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AFP (From Outlook 11 November 2013)
Taj guests escaping out of the windows
book extract
Bullets To The Crown
A blow-by-blow account by two journalists of the 26/11 attack on the Taj in Mumbai on the fifth anniversary of the event
COMMENTS PRINT
Interviews
The former journalists with The Guar­dian and Sunday Times talk about their brand of writing
Satish Padmanabhan
The Siege The Attack On The Taj
THE SIEGE THE ATTACK ON THE TAJ
BY
ADRIAN LEVY
AND
CATHY SCOTT-CLARK

PUBLISHED BY PENGUIN INDIA | PAGES: 319 | RS. 499

Manish Joshi, a Taj computer operator, had come off duty at the Taj’s office in Oxford House, on Nowroji Ferdonji Road, when he heard “wedding crackers” at 9.46 pm. Going outside, he saw something lying on the road. He walked over and found a foreign woman, shivering and bleeding. She had been shot, she stammered, and the gunmen had run on. She pointed in the direction of the Taj. Horrified, and unable to understand what was going on, Manish dragged the woman inside, and propped her up, while he reached for his mobile phone, ringing up his colleagues inside the hotel: “I think gunmen are coming for you. Get out.”

A Taj security guard on the Oxford House terrace saw two men carrying assault rifles running along the road and he also rang ahead to warn his colleagues inside the hotel: “Lock down the hotel. Gunmen are coming.” The message was relayed up to the Taj’s security chief, Sunil Kudiyadi, on the fifth floor, who knew five entrances were open: the main Tower lobby through which Bob Nicholls and Captain Ravi had arrived; the Palace entrance facing the sea, where the critic Sabina had checked in; the south-side Northcote door, the route Will and Kelly had used returning from the Leopold; the Time Office staff entrance; and another staff door at the rear of Taj Tower.

Out front, Puru Petwal, a young security officer on duty in the Tower lobby, one of Kudiyadi’s so-called ‘Black Suits’, dressed in sombre, well-tailored jackets and trousers, got the message to lock the doors just as a tsunami of guests, diners and passers-by surged through the security barriers and a walk-through X-ray machine.

In the crush was Sajjad Karim, a Labour mep (Member of European Parliament) for Blackburn, England, who was part of an EU delegation. Moments earlier, he had spotted another guest carrying a half-conscious, bleeding woman through the main gates, shouting that he had come from the Leopold Cafe, which was under attack, many drinkers from there having fled to the five-star Taj, assuming it would be safer.

Petwal waded into the torrent, as a second scrum of passers-by—chauffeurs, taxi-drivers and policemen—attempted to get inside. “Slow down,” he screamed, panicking. “People are getting trampled.” The mep Karim allowed himself to be carried through the lobby past the Harbour Bar on his left, then the reception desks and towards Shamiana in the top left-hand corner. “I have no option,” he said to himself.

Back out on the main steps, unnoticed by Petwal, two young men with backpacks also slipped in with the current of people, seen only by the hotel’s CCTV. Inside, they stood for a few seconds, overwhelmed by the opulence. Then one, dressed in a red T-shirt and red baseball cap, calmly turned left towards the Harbour Bar, while the other, dressed in a yellow T-shirt, headed straight on for Shamiana. They knew exactly where they were going.

As if on cue, they set down their bags and pulled out assault rifles.

***

Up on the second floor of the Palace, Florence Martis was in the data centre when she heard what sounded like a lorry dropping a load of freight. It came from the direction of the lobby. She glanced at her computer: 9.48 pm. Mumbai was a city of ruckus, she told herself. But tonight she felt unsettled. Tonight she was alone on the night shift, and she hated it. She tried singing her favourite Bollywood film tune but it did not help. Half an hour earlier, she had popped down to the Palm Court, one floor below, looking for her father Faustine, but he was nowhere to be seen. She had tried his phone: no answer. She wasn’t too worried about that, though, as the family had bought him a new handset for his birthday and he had still not got the hang of it.

Florence pulled her thin cardigan tighter. Manish Joshi, who worked with the hotel’s computers, had got her going a few days back by spinning ghost stories about long-dead guests coming back to haunt the Palace corridors. What she needed now was a bright memory. Something came to her. To celebrate her new job at the Taj, the family had gone on its first holiday, to Mount Abu, a hill station in Rajasthan. They had hired local costumes and got their photos taken. Her father had been invited to a “gents’ party”: a few beers and one or two pegs of whisky. Tomorrow, he was having a day off, to celebrate his wedding anniversary. She looked down at the smart white plimsolls that he had given her as a present that morning and smiled. Then her desk phone rang. “Florence, terrorists have come.” She knew the voice: Manish, the office prankster. She wasn’t falling for it again. “Just stop it,” she hissed, cutting the line.

***

One floor up in the Palace wing, in room 316, Will was flicking through the TV channels, waiting for Kelly to finish getting ready, when he heard fireworks or gunfire. He went to the window but there was nothing to see. “Kelly, did you hear that?” he called through the bathroom door. “What?” she asked, coming out, wrapped in a towel. “I heard shooting.” She pulled a face. “Don’t be ridiculous. This is a five-star hotel. We’re going for dinner.”

 
 
In the tsunami of guests surging in were two young men with backpacks. Inside, they stood for a few seconds, overwhelmed by the opulence.
 
 
Ack, ack, ack. This time Kelly, dripping water on the carpet, heard it too. It was hard to say where it was coming from, but it was nearby. “What the hell’s going on?” she asked, drying her hair. Ack, ack, ack. That burst was inside the hotel. The shots were echoing. Was it the Grand Staircase? They were fifty paces to the left of it, and three floors up. “Let’s see,” Will urged. Kelly did not want to go but she did not want to stay on her own. Opening the door, they ran along the silent corridor in bare feet, keeping their heads low, “like people did in the movies”. The hotel no longer smelled of freshly cut flowers and expensive perfume but of fireworks, and when they reached the staircase, they gingerly poked their heads over the banisters to see smoke coiling up towards them. “Look at that,” Will said. Kelly had no idea what she was looking at. It smelled of autumn in the park.

Across the staircase they spotted a blond Westerner, who had had the same idea as them. They exchanged nods, their eyes drawn to two young Taj staffers who ran up from below. Will waved at them, but they kept going to the fourth floor, then disappeared. “Some rescue party,” he murmured.

The bang-bang started again. This time there was no doubt that these were gunshots. The man opposite ran off and Will and Kelly scurried back too. Should they hide or try to get out? “We don’t even know where the fire escapes are,” Will said, starting to panic, looking for a map on the back of the door. “Look, the hotel will protect us,” Kelly reasoned. That is how it went, right? The hotel’s security team would chase the gunmen out and then come for them. That’s what they did in Towering Inferno.

They locked the door, turned off the TV and lights, wedged themselves between the bed and the bathroom wall, and took each other’s hands.

