The Siege: 68 Hours Inside the Taj Hotel

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9780143123750: The Siege: 68 Hours Inside the Taj Hotel

Winner of the CWA Nonfiction Dagger Award, the definitive account of the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai

Mumbai, 2008. On the night of November 26, Lashkar-e-Toiba terrorists attacked targets throughout the city, including the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, one of the world’s most exclusive luxury hotels. For sixty-eight hours, hundreds were held hostage as shots rang out and an enormous fire raged. When the smoke cleared, thirty-one people were dead and many more had been injured. Only the courageous actions of staff and guests—including Mallika Jagad, Bob Nichols, and Taj general manager Binny Kang—prevented a much higher death toll.

With a deep understanding of the region and its politics and a narrative flair reminiscent of Midnight in Peking, journalists Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy vividly unfold the tragic events in a real-life thriller filled with suspense, tragedy, history, and heroism.

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About the Author:

Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy are the authors of four nonfiction books. They live in France.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

 

 

Dramatis personae

Guests/diners

Will Pike and Kelly Doyle – Will, twenty-eight, and Kelly, thirty, from London, were at the end of a two-week holiday in Goa when they decided to stay one night at the Taj, checking in on the afternoon of 26 November 2008. They were due to return home the following morning. It was Will’s first visit to India.

Andreas Liveras – the multi-millionaire Andreas, seventy-three, made his fortune in the bakery business in London after emigrating from his native Cyprus as a young man. Ranked 265th on the Sunday Times Rich List with an estimated fortune of £315m, he also owned luxury yachts. In November 2008 he was in India with his friend Nick Edmiston and his Indian cruise director, Remesh Cheruvoth, to launch a new yacht charter business in the subcontinent.

Sabina Sehgal Saikia – forty-five, was a formidable foodie and restaurant critic, a TV celebrity and journalist. She lived in New Delhi with her husband, Shantanu, and children, Arundhati, fourteen, and Aniruddha, eleven. She had come to Mumbai to review a new outlet at the Taj and attend a society wedding.

Bob Nicholls – the British-born security expert, forty-four, ran a VIP protection company based in South Africa. He came to Mumbai in November 2008 with six colleagues, Faisul Nagel, Reuben Niekerk, Reagan Walters, Zunaid Waddee, Charles Schiffer and Zane Wilmans, after winning a contract to provide security for the forthcoming Champions League Twenty20.

Ravi Dharnidharka – a captain in the US Marines, the 31-year-old Ravi had spent the past four years flying combat missions in Iraq, including during the bloody battle for Fallujah in November and December 2004. He was visiting Mumbai for the first time in more than a decade to reconnect with the Indian side of his family.

Mike and Anjali Pollack – the New York-based Mike Pollack, thirty-two, a managing partner at Glenhill Capital, a public equities investment firm, had come to Mumbai with his Indian wife, Anjali, thirty-three, to visit her parents. On the night of the attacks they were due to have dinner at the hotel with friends, leaving their two young sons with Anjali’s parents.

Amit and Varsha Thadani – the heir to a Mumbai textile and restaurant empire, Amit, thirty-two, had booked his wedding reception in the Crystal Room on the night of the attacks. He and his new wife, Varsha, thirty, who had taken their religious vows the previous day, invited 500 guests.

Bhisham Mansukhani – was an assistant editor at Paprika Media, publisher of Time Out India, specializing in food and drink. Aged thirty, Bhisham was at the Taj to attend the wedding reception of a school friend, Amit Thadani.

Kuttalam Rajagopalan Ramamoorthy – was a 69-year-old banking executive from Tamil Nadu, known to his friends as Ram. He was on a business trip to Mumbai on 26 November and had checked into the hotel after lunch, having turned down an offer to stay with his nephew in the city outskirts.

Line Kristin Woldbeck – a marketing executive from Norway, Line was on a month-long holiday in India with her boyfriend, Arne Strømme, a landscape architect. Both Line and Arne were keen photographers and avid travellers and this was their fourth trip to India. They arrived in Mumbai on the morning of 26 November from Gujarat and were due to fly on to Delhi the following day.

Staff

Karambir Kang – the 39-year-old General Manager and Vice-President of the Taj, Karambir had worked for the hotel chain since graduation, starting in sales. The son of a Sikh general in the Indian army, he had taken over the reins at the Taj a year before, moving his wife, Neeti, and sons, Uday, twelve, and Samar, five, into a suite on the sixth floor.

Amit Peshave – the son of two GPs from Pune, 27-year-old Amit had worked at the hotel for seven years, starting off as a trainee waiter. A few weeks prior to the attacks he was appointed General Manager of Shamiana, the hotel’s ground floor twenty-four-hour coffee shop.

Hemant Oberoi – the Taj’s 53-year-old Grand Executive Chef had worked for the Tata group his entire career. Widely known across India, Oberoi had a blossoming book and TV career and had inspired several restaurant chains, as well as personally designing most of the Taj’s restaurants.

