies just
behind the Apollo Bunder, the smog and crowded streets and beggars’ outstretched hands.

How are the people of Bombay doing these days? They’ve gone back to work. The restroom attendant still bends down to pick up the white towels that visitors accidentally throw in the dustbin. Children
still pound on car windows waving fake copies of The White Tiger in the middle of stalled street traffic. The security guard shoulders his rifle and heads to work at the Taj every morning.

What else does it mean to endure?

Photo by Taj Hotels, Resorts and Palaces

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