***

From the top floor of the Taj Tower, in the sleek, glass-walled Souk, the orange flare from the city’s streetlights unfurled below like a fine silk carpet. Captain Ravi Dharni­dharka, a US Marine captain, was no longer looking at the view but worrying about the great wave of text messages and calls crashing across the room. One of his cousins received a call: “Gang fight in Colaba, a couple of blocks away.” An aunt rang next. “A crazy man is waving a gun around behind the Taj.”

“Told you,” Ravi said to himself, recalling earlier misgivings about security in the hotel’s main entrance. When he had walked through the security cordon half an hour back, a metal detector had beeped, but no one had stopped him. That had really got him going. Why did people have systems and then pay no heed to them? Who else had got through unchecked? He hoped that his paranoia was simply the prolonged repercussion of battle fatigue.

Across the room, Bob Nicholls, the VIP security boss, was sharing a joke with his commandos when the people at the next table leant over: “Do you know what is going on downstairs?” Bob shook his head. “Our friends are trying to get in and they’re saying there’s shooting.”

Everyone heard the explosive growl from deep inside the hotel reverberate up through the floor. One of the commandos got up, but a waiter asked him to return to his seat. “Two men are shooting at each other in the lobby, sir,” he confided. Bob gathered his men around. “If it gets any more serious, I am going to have to do a Die Hard and bust us all out of the hotel,” he said, raising a laugh. Bob was great at settling people down. Stout, with copper hair, he was the anti-Willis.

***

Down in the Crystal Room, on the first floor of the Palace wing, the names of the bridal couple, Amit and Varsha Thadani, were picked out in gold writing on a noticeboard by the door but they had not yet made their grand entrance. Some guests were grumbling as it was already 10 pm and the wedding reception was supposed to have started at 9.30 pm. But this was a city of latecomers. There was also the fatigue. The wedding was into its fourth day, having started the previous Sunday afternoon with a sangeet (music) party and culminated with rituals the previous night at a Sindhi temple. Tonight’s reception, a buffet for 500, was a chance for the bride and groom to entertain a wider group of friends and family.

 
 
The invitation-only Chambers club, not marked on hotel brochures and inviting notice only by the most frequent Taj visitor, became an invisible refuge.
 
 
The Crystal Room shone with money, elaborate pink and grey table decorations, and frothy centrepieces. A journalist, Bhisham Mansukhani, thirty years old, dressed all in black, had been one of the first to arrive. An old school friend of the groom, he had reluctantly brought his mother along, hoping he would not have to mind her all night. She had wanted to stay downstairs and sit around in the lobby, people-watching. But he had persuaded her to come up, hoping to score a large Bloody Mary after he heard the host had paid for a free bar.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a friend of the family, a consultant anaesthetist at Bombay Hospital, and wandered over, trying to park his mother with her. “It’s typical Bombay style, everyone coming late,” he remarked, as what sounded like firecrackers fizzed down below. The guests gave each other a look. “How gauche. Did the groom set that up? An indoor display?” Seconds later, a dozen Taj staffers rushed in and the anaesthetist turned to her daughter, pulling big eyes: “It looks like the couple has decided to make an entry.” But they began bolting the doors. She grabbed a passing waiter: “What’s going on?” He looked shaken: “Ma’am, please stay calm. We don’t know.”

***

At 10.05 pm, down by the hotel’s poolside cafe, the manager of Aquarius, Amit Peshave, was serving a bottle of wine to a Canadian couple, chatting about their holiday in Goa, when he heard an explosion in the main lobby that could not have been part of the wedding celebrations. Instructing his waiters to escort the Aquarius guests inside the smaller Palace lobby, from where they could exit on to the street, Amit raced a hundred metres across the pool terrace towards Shamiana, where dozens of guests were seated for dinner. Shamiana overlooked the main lobby and he feared for their safety.

Adil Irani, in charge at the Aquarius, was in the middle of shepherding people away from the pool when he saw the glass doors separating the terrace from the Tower slide open and a man cradling an assault rifle step out. It was one of the two gunmen who had entered through the front and, seeing the huddled guests ahead, he aimed and let loose with cold, clinical bursts, felling single guests, before finding another target, aiming and firing again.

Adil’s heart thumped so hard he felt it might burst. Guests were scattering, some diving ahead into the Palace lobby, others back into the bushes around the pool. Trying to corral them, he saw out of the corner of his eye that the silver-haired Canadians were still at their table. Trying to get their attention, he screamed: “GET OUT.” Before he had a chance to grab them, another waiter shouted from inside that all the street exits had been locked, meaning they were trapped. As the two waiters began ushering guests up the Grand Staircase, Adil realised he still had a tray with two empty glasses on it in his hand. “Keep moving up,” he urged, worrying for the Canadian couple outside.

As the guests climbed, a deafening burst of automatic fire rang out. Adil spun round and saw the gunman close behind him. Panicking, he jumped over the banister and pelted off along the ground floor corridor towards La Patisserie and the Northcote side exit, drawing the gunman away. Ack, ack, ack. As he ran, his shoes slapping against the marble floor, he felt a rush of bullets flying past, nicking his clothes and kicking up plaster and marble. He charged for the door as the gunman turned back towards the guests on the staircase. “Open up,” Adil shouted at the Black Suits ahead of him, who were locking the exit. “We need to get out.” As they looked up, confused at the sight of a staffer running at them, holes punched through the door from the other side. More attackers were outside in Best Marg, trying to get in. Adil and the two Black Suits turned on their heels, heading back down towards the Palace lobby seconds before the Northcote door was shattered and two men burst through it, one wearing black, the other in grey. It was the two gunmen who had shot up the Leopold Cafe and they gave chase.

Adil, followed by the two Black Suits, dived into the hotel’s Louis Vuitton shop, halfway along the corridor, the waiter remembering that it had a service lift at its rear. As he banged the buttons, he could see the gunmen entering the shop: “Shut, shut, shut.” The gunman in black lunged for the doors, trying to get a boot in to stop them closing. Adil watched him raise his gun, just as the doors slammed and the lift juddered upwards. He slumped down in relief, expecting to exit on the second floor from where he knew a way out. But when the doors opened, he found himself on the exclusive sixth floor, where Karambir Kang and his family had their apartment. The Black Suits motioned: which way? He didn’t have a clue and they ran off, leaving Adil rooted to the spot, listening to the sound of firing moving up the Grand Staircase towards him.