Florence and Faustine Martis – Faustine Martis, forty-seven, the head waiter of Sea Lounge, the hotel’s first-floor tea-room, had worked at the Taj for more than two decades. Originally from Kerala, he lived in Thane, north-east Mumbai, with his wife, Precilla, and children, Florence, twenty-one, and Floyd, sixteen. Two months before the attacks he managed to secure a job at the hotel for his daughter, as a trainee computer operator in the Data Centre.

Security services

Vishwas Nangre Patil – appointed Deputy Commissioner of Police for Zone 1 in June 2008, a job that gave him jurisdiction over most of Mumbai’s five-star hotels and the heart of the tourist sites. Brought up in a village in southern Maharashtra, Patil, thirty-two, joined the police in 1997 and rose quickly, making his mark by clamping down on illicit parties in the state’s second-largest city of Pune.

Rajvardhan Sinha – Deputy Commissioner of Police, Special Branch 2, Rajvardhan had responsibility for monitoring foreigners in the city. Born in Bihar, he was a veteran of jungle warfare against Naxalite militias operating in eastern Maharashtra, and a batch-mate of Vishwas Patil, meaning they had trained together.

Rakesh Maria – the legendary Crime Branch boss of Mumbai, Joint Commissioner of Police Maria, fifty-one, made his name by hunting down the perpetrators of a series of bomb blasts that rocked the city in 1993. The story of how he solved the case was later turned into a Bollywood film, Black Friday. Maria, whose father was a Bollywood producer, was a major character in Suketu Mehta’s memorable non-fiction work Bombay Maximum City, appearing under the pseudonym of police chief Ajay Lal.

Hasan Gafoor – Mumbai’s Commissioner of Police, Gafoor, fifty-eight, was only the second Muslim to hold this rank in Mumbai. The son of a nawab from Hyderabad, Gafoor was among the many privileged officers who dominated the upper ranks of the Mumbai force.

Deven Bharti – Additional Commissioner of Police Bharti was second in command to Rakesh Maria at the Crime Branch. He was also a veteran of the Naxalite insurgency of eastern Maharashtra.

Govind Singh Sisodia – Brigadier, the Deputy Inspector General of the National Security Guard, India’s specialist counter-terrorism force. Joining the Indian Military Academy, the subcontinent’s elite officer-training college, in Dehradun, Sisodia graduated in 1975, and was commissioned into the 16 Sikh Regiment.

Terrorists

David Headley – born Daood Saleem Gilani in Washington DC in 1960; his father was a renowned Pakistani broadcaster and his mother an American heiress. He was brought up in Pakistan but moved back to the USA at the age of sixteen. During the eighties he was arrested for drug smuggling, and became an undercover agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration. Anglicizing his name to David Headley, he joined the Pakistani militia Lashkar-e-Toiba and helped plan and craft the Mumbai attacks. He also worked for the US intelligence community throughout this period, passing back information about Lashkar’s intentions for Mumbai.

Ajmal Kasab – born in 1987 to a poor family in the village of Faridkot in the eastern Punjab, Pakistan, Ajmal was one of ten young men recruited and trained by Lashkar-e-Toiba for the Mumbai attacks. He underwent religious instruction and nearly a year of physical training before being dispatched to India in November 2008.

Lashkar-e-Toiba – a Pakistani militia formed in 1990 to fight in Indian-administered Kashmir. The activities of Lashkar, which was funded and armed by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, were focused on sending highly trained fidayeen (guerrilla) units to fight Indian troops until the death.

Hafiz Saeed – the amir (spiritual leader) of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the parent organization of Lashkar-e-Toiba. Born in the Punjab, Saeed, aged fifty-eight at the time of the Mumbai attacks, was an Islamic studies lecturer in Lahore until he travelled to Saudi Arabia during the eighties and began actively supporting the mujahideen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. Soon after he returned to Pakistan he formed an Islamic movement underpinned by the Ahl-e-Hadith sect. It would lead to the establishment in 1990 of Lashkar-e-Toiba.

Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi – the amir and co-founder of Lashkar-e-Toiba, chacha (uncle) Zaki, as he was known to all Lashkar recruits, was born in Okara, the same district of the eastern Punjab as Ajmal Kasab. During the eighties he abandoned his studies to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. He was Lashkar’s chief military commander and was described by Indian investigators as the mastermind behind the Mumbai operation.

’Mughal ceilings, let your mirrored convexities
multiply me at once under your spell tonight.

He’s freed some fire from ice in pity for Heaven.
He’s left open – for God – the doors of Hell tonight.

In the heart’s veined temple, all statues have been smashed.
No priest in saffron’s left to toll its knell tonight.

God, limit these punishments, there’s still Judgment Day –
I’m a mere sinner, I’m no infidel tonight.’

Agha Shahid Ali, ‘Tonight’, in Call Me Ishmael Tonight: A Book of Ghazals
(W. W. Norton and Company Inc., 2003)

Prologue

Wednesday, 26 November 2008, 8 p.m.

