Saturday, December 6, 2008

see what I saw

After eight hours of crouching by the side of the Taj, scouring its left profile, picking out every wart (there were few), examining every window, every corner, seeing the front was overwhelming.
I’ve looked at this facade so many times before. Quick glances while walking in; slow examinations while standing at the seafront promenade engrossed in conversation; complete awe when I saw it in the distance, from the harbour ferry coming back to Gateway. Its bright façade looming in the smoggy, orange night; a solid block of light in Mumbai’s twinkling coastline.
I looked at that facade again that night. Darkened. Slowly, as the fact that the naval commandoes had managed to push the terrorists to the rear left corner of the building sank in, a light or two went on in some rooms. Some occupants (they’re hostages now, my brain interjected) were waving at their windows, seeking the attention of the firemen already setting up their ladders to evacuate as many as they can.
It was an incongruous sight. Frightened, harrowed faces framed at windows that looked into comfortable rooms. Tasteful fabric and classy furnishings witnessing their fear, smelling their sweat.
Towards the left of the front façade, no lights went on. But the windows were lit in a golden glow there as well, this one dancing in the still night. (It was a very still night. I remember being surprised by that again and again during that night. Maybe the import of what was happening, weighed in on everything). A fire set by grenades that was put out by the seven, eight, nine fire engines that showed up; only to flame up again with every loud explosion that shook the silent night.
The road in front of the Taj has scorched patches at periodic distances, where grenades were dropped. The windows of a car are shattered. (Only one; why didn't more break?) .
A man in a white shirt walks over the scorched patch I’m staring at. He’s talking on the phone, coordinating the rescue efforts or something. Maybe he’s a hotel official, maybe a cop. As he walks, he looks up at a lit window where a woman and a girl are waving a white handkerchief. They want to be rescued and are trying to catch someone’s eye. They’ve been noticed, but no one has the time to stop and reassure them that their turn will come and their nightmare will get over. The man spots them and waves back, without a break in his stride.

In the morning, I was thirsty and my ankles hurt. So much.
Not my knees, from crouching behind a pile of concrete paving blocks all night. From crouching, as I moved slowly in the dark.
Not my butt, from sitting constantly on the pavement. Getting up every now and then to stretch my legs, to try to see more. But mostly concentrating on staying out of the way of the operation and being a mute witness.
Not my eyes, from staring nonstop. Trying to adjust to the night and see more. From blinking less. From seeing wave after wave of cops, armymen, commandos go in and, some minutes and gunshots later, the return trickle of injured men.
Not my ears, which had just learnt to distinguish the sounds of an AK-47 shot from that of a pistol or a rifle. That rang with the sounds of the periodic grenade blasts, slowly learning to judge the distance and direction more accurately.
My ankles.
I remember cursing the flatmate’s cat. Two days before, he’d bit me in the left heel. I maintained that he was having a nightmare and it was an involuntary reaction, cause one second he was asleep, the next he bit me, and then he was asleep again. But during that vigil outside the Taj, I cussed him as I stood there, shifting weight from my tired right foot to the left, and then back again immediately, cause the left hurt too much.
I remember the sorrow and the distress of the crime reporters when they confirmed the news that Kamte, Salaskar and Karkare were dead. Heads collapsed into shaking hands and, for a moment, the silent night was even more silent. Then they were back at work: Discussing the ramifications of the deaths, the TV journos calling in their reports, in that screaming-to-be-heard-above-the-crowd-and-noise voice they use.

I remember the waiting. Most of that night was about waiting. Waiting to piece together what was happening in other parts of the city and understand the magnitude of the attack. Waiting for the next grenade to be thrown. Waiting for the next round of firing. Waiting for the next injured man to be rushing out of the Taj, waiting for the next batch of hostages to be freed, waiting for the naval commandos, waiting for the firemen, waiting for the NSG, waiting far the tear gas, waiting, waiting. Waiting for it to be over.
I remember having our hopes pinned on the NSG. Wait till they get here, then it’ll be over in a couple of hours. They’ll be here at daybreak, and then the terrorists won’t have any place to run.
I was looking at a pigeon sleeping on a window of the Taj all night. I realised it was daybreak when I discovered that many more pigeons were now sharing his perch. Just minutes before dawn the NSG commandos, in their crisp black, had slunk into the Taj. Half an hour went by; there were gunshots. Another hour, and some more intermittent firing. With each gunshot the pigeons took off from the Taj, circled the sky above it, and returned to the same spot. The naval commandos brought in more ammo, more tear gas. More time.
At around 8:30 am, I decided to end my vigil. I wanted to see it through but I was tired, physically and mentally, and no longer so sure that with the NSG here it was just a matter of hours. My phone had been off all night, I knew people were worried. I went back.

ps. There are more things I remember. As I find the words for them, I’ll add them on.

pps. For C, who worried all night. See what I saw.


J. Alfred Prufrock said...

First person. No pontification. Gives it immediacy without bullshit.

More, please. Maybe you could expand this piece instead of writing more. (Some minor proofing required)


hyacinths said...

this was a scary read Neha. You were too close for comfort.
And i agree with the previous comment... no bullshit; its so personal - i loved the ankles hurting part... (although i sympathize with the pain)