 

***

Behind the hotel, DCP Rajvardhan had grabbed a police walkie-talkie and was shouting into it. Where was the backup? It was 10.10 pm, almost 25 minutes since the first attack, and he could hear shooting coming from inside the Taj. He cautiously peeked through the rear wall of the hotel into the gardens and pool terrace, overlooking the Aquarius. Nothing. How many are dead already?, he wondered, hearing a duet of assault rifles spraying rounds. For the past 10 minutes his radio had relayed reports about other incidents too. “21.56. Marine Drive 1: Hearing firing sounds near Oberoi.” That was the Trident Oberoi, where Rajvardhan’s batchmate Vishwas Patil, the DCP of Zone 1, had spent the day, discussing the impending prime ministerial visit. How many gunmen were out there? The police were in the process of setting up checkpoints across the city. “21.58. South Region walkie-talkie: block all the roads.”

 
 
Karambir Kang’s family shouldn’t have been on the Taj’s 6th floor but in a new apartment. But Kang banished the thought. “You’re the face of the hotel.”
 
 
Rajvardhan ran round to the Northcote side entrance in Best Marg to see that it was wide open. He entered cautiously, noticing that the boutiques along the marble corridor had all been strafed with bullets. When he reached the Grand Staircase, he could see a dead security guard slumped by the lifts beside a prone dog. It was the hotel’s sniffer dog team and they had been shot at point-blank range. Ahead was a sound so intense he could also feel it. Someone was strafing the lobby with an AK. He turned around, exiting the way he had come in, and shuffled along the front wall of the Taj, towards the Gateway and the main Tower lobby, where an agitated crowd had gathered at the now locked main doors. They were still trying to get into the hotel, terrified by the reports of a gun battle in Colaba, not yet understanding there was also shooting inside the hotel. A bellboy lay on the steps, his white uniform drenched in blood, the corpse buffeted by the terrified crowd, while hotel security guards linked arms, trying to keep the scrum back. The Black Suit Puru Petwal was there, holding the line, shouting: “There is firing inside too. It is not safe. Move back.”

For the next 10 minutes, Petwal and his colleagues sta­red through the glass, watching helplessly as two gunmen picked off anything that moved as they gradually clea­red out the lobby. Petwal watched as one of the apprentice chefs, a friend who had recently been accepted on to the Taj’s management trainee scheme, led a group of diners out of the Zodiac Grill to the concierge station near the front doors, before returning for a second sweep. Petwal was silently cheering him on when he saw one of the gunmen turn around. Petwal banged on the glass and screamed out, trying to attract the chef’s att­ention, before watching in agony as he was shot in the head.

Rajvardhan was at Petwal’s side now, pressing his face against the glass, his radio buzzing with reports of firing at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST), the central railway station, used daily by Florence and Faustine Martis and several million others. “South Control: send help to CST.” Two gunmen had stormed the concourse, spraying gunfire into crowds of commuters, killing many. Then, another message: firing at Chabad House, the little Jewish hostel, around the corner from the Leopold. “South Control: come immediately. Firing is on. We need help immediately.”

As far as Rajvardhan could tell, at least four separate incidents had been called in and casualties were rapidly mounting. Just as he wondered if it could get any worse, a taxi-driver from the Gateway rank ran over, wide-eyed. “I saw two gunmen placing a bag over there,” he said, pointing. Another officer walked with him and peeked inside, seeing a mess of wiring and tiffin tins. “Call the bomb squad,” Rajvardhan scr­eamed into his radio set. “We need nakabandis [roadblocks] and backup. Send maximum bandobast [cordon].” The bag bomb had a timer inside it and was set to blow.

***

 

Inside the Harbour Bar, to the left of the main entrance, Mike Pollack, a New York financier, was crouched under a flimsy table, alongside his wife Anjali, Mike’s college friend Shiv Darshit, and his wife Reshma. They had arrived a few minutes before the firing began and while they had been able to hear everything, they could see nothing. All of them had their heads down, listening to screams, footsteps and deafening ricochets, drawing their own pictures of mayhem.

The Pollacks had a special affinity with the Taj. Anjali, originally from a wealthy Mumbai family, had partied here in her teens. She and Mike had married in the Crystal Room in 2004, following Anjali’s family tradition. An American hedge funder, Mike had clicked with her at a party in New York, but she surprised her family when she brought the six-foot, clean-cut Wharton business school graduate to India. These days the Pollacks lived in New York and had a two-year-old son and a six-month-old baby. As a co-founder of Glenhill Capital, a global investment fund that Mike had helped grow into a $2.5bn business, he was overworked, while Anjali missed her family. They were over for just a week, squeezing in as many friends and family as they could. Tonight they had had a special pass as her parents were babysitting. Waiting for a table to become free at the Taj’s Golden Dragon Chinese restaurant, the last thing they had expected was to end up cowering from a terrorist attack.

Mike looked around, taking in the bar. It was open plan and furnished with rickety aluminium tables and leather sofas. There was no cover; that much was clear. “We have to get out,” he urged, as he grabbed a table and attempted to hurl it through the window. It bounced back. They had all been glazed with toughened glass after a bomb exploded at the Gateway of India in 2003.

A hostess emerged from behind the bar. She had served them ice-cold Kingfishers earlier and now she motioned for them to stay put while she stood as a lookout by the door, feeding back whispered snapshots. “A man carrying a machine gun is shooting everything,” she said. “I can see a body.” The hostess had an idea. She ran towards the back of the bar, signalling for them to follow her. They ducked behind a thick concrete pillar that concealed a spiral staircase. It rose to the first floor, and they came out in the Japanese restaurant, Wasabi. “I’ll take you into the kitchens,” the hostess said. “No one will find us there.”

 
 
The Pollacks had a special affinity with the Taj. Wife Anjali had partied here in her teens; they had got married in the Crystal Room in 2004.
 
 
Moments after they had departed, CCTV footage showed the gunman dressed in red looking into the Harbour Bar. Seeing it was empty, he carried on along the marble corridor, stopping outside Masala Kraft. Its door was locked and the restaurant was in darkness. He shattered the glass anyway and pumped in some rounds. The restaurant was packed, diners beneath their tables, dazed and tearful, listening to the bullets smashing into the banquettes above them. Among them was the Alysia’s owner, Andreas Liveras, who was putting on a brave face. Remesh, his cruise director, was beside him, comforting the terrified Filipino spa girls from the yacht. Ack, ack, ack. Wump. Gunfire and a grenade. Glass smashed all around them. The room glowed with sparks kicking off the metal serving trolleys as bullets bounced around the restaurant. There was a pause and Remesh sat up. He caught a glimpse of a man dressed in a red T-shirt, “running with a gun past the glass doors”. He urged his boss to hide in the kitchens. But Andreas was livid. “I haven’t even eaten yet.”

Grumbling, he got up and they all squeezed into a small store, diners standing shoulder to shoulder. A woman whispered that she had been held hostage two years back in Kabul. “How could it happen to me twice?” she said, stunned. “Pull yourself together,” Andreas snapped. The tension made him unforgiving. Then he walked back out into the firing zone of the restaurant to grab one of his two mobile phones, which he had left on the table. He was in the middle of a deal to build the biggest yacht in the world, a 395-footer, and a gunfight was not going to get in his way.