A sliver of moon hung over the Arabian Sea as the dinghy powered towards the ‘Queen’s Necklace’, the chain of lights strung across Mumbai’s Back Bay. The ten-man crew of Pakistani fighters rode the black waves in silence, listening to the thrum of the outboard motor and hunched over Chinese rucksacks, printed with English logos that read: ‘Changing the Tide’. Ten AK-47s, ten pistols, ammunition, grenades, explosives and timers, maps, water, almonds and raisins – they laid out the contents in their minds. It barely seemed enough to take on the world’s fourth-largest city. ‘Surprise will get you in and fear will scatter the police,’ their instructors had assured them. They had practised night landings, and planting timed bombs in taxis set to explode all over the city, hoping to create the illusion that an army had invaded Mumbai. Brother Ismail, the team leader, held high a GPS unit, programmed with landing coordinates, as the sea sprayed over them, stinging their sunburned faces.

They had volunteered for jihad a year before, and been put through religious indoctrination and military training that had taken them from secret mountain-top camps in Pakistan-administered Kashmir down to safe houses in the swarming port city of Karachi. Four days ago, at dawn on 22 November, they had finally weighed anchor.

One day out in open water, they had hijacked an Indian trawler, the first test of everyone’s mettle. The second had been saying farewell to their handlers, from whom they had become inseparable, and who melted away into the sea mist, heading back to Pakistan. The third was forcing a captured Indian captain to navigate the seized trawler on towards invincible Mumbai, 309 nautical miles away, in the knowledge that this was the first time they had been alone.

In reality they were not by themselves. A satellite phone linked them back to a control room in Karachi that called regularly with updates. But these were landlocked boys, from impoverished rural communities, who knew only about chickens and goats, and they were stupefied by shooting stars arcing above them. On the second night, 24 November, they had all lain up on deck and imagined being sucked up into the heavens, while one of the ten had told the story of Sinbad, who had explored the Arabian Sea, where ‘the rocky shore was strewn with the wreckage of a thousand gallant ships, while the bones of luckless mariners shone white in the sunshine, and we shuddered to think how soon our own would be added to the heap’.

Finally, on 26 November, the GPS had sounded their arrival off the coast of Mumbai, and they had called Karachi to find out what to do with the captured captain. It fell to Ajmal Kasab to act. He had just turned twenty-one and felt compelled to prove his worth. Two others held the Indian sailor down, while Ajmal slit his throat. Blooded, they jumped into a yellow dinghy that pulled them onwards towards the glistening Indian city.

Each of them, Ajmal recalled, seemed lost in thought. This was a one-way journey that was supposed to culminate with their deaths. There would be no hero’s return, no village tamasha (celebration) to fete their victory, and no martyr’s poster in the local mosque to immortalize their bravery. There would be no ringing eulogy printed in a jihad magazine. As they approached the city, Ajmal’s mother, Noor Elahi, was crouched at home by the fire in Faridkot, frying stuffed parathas for his younger brother and sister, a pot of thick curd sitting up on the kitchen shelf. She had no idea her favourite son was staring at a rapidly nearing foreign shore, his head filled with instructions to ‘kill relentlessly’.

Ajmal had started on this road in November 2007, with another boy of his age, both of them pledging, mujahid-style, to fight for each other until the end. But this boy had had a family who had talked him back home, while other cadres got homesick and were also fetched by concerned fathers, brothers or uncles. By May 2008, half of the would-be warriors had changed their minds. Ajmal had waited at the camp gates, but no one had come for him. In the end, and alone, he had given himself over to the outfit, signing a testament in which he pledged to ‘cut open the kafir’s jugular to quench my anger’.

Then, the handlers had packed his rucksack and put him to sea with nine others, all of them wearing new Western clothes, sporting cropped hair and carrying fake Indian IDs.

At 8.20 p.m., dry land reared up. As he slipped on the pack, Ajmal remembered a promise made by their amir, the cleric who had sent them on their way, conjuring up their deaths: ‘Your faces will glow like the moon. Your bodies will emanate scent, and you will go to paradise.’

The higgledy-piggledy fishermen’s chawl (tenement), close to the tourist mecca of Colaba, was deserted when they leapt ashore. Residents were distracted, watching an India-England cricket match on TV. Only local resident Bharat Tandel challenged them, as they ran up to the road: ‘Who are you and where are you going?’ A shouted answer came back: ‘Hum pehle se hi tang hain. Hume pareshaan mat karo [We are already stressed, so don’t pester us].’

An hour later, the growl of gunfire and the bark of explosions reverberated across the city.

1.

Jadu ghar (House of Magic)

Faustine Martis wanted a memorable death. But the senior waiter, who had worked at the Taj for more than two decades, could not find the right time to broach the subject with Florence, his dizzy, 21-year-old chatterbox of a daughter. On their way into the city, Florence loved to talk and normally Faustine was happy to listen. Recently he had got her a job at the...

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