Mumbai 2008 Attacks - The Siege

Police looking for attackers outside Colaba

Editor's Note: In 2008, Mumbai became ground zero for a coordinated terrorist attack that lasted four days and left 164 people dead. It was later revealed after the siege of the Taj Hotel, one of twelve targeted locations, that the attacks were deliberate and supported by Pakistan's ISI. Not that it mattered to the innocent victims. Terrorism all looks the same. In The Siege: 68 Hours Inside the Taj Hotel, authors Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy piece together the fragments of what happened to the shaken city. Here, they describe the profound impact an interview with one of the survivors had on their research process. 

All interviews start with a call that hooks a meeting. Then there’s the handshake and nervous smiles as if you (the writer) were the dentist and they (your character) were the jelly-jawed patient.

Sometimes there follows a look of boredom or a harsh deadline, immediately enforced by the interviewee, all of which sets your teeth on edge, meaning there is no realistic prospect of developing this moment into something profound. On other occasions, a rapport is struck, buried memories bubble to the surface, and the interview and its trappings -- the chair and table, the cup of coffee and cigarette stubs -- melt away, as painful, profound and searing recollections ring out a new kind of understanding, one so true it can make your heart ache.

In the spring of 2012, at the end of a jam-packed research trip, that aimed to finesse a book that was largely complete, I received a call from a Mumbai entrepreneur. Her relatives, who assured me her story was the one to hear should she choose to tell it, had led her to me. Which kind of interview would this be? The young woman was a designer, it transpired, who had gone to the Taj throughout her life, as many Mumbaikers do, celebrating all the high and holy days, from anniversaries, to engagements and childbirth. On this occasion her married brother had turned thirty-two years old and so two families, from his side and his wife’s, had booked a Sichuan banquet at Chef Shi Xi Lin’s Golden Dragon.

Within an hour, they were all hiding beneath the dining table, as the restaurant’s windows were raked by automatic gunfire. Another hour on, this woman and her relatives had gritted her teeth as staff, in the line of fire, had evacuated them to a secret hiding place within the now besieged hotel, a private club floor the Taj does not signboard or advertise. "Having sat and comforted my own elderly parents and those of my brother’s wife, my heart leapt when the announcement came we were to be evacuated through the hotel kitchens," she recalled in a matter of fact manner that concealed what was to come. Then they were ambushed, many around her cut down by AK47 fire, her clothes drenched in their blood, she plumping for a passageway that led down into the darkened cellars, deep below the Taj, to where she ran, bare footed, becoming separated from everyone she knew.

Clustered together with strangers in a wine store, she listened to rolling waves of gunfire draw near that sounded like pneumatic drills chewing up a sidewalk. Then came her turn, and all she could think to do was the thing she found most comfort in. A devout Buddhist, she "began travelling deep inside myself," on a voyage so complete, comforting and profound that she feared she may not emerge from it.

When she did, through flickering eyelids, neon strip lights were above her head. She told how she was lying on a gurney, inside the white towers of the labyrinthine Bombay Hospital, hooked up to a knot of tubes and wires. Her body had been pierced by bullets, her internal organs failing. Somehow through her chanting she had blocked out the door knock, and the assault, and the spraying of rounds, the deaths of all those around her, and come back -- as the only survivor -- learning in time that her parents and her brother had died that night too.

So much about writing is about having a hard head. The language of the editor and the hack, dress up the business as a stoic endeavour. Our manuscripts are littered with their multi-coloured pencilled instructions, to ‘unpack’, ‘cut’, ‘sacrifice’, and ‘explain.' We have to be ready to "slaughter our babies," the Abrahamic exhortation to lose a great idea or a scene. But it’s right for you to know that way before this process of arbitrage begins, where the writer and editor vie to take advantage of each other’s changing needs, there are hot spots, unexpected turns of events, where the author is blindsided by testimony so searing one immediately reaches for the manuscript, and finds room.