***

Stuck in southbound traffic from Bandra, Karambir Kang was frantic. It was 10.15 pm and he wondered how long it was going to take him to reach the Taj. His mobile phone rang constantly. His family was still up on the sixth floor, the hotel’s CEO was trapped on the second floor of the Tower and Chef Oberoi had shut down all of the restaurants and bars, sealing the guests inside. The Taj’s group head of security was at home. Ratan Tata, the owner, was on his way over. As the public face of the hotel, Karambir needed to get back.

Neeti got through to him. Should they come outside? Stay where you are, he advised, the shooting is downstairs. “It is a huge hotel and you are very remote.” He was sure the security forces would neutralise the gunmen before they got a chance to come up. “You will be safest in your room.” The hotel was a maze these criminals could not navigate. Karam­bir sounded so confident that Neeti didn’t doubt him.

Next, he called his security chief, Kudiyadi, for an update. The figures were chilling. More than 500 staff were on duty, with records showing 1,200 guests and diners trapped inside. “No police response,” Kudiyadi texted. The first priority was to organise Kudiyadi’s Black Suits. They would have to step up and begin a stealthy evacuation, starting in the lobby. “Get the switchboard girls back to their desks and call everyone,” he texted the security chief. “Guests must stay in their rooms.” Kudiyadi’s response sounded panicked. Karambir reassured him: “Remember, you know the hotel, they don’t.”

The Sunrise Suite

Sabina Saikia was huddled by the door, listening to the sound of gunfire and thinking back to a conversation she had had earlier in the day with her friend Savitri, who had brought her daughters over to sample the Taj’s five-star luxury. While the girls had eaten chocolate cake and watched TV in the lounge, Sabina and Savitri had lain on the vast bed, talking.

The two women had met each other in the dying years of the ’80s, in a dive of a hotel in Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganges. They had clicked after Sabina found out Savitri was Assamese, like her boyfriend, Shantanu.

Luxuriating on hand-stitched cotton sheets, they had chatted this afternoon about a recent bombing in Assam that had killed more than 70 people. “A friend of mine almost died when the bomb blasted right in front of him,” said Savitri. Sabina nodded: “Assam is a real basket case.” Then she checked herself. “Here we are lying in the lap of luxury in the most exclusive place in Mumbai being so smug about it.”

Now, six hours later, she wished she had taken up Savitri’s invitation to stay at her place tonight.

Sabina’s phone rang. “Hey, it’s Nikhil, are you OK?” It was her younger brother, calling from Delhi. He and the rest of the family were at the pre-wedding dinner and had been nipping in and out to the TV lounge all evening to catch the cricket. In the last few minutes the match had ended and someone had switched channels to find news of the attacks in Mumbai. Nikhil expected to find Sabina still out at the Parsi wedding. “No, I was sick, I came back early,” she whispered. “I can hear gunfire but the switchboard just rang and told me to stay here. What should I do?”

10.20 pm—Shamiana

Down on the ground floor, Amit Peshave stood frozen in the centre of his restaurant, having just spotted a gunman hovering outside. The man looked no older than him and was wearing a grey long-sleeved T-shirt over a black polo neck, with a bulky blue cricket bag thrown over one shoulder. Amit could see writing on it: “Changing the Tide”. The manager knew that if he ran, he would draw the gunman’s attention, but if he stayed put, he would certainly die. Behind him, more than 50 diners sat waiting for him to make the call. He ducked down and scurried towards them, urging them to get underneath the tables. Some ran out via a fire exit, and a quick head count showed that 31 remained crouching on the floor. He had an idea. Behind a curtain at the rear of Shamiana were two private salons. Hiding in there might buy them time but some of the guests were very drunk. Could he gather them together?

 
 
In David Headley, the West lost control of its manic and destructive conduit to Osama bin Laden and India lost Mumbai, say Levy and Scott-Clark.
 
 
“Move, move,” he hissed, herding them inside. Turning round, he saw Rehmatullah, the head waiter, emerge from the kitchen, carrying a plate of biriyani. Amit waved his arms wildly. “Rehmatullah!” The gunman had spotted him too and squeezed off a burst, catching the old man in the chest, throwing him on to his back, the tray clattering to the floor, rice flying around the room. For good measure, he then bowled a grenade towards the buffet counter, just as Amit’s assistant manager emerged to see what the noise was about. “Run,” Amit screamed, as the grenade detonated, shattering the crystal chandeliers, throwing the room into a jagged and choking darkness as his assistant rolled out of the way. Stunned by the sheer noise of the blast, Amit lay motionless for a moment. What about his chef, the ‘Indefatigable Rego’? Desperate for a way out, Amit scanned the restaurant and his eyes came to rest on the “dead door”. Normally a live band played in front, but he remembered it led into the gardens beside the pool terrace. Hidden in the shrubbery was the hotel’s transformer room from where another door opened out into Merry Weather Road: a secret door to the street. It was a long shot but their only chance. Amit ran to the door, tugging and charging it. He kicked and kicked, tumbling out into the night air. He was out. For a few seconds he lay there, looking up at the stars. “Amit, save yourself. Run for your life.” Could he live with that decision? He thought of his parents in Pune, philanthropic GPs who often worked for nothing. He could not. Amit got up and went back inside. “Into the bushes,” he whispered, counting 31 diners out of Shamiana and into the undergrowth, hushing the drunks who giggled and growled.

Staring out towards the pool terrace, Amit spotted the gunman strolling towards the poolside cafe Aquarius, where the old Canadian couple he had served earlier were still at their table. “What the hell?” He could not believe it. Was it stiff upper lip, resignation or insanity? Amit wanted to yell: “Get out of there.” But that would have exposed his position. They were just two people.

The gunman could not yet see the diners, or they him. When he crossed the last pillar they’d be in his sight line. Amit willed them to get up but they kept on with their tete-a-tete. Now the gunman was at the pillar. In one stride, he was round it. He spotted them, pulled himself up and raised his assault rifle, shooting the elderly man in the back. As the injured tourist rose, bewildered, the gunman put a second round through his head. He swung the barrel over to the woman, and as she lifted her hands in horror, he shot her in the chest. Amit felt his stomach flip as both guests crumpled dead to the floor.

***

 

Inside the locked Crystal Room, above the pool, wedding reception guests sat in silence, drinks untouched, candles flickering, listening to the gunfire that hammered down below, as the piped music continued to play. The hotel smelled like a burning ghat, the journalist Bhisham thought, wondering where the newlyweds, Amit and Varsha Thadani, had got to. “How can this happen in the Taj?” he asked under his breath. He hoped it was some kind of drug war. “They’ll kill each other and that’ll be it.” But for now no one knew anything. And they couldn’t see anything either since the only view from the windowless Crystal Room was through a couple of portholes in the service doors at either end.

Suddenly, a screeching bullet pierced a partition wall, shattering a huge glass panel above the bar. “My God,” Bhisham gulped to a financier friend beside him, as they all ducked under the tables. “How can they be inside the hotel? People are saying there’s a gang inside?” Ack, ack, ack. More bullets sliced through the walls. “They are inside,” someone cried out from beneath a table. Bhisham was dismissive. “This is stupid,” he said. He texted a friend at the Press Club: “Siy, you check the news, heard gunfire. Bullets in banquet hall.” More rounds bored into the Crystal Room, ripping up swagged curtains. One woman was calling her husband’s name. “Shut up!” someone hissed.

Bhisham texted his friend again: “I am at Taj, wedding. They’re saying gang war.” Who was shooting? Muslim mob, Hindu zealots, drug gang? “Al fucking Qaeda?” Siy sent word back. There was also shooting at CST and outside the Metro cinema. “Multiple attacks,” Bhisham whispered to his neighbour.

Crack, crack. The Crystal Room doors shook. Was it another guest trying to get inside? Should they open up and help them out? Crack, crack. The doors shook. It was a gun butt smashing down on the handle. Bhisham stared at the doors. He could hear kicking and grunting. A gunman was trying to get in. The doors rattled, but held firm. He heard footsteps pattering along the service corridor and a snatch of foreign voices. Was it Urdu? Or Pashto? Were these Afghanis? The city had once lived in fear of an Afghan godfather, the city’s don, Karim Lala, although nowadays it was the Taliban that easy-living Mumbaikars associated with terror.

The footsteps ran behind them in the service corridor. They were circling, trying to figure out how to get in. A face flashed past one of the porthole windows. One of the guests tried to snatch a picture with her phone, and a dazzling white light bounced off the walls as her flash flared. “You are going to get us all killed,” someone whispered. The face reappeared, pressed up against the porthole glass, boring into the darkened hall.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008, 9.45 pm—Malabar Hill, Mumbai

Joint Commissioner Rakesh Maria, the head of Mumbai’s Crime Branch, was in the shower at his residence off Nepean Sea Road. For once he had got out of work early, special dispensation as his son was going away that night. But the JC was distracted. A capable officer, one of the city’s most famed, a cop who was practised at managing his own legend, Maria felt events were slipping out of his control. For several months, intelligence about a terrorist attack on Mumbai had been massing and no one in the force seemed overly concerned. In two days’ time, the PM was also making an important visit, which meant an extra security headache....

Now, the sound of four phones ringing simultaneously drove Maria out of the shower, bringing him news of multiple attacks. Getting dressed, he sensed the red mist creeping over the city once more. He called up an inspector: “Start at the Leopold. Find out what’s happening.” Maria also called police headquarters. Had the Standard Operating Procedure been implemented, clarifying who was supposed to be where in an emergency? Where was the anti-terrorism chief? He called the joint commissioner for law and order, who, according to sop, was to run the control room in the advent of an outrage. Finding him still at home on Malabar Hill, Maria offered to pick him up.

“Don’t you worry,” he told his wife as he slicked back his hair. “We will come in all guns blazing, and they will run.”

***

Three-and-a-half miles southeast of Nepean Sea Road, Mumbai’s neo-Gothic police headquarters was frantic. Maria and his colleague arrived shortly after 10 pm and charged up the main wooden staircase, passing a gallery of former commissioners. The present office holder, Hasan Gafoor, only the second Muslim to lead the force in a city with a vast Islamic constituency, was nowhere to be seen. The two joint commissioners entered the first-floor control room, where civilian staff and anxious-looking police officers were milling around and phones rang off the hook.

More than 30 police units, patrols, mobiles and striking forces had already been deployed to the Taj, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Chabad House and the Trident-Oberoi, but the best-equipped police—the Quick Response Teams, stationed seven miles north—were stuck in traffic. “What about the State Reserve Police Force?” Maria asked. They rel­ied heavily on this 16,000-strong detail, but in recent days Com­missioner Gafoor had dispatched many units on riot duty elsewhere in Maharashtra. The force available tonight was severely depleted. Maria raised his heavily lidded eyes to the ceiling, resisting the urge to make his feelings public. “How about the anti-terrorist chief?” he asked. “Sir, he is still in transit.”


Photograph by Indian Express

 
 
At the poolside, one of the gunmen aimed and let loose with cold, clinical bursts, felling single guests, before finding another target and firing again.
 
 
Maria’s mobile rang. It was ‘King’, the call sign for Com­missioner Gafoor. “Where are you?” barked the boss. “Sir, I am in head office collecting weapons,” Maria replied, chaffing. “We are heading for the Taj.” That was what the sop dictated. “No, stay in the control room,” Gafoor ordered. Maria asked if the Commissioner was sure, reminding him that emergency regulations stipulated the Law and Order Commissioner should assume the Crisis Management Command. Everyone knew Gafoor had had a long run-in with this officer and now it seemed to be getting in the way of crucial operational decisions. “Law and Order JC will go to the Taj. Maria is to take police command.”

Maria, the whip hand, was grounded. Furious, he stared at three banks of horseshoe-shaped desks around which the police radio operators were gathered. On either side res­ponders were answering a cascade of emergency ‘100’ calls from the public. At the front, television screens were running live feeds, showing excitable reporters standing in front of various targets, feeding the news machine with half-stories and conjecture, as Maria saw it. He had been ready for a dogfight and was now stuck in the bunker. He took his place at the command desk, his heart sinking as a pile of papers thumped on his desk....

Fidayeen rules were in play, while the police were wrapping themselves up in red tape, and the state and Centre appeared inflexible. “They learn and adapt. We stagnate, squabble and steal from one another.” Maria wondered if this force of 40,000, protecting a city of 13 million—well below the UN recommended minimum—was even capable of getting a grip on the crisis.

He studied a printout of recent police calls and saw that Mumbai’s frontline defences were already in disarray, with police units having been sent helter-skelter in the absence of the Commissioner. Armed units had gone to pick up the wounded while regular patrols had reported to the worst hotspots. So far there had been one moment of clarity: a call from a beat marshal at 22.27, reporting an unusual marine landing at Badhwar Park. Maria dispatched a team to talk to local residents and search the abandoned yellow dinghy.

The water. How many gunmen had come in? Wild estimates were being bandied about but in truth an army could have arrived from Pakistan for all Maria knew. Just then, his phone rang. It was one of his Crime Branch inspectors: “Sir. They’re heading your way.” The fidayeen from CST appeared to be making their way towards police headquarters. Are they attempting to take out the police communication lines too, leaving the city blind?, Maria worried. He called an armed Striking Mobile unit to take position outside the main gate and turned to his men: “They are coming for us.” He broke out the last arms. He had to inspire them to stand and fight. He gathered everyone. “It is down to you.” He sent men with firearms to reinforce the perimeter cordon, and to choke off the staircase. Then he went back to his desk, anger rising. At 22.40 he made an entry in the Control Room diary: “I have spoken to the Chief Secretary. We need the National Security Guard or the army to help us deal with this.” This was the state’s call and it was still dithering. Then Maria had a 1993 moment. This felt like a nation waging a war against Mumbai and in Maria’s opinion Pakistan was the obvious candidate. But would the Islamic Republic take such a risk? Its foreign minister was presently in Delhi, staying at the Taj hotel, having come to India to participate in long-awaited talks. The newspapers had been full of it this morning.

Maria’s wife called. Their son was due to take a bus to Ahmednagar, five hours to the east. “Should he go ahead?” she asked. “Let him go,” Maria told her. “God forbid if this whole city is finished, we are all finished, then there is someone in the family who will be safe.”

***

Two miles south of police headquarters, inside the Taj, Amit Peshave was hiding in a thicket beside the pool, wondering how much longer he could keep 31 guests quiet. A few were stoic, and praying. Some were terrified, fidgeting and crying. He was most worried about a drunken party of Indian MPs, who were throwing their weight around, loudly taking calls and threatening people. It would only take one act of inappropriate clowning to draw the killers over. He had tried the door to the transformer room, through which he had hoped to exit on to the street, but found it was locked from the inside. Somehow, he would have to locate whoever had the key. Peeking through the shrubbery, he could see through the pierced cement wall the lights of Merry Weather Road. It was eerily quiet. “Where the hell are the police?”

An Indian couple quietly sobbed. Amit wriggled over. “Sir, madam, how can I help?” The fretting husband explained: “Our six-year-old boy is missing.” They had been dining in Shamiana and their son had gone to the toilet moments before the attack started. Now they were separated. Amit’s heart sank. The toilet was opposite the Harbour Bar, which meant the boy was trapped or dead. The woman struggled up. “I will go,” she said. Amit pulled her back. “You will not. There are 31 lives here.” She tried to slap his face and he clasped her hands. She began to call out her son’s name. “OK,” Amit hissed. “I will find him.”


Photograph by Fotocorp, From Outlook 11 November 2013

 
 
At 22.27, a beat marshal reported an unusual landing at Badhwar Park. JCP Rakesh Maria dispatched a team. The water. How many men had come in?
 
 
Holding his breath, he stepped out on to the pool terrace and straight into the path of a gunman. Dressed in black, with a pudding basin haircut, he was different from the one Amit had encountered in Shamiana, and he seemed equally surprised to see the Taj staffer, his rifle momentarily slipping. In that split second, Amit pelted towards Shamiana, but the gunman recovered and loosed off three shots as Amit’s foot caught the paving, tipping him on to the grass, the rounds phut-phutting close by. As he lay there, the gunman aimed again. Glass crashed all around.

He opened his eyes to see a spurt of bullets as the recoil dislodged the rifle, sending rounds smashing into glass windows and doors. Amit tried to get up. But the gunman pulled something from his bag, lobbed it and Amit heard it thud behind him. He rolled over and saw a matt-green grenade lying in the grass like a fallen coconut. He clutched his ears and stared, waiting for the explosion. But nothing happened.

For the next 45 minutes, Amit didn’t move, thinking maybe he was dead. He looked at the grenade lying innocently beside a hosepipe and gazed up into the sky, mesmerised by the carpet of stars but no moon. “I pray for my parents and all of my family,” he whispered. He thought about the opportunities he had missed—past girlfriends and indiscretions. “I have had a good life.” When he finally got his senses back and realised that the gunman had gone, he scrambled to his feet, and slipped inside the devastated Shamiana, telling himself that he was the luckiest man alive. The first thing he saw was Rehmatullah, lying dead. The waiter’s skin felt like cold, pressed meat.

Bile rose in his throat but Amit pushed on, heading for the Harbour Bar toilets, as gunfire snarled. Two rifles shot up the corridor, grenades tossed to the right and left. The toilets were still way ahead, around the other side of the open lobby. Behind him 31 lives depended on him. He could not do it. Feeling like a failure, he turned and worked his way back to the bushes, rehearsing what he was going to say, crawling this time, hiding behind pillars and furniture, until he reached the silent poolside. As he slipped back into the thicket, he noticed one of his guests, a British man, was bleeding heavily from a gaping wound in his hand. His brow was beading, the colour leaching from his skin. He needed urgent medical attention. Amit had to find the man with the transformer room key.

First, he sought out the frantic parents. “Sir, ma’am, I have tried. But I can’t get through. You said you believe in God. Now you have to pray that they won’t kill an innocent child.”

***

Zone 1’s Deputy Commissioner of Police, Vishwas Patil, had slipped out of the PM’s security meeting at 9.10 pm, with every intention of going back two hours later, when the group planned to complete its session. He had hot-footed it from the Trident-Oberoi to the cramped police apartment he shared with his wife and two young children, opposite the Brabourne cricket stadium, a few minutes’ drive northwest of Colaba. At 9.25 pm, he was eating daal and rice that his wife had fetched from a nearby takeaway, when his mobile had started ringing.

It was his boss, the Additional Commissioner (South). “Vishwas, there’s firing at Leopold’s.” Three days before, Patil had visited the cafe on a follow- up inquiry, having discovered in July that an intelligence bulletin had named it as a potential target of a Lashkar attack. He had told the cafe’s owner to hire extra security, and had registered more than 90 cases against illegal pavement hawkers who converged outside, forcing them to move so as to limit the potential carnage from any bomb. “God sent me some signal,” Patil told himself as he picked up his Glock and an unopened box of 40 rounds. By the time he got downstairs, the Director General of Police (DGP), the most senior policeman in the state, had called. “Vishwas, go to the Taj,” he ordered, trumping the earlier call. One of the DGP’s relatives and Maharashtra’s Additional Chief Secretary were stuck inside the hotel.

As his Tata Indigo drove towards Apollo Bunder, a mile south, Patil loaded two magazines. He had applied for the Glock six months back. Now he had 17 bullets in the clip, and a spare, with a few loose rounds in his pocket. He was thankful. A normal side arm for his rank was a six-shot revolver or 10-round pistol. His constables were protected even less well. After the bomb blasts of 2003, Mumbai police had raised the dedicated Quick Response Teams (QRTS), trained in commando tactics by the army. Though they were supposedly armed with AK-47s and 9 mm pistols, Patil learned that not a single AK round had been purchased for three years and the QRTS had not done any firing practice since September 2007. The next tier of city defences was the optimistically named Striking Mobiles, teams of five or so, armed with rusty carbines and self-loading rifles, often without ammunition. It was well-known they had to account for every round fired. After an encounter he would often see them on their hands and knees looking for the casings. The few who were issued with bulletproof jackets found they did not “cover vital organs”, with one classified report noting the plate design “was defective”. Long before tonight, he had warned his superiors: “Mumbai’s battle-readiness is in doubt.” And he had made the same point in the Oberoi Hotel meeting earlier today.

As his vehicle approached the glittering Taj facade, he thought back to how he had driven past as a young student, worrying that he would never be part of the world inside. These days he no longer cared. Looking up he saw guests silhouetted in the windows, waving or talking into their phones. Taking a snap decision, he directed his driver down a side lane and called the Taj’s security chief, Sunil Kudiyadi, hoping that the hotel’s beefed-up defences had held firm.

 
 
Newly-wed Amit and Varsha should have been enjoying their reception. Instead, they were debating whether to create a bunker or make a run for it.
 
 
Getting out in Merry Weather Road, Patil was amazed to see that the Time Office entrance was still wide open. Worried, he headed for the swimming pool terrace, wondering what else the Taj had scaled back on, as keeping this entrance secured was in the long list of measures he had submitted to the hotel. He marched in, several feet away from where Amit Peshave and his group of guests still crouched, dashing off to the far side of the pool before any of them could call out. “Alert everyone,” Patil whispered to his 21-year-old wireless operator, who radioed Rakesh Maria in the control room. Patil spotted Kudiyadi emerging from the Palace lobby and waved him over. As he approached, words tumbled out. “Terrorists...are killing people.” His Black Suits had been deployed all over the hotel but they were unarmed and terrified. “How did the gunmen get in?” Patil asked bitterly. “Tower lobby and Northcote entrance, sir.” The last time they had seen one another had been at the security meeting in October.

Kudiyadi explained that two weeks earlier the armed police picket had been dismissed from outside the Tower lobby. “They had asked to be fed while on duty and the hotel grew irritated.” The Northcote side door had never been secured, despite assurances that it would be. Many of the agreed security steps had been dismantled as soon as Patil had gone on leave, the hotel arguing it could not be expected to sustain a war footing. Exasperated, Patil asked: “Where are the gunmen now?” Somewhere on the upper floors of the Palace, said Kudiyadi. “It appears that they know exactly where they are going, sir.”

“Take me,” Patil said and Kudiyadi led him into the bottom end of the south wing and up a service staircase to the first floor. Gingerly they opened a door to look down the wing. Everything seemed peaceful. Crouching low, his pistol drawn, Patil heard sobbing. Creeping along the wing, turning left towards the Grand Staircase, he saw two injured women writhing on the floor outside the Ballroom, their hands shattered by bullets. Horrified, he motioned for two of Kudiyadi’s Black Suits to haul them back, while the radio operator called for medical assistance. Patil and Kudiyadi retraced their steps, taking the service stairs up to the second floor. As they poked their heads out, it also appeared deserted.

Close to the Grand Staircase, they edged around a pillar and spotted men armed with assault rifles ascending to the third floor. Patil counted three, possibly four. A few good shots might end this now, he thought, judging the distance between them at around 30 feet. He aimed his Glock and squeezed off some rounds. The gunmen ducked, before spinning around, directing a prolonged burst back towards them, chiselling into the marble. He was outgunned. These were no amateurs.

***

A few metres along, inside room 253, Amit and Varsha Thadani sat on the bed in their party outfits, clutching each other, listening to the volley of shots. They should have been enjoying their wedding reception in the Crystal Room but instead were discussing whether to create a bunker or make a run for it. Minutes earlier, Amit had opened the door, blustering about “taking them on” and Varsha, his new, doll-like wife, had dragged him back. “There’s a strong smell,” he told her. She knew it was gunpowder and began to cry. She could not stop thinking about their friends and family who probably were downstairs in the Crystal Room and the lobby, including her brother. Were they hurt or trapped or worse? Where was Amit’s mother? She was supposed to have brought up the wedding jewellery half an hour ago and wasn’t answering her mobile.

Her new husband could appear lumbering, the way he shuffled his large frame around town; however, Amit was anything but. Friends knew him to be methodical and wily. He was also calm. He got up, turned off the lights and put both of their phones on silent. Varsha went into the bathroom and began quietly calling up relatives and friends, while he stared out of the spyhole, working out their options. “Look, don’t be so tense, this is just a small thing,” he murmured. “Once it’s over, our party can continue.” His phone whirred. It was his brother, telling them to leave. “Too late for that,” he said. Amit went back to the spyhole and recoiled: “I think I just saw a gunman walk by.” He raced over to the window, looking down to see if the police had arrived. The only thing that caught his eye was a brightly lit yacht, out in the water. “Should have hired a boat,” he said.

***

Out on the Alysia, its gleaming white lines festooned with scarlet Edmiston Company banners, Nick the yacht broker and his son had been greeting guests when mobiles started to trill at 9.48 pm. One of the guests had switched his on to speaker and everyone crowded round to hear a crackle and pop of gunfire. “It’s my chauffeur, parked outside the Taj.” They could hear the driver speaking: “Sir, there’s a gunfight. Can I move the car?” In the UK, the driver would have run and not called, Nick thought. Ratan Kapoor, the Delhi socialite, came over. “Look, it’s a normal kind of Mumbai thing,” he said. “It’s a heated city.”

Reassured, Nick went below deck to talk to the staff about serving dinner. The guests took another glass of champagne as an explosion ech­oed across the water and a ripple of excitement ran around the yacht. “We’ve got the best seats,” one man joked, as the waiters put the finishing tou­ches to a huge teak dining table with raw silk napkins, silver cutlery and Bohemian crystal. Nick was worried about Andreas, whom he knew to be a risk taker, and asked the captain to call him: “Tell him we’re sending the ten­der over”, as another explosion woofed throughout the city, and he felt the blast vibrate in his chest.

Undeterred, the guests sat down for dinner, taking calls and texts. “Fighting inside the Taj,” one man whispered. “Isn’t that serious?” Nick asked. He stared at the shoreline. He was fond of this hyperactive city, but irritated by its lackadaisical attitude to security. “Don’t worry,” said Kapoor. “Everyone on the yacht is feeling safe and luxurious with lots of champagne and French food. You’re the host. This is an important party.” The captain came over, frowning. “Mr Liveras says he’s fine and to tell you, ‘Enjoy the dinner.’ He’ll be back later.”

Nick took Kapoor to one side. “We might just get away with it,” said Kapoor weakly, as someone rang to ask him if Friday’s party was still going ahead. “Ya, sure. This will blow over and then you’ll be here, dancing with me, cheek to cheek.” Nick went into the main saloon and tried to find Sky News. While the crew played with the settings, he read text messages from London. “It’s a terror attack.” And another: “They’ve entered the city from the water.” He thought: My God. We are sitting targets.

***

By 10.50 pm, the DCP Zone 1 was back down in the Tower lobby and his wireless operator was on the radio: “Zone 1 Sahib is in Taj. He needs help.” After the exchange of fire on the Grand Staircase, they had lost the gunmen and Patil needed reinforcements to comb the vast, unfamiliar hotel. He grabbed two young constables, standing idly by a State Reserve Police Force van. “How many rounds?” he shou­ted. They had 10 shots each. “Not enough,” he said to himself, shaking his head.

 
 
Sabina Saikia had so wished she had accepted her friend’s invite to stay at her place. She sat huddled by the door, only to be killed later in the night.
 
 
A spatter of bullets ripped up the porch canopy. He was sure from the muzzle flash that the gunmen were shooting from a third-floor guest room. Patil spotted Karambir Kang, the hotel’s General Manager, who had just got back from Land’s End. The two men knew each other from the Taj security consultations and Patil was tempted to have a go at him right there in the street, but now was not the time. Karambir, looked ashen. “My wife and sons are on the sixth floor,” he said, walking over, his eyes red raw, his immaculate suit dishevelled. What could Patil say? “Sir, we need hotel plans.” Karambir said he would hunt around. He tried the CEO, who was trapped in his office, and called Chef Oberoi. Between calls he kept glancing up at the southern corner of the sixth floor, where his family were waiting for him. He came back to Patil: “The hotel blueprints are with someone who cannot be found. We are still looking.” The DCP was irritated: “We can’t think of evacuating until we have located the gunmen, and for that we need to know where we are going.” Karambir said he would ask Ratan Tata, the owner.

Clutching a bottle of water, Karambir contemplated how his family should not even have been here at all. A few months back they had decided to shift to a private apartment and Neeti had stocked up on interior-decorating magazines, excited to be moving out of the hotel. They were supposed to have been in at the beginning of the month, but the contractor was still not finished. Karambir cursed the delay, but tried to banish his darkest thoughts. He said to himself: “You are the face of the hotel. You are the representative of the Tata family.” Everyone was looking at him and what they saw needed to inspire hope.

On the lobby steps, Patil spotted his batch-mate Rajvardhan. He was just the kind of hard head he needed and Rajvardhan did not need any persuasion to enter the stricken hotel. Slipping into the now silent lobby, where bodies lay strewn about, he made his own thumbnail assessment. “Random injuries, multiple head shots, a slew of ammunition.” He was sure his earlier gut feeling was correct: Pakistani fidayeen. He called out the first stages of a plan: evacuate the ground floor while the gunmen are elsewhere, set up an improvised command post beside the Shamiana, close and guard all the exits to stop them escaping and blockade the lifts. He commandeered a service revolver and nine rounds. “Call me up when you are ready,” he shouted to Patil, vanishing down a corridor, the weapon gripped in both hands.

***

Up in the first-floor kitchens, straddling the Palace and the Tower, Chef Hemant Oberoi had had a plan. After his restaurants had been thrust into the frontline, guests and diners scattering all over, many of them had been brought, or made it on their own, into the parallel world of the service areas. The American hedge funder Mike Pollack, his wife Anjali and their friends had locked themselves into the chef’s store of Wasabi, on the first floor of the Palace, and Andreas Liveras was on the ground floor, eating lentils, spinach and cottage cheese on an upturned handi in Masala Kraft’s prep room, keeping everyone’s spirits up by cracking jokes.

Chef Oberoi realised that his Kitchen Brigade could, unseen by anyone front of house, probably utilise the hotel’s labyrinth of service lifts, stairs and passages to move guests into one central and protected location. He called Karambir Kang, who was pacing outside the hotel, to sound him out. The hotel’s invitation-only Chambers club was ideal, he argued. Consisting of a suite of rooms, a bar and a library, it occupied a large area on the first floor, between the Crystal Room and the kitchens, overlooking the Gateway of India. It was not marked on hotel brochures and only the most frequent Taj visitors would have noticed it at all, perhaps glancing at the discreet plaque beside the Tower’s lift buttons as they headed up to Souk, although the stop could only be accessed by staff, or by using a club key. Karambir agreed. The Chambers was an invisible refuge. He suggested Chef Oberoi begin immediately, starting with the people who were nearest to the Chambers, the wedding reception guests in the Crystal Room.

Shortly after 10.30 pm, chefs and waiters had guided a column of guests down a service corridor, popping out into the club’s foyer, which Bhisham, the journalist, instantly recognised. He had been here once before, for a press junket thrown by Ratan Tata. Emboldened, he asked if staff could open the bar. Writing about food and drink, he regarded himself as a connoisseur. “Look, you got the best, bring it out,” he teased. But the Chambers manager politely refused.

Bhisham mournfully texted his friend: “Best single malt collection in the country and not a drop to drink.”

 
 
Alysia owner Liveras was in the middle of a deal to build the biggest yacht in the world, a 395 footer; and he wasn’t going to let a gunfight get in the way.
 
 
Another group of guests was led in, among them a huffing Andreas Liveras, accompanied by Remesh and the spa girls. They saw that in one of the smaller rooms a group was conducting a business meeting. “Look, everyone’s carrying on as if nothing is happening,” Remesh whispered to his boss. Mindful that many guests had not eaten, the kitchens produced trays of mint chutney sandwiches. Andreas asked Remesh to grab some extra rounds. “Hide them in case the food runs out,” he said, plonking himself on a large chaise lounge, fielding calls from his office and family in London, as well as the Alysia. “Everything’s fine,” he assured Nick. “We’ll sit tight until the army get here.” He rang his son Dion: “It’ll all blow over, don’t worry.”

The mood darkened when someone switched on the television, blaring facts mixed with conspiracy theories: more than 60 terrorists were roaming Mumbai’s streets, the police were overwhelmed and hundreds were dead. Footage of the bloody station concourse at CST stopped the chattering. Bhisham walked over to his horrified mother and took away her phone. An insensitive message would tip her over the edge.

More guests arrived, including Mike and Anjali Pollack. She was frantic. The normally cool financier looked agitated, too. A few minutes before, one of the gunmen had tried to get into their hiding place in Wasabi, prowling outside the locked service door. A chef had brazened it out, redirecting the gunmen, saying the room was empty, narrowly escaping with his own life. Now all that Anjali could think about was their two young sons, staying with her parents in another part of the city. “We could have died,” she cried.

As Chambers filled up, Bhisham and his mother moved down the corridor to one of the smaller VIP suites, the Lavender Room, just as an explosion shook the floor. Had they been found already? The lights and TVs cut out. Sitting in the dark, Bhisham messaged a friend: “Heard the blast. What is happening?” The friend replied that the top floor of the Palace was now ablaze. Bhisham panicked: “Is it serious? Is the army inside the hotel?” He turned to his mother, who was praying. “What a great wedding.” There were now 250 people locked in Chambers, and only six policemen inside the hotel.

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