Hello, may I speak to Srijit?”
“Sir, I would like to talk to you …”
“I would love to talk, but am a little caught up.”
“Not a problem. When will you be free?”
“I wish I knew. You see, I am still stuck in the Trident and am a hostage …”
I dropped the phone.
I had entered the field of journalism exactly five months back and here I was, smack bang in the middle of covering my first terrorist attack. It all happened by accident. The day had started out as a nightmare. The previous evening, just as I was about to turn in for the night, I started receiving frantic calls from home. Their questions about my safety soon turned into hysterical lectures: As a journalist, how could I not know that Mumbai was undergoing a terror attack?
I switched on the TV and slowly pieced together the horrifying sequence of events. A group of terrorists from the Lashkar-e-Taiba had conducted a series of attacks across south Bombay. They had targeted the CST train terminus, two hotels — Oberoi Trident, the Taj Mahal Palace — Leopold Cafe, Cama Hospital and the Nariman House Jewish community center.
After watching for about three hours, I turned in for the night. This wasn’t the first time Mumbai was dealing with terrorists. The city had survived before and I was confident things would return to normal the next morning.
They did not.
My boss woke me up to say the terrorists had taken people hostage at the two hotels and I, still a trainee, was needed at work. The city wore a deserted look — everyone had stayed home. In contrast, the office was abuzz — keyboards clacking, telephones ringing, instructions being shouted and television channels blaring breaking news.
My boss walked up to us trainees and gave us numbers of rescued hostages and told us to talk to them. It was one thing I was hoping never to do as a journalist — intrude on someone’s grief to ask them, “Aapko kaisa lag raha hai?” Or, how do you feel? As a trainee, I didn’t have the choice. I started calling. There were four numbers; three went unanswered. The fourth got me a hostage.
Now, for someone who was stuck in his room, alone, with the blinds closed and lights off, Srijit was calm. He told me what had happened: “It started around 9 p.m. My colleague and I were having dinner when we heard the first blasts. After that everything went haywire. We decided it’s safer to remain in our rooms, on the 24th floor. We have no contact with anyone else from the Trident. The firing was constant and went on throughout the night. I lost the signal on the television; I think the terrorists cut it off so that we don’t know what is happening outside.”
The elevators were shut, and he had locked the door and pulled down the blinds. He was worried about his colleague, a U.S. citizen — he had heard reports that foreign nationals were being targeted. His minibar had a few bottles of water, a couple of boxes of nuts and biscuits and a bar of chocolate — enough stock to last him a couple of days, he told me.
Before hanging up, he had one request: “Keep me posted on what is happening outside.” He was staying in darkness and his phone was the only link to the internet and his son in Kolkata.
I did, through messages and the odd call. I fed him whatever the TV was telling me — the number of people dead, which terrorists had been captured and reports on law enforcement. In turn, he told me about the other hostages he had befriended via the intercom, how none of them were eating because they were too scared. He wasn’t hungry. He just wanted to get out.
I felt his fear, anxiety, helplessness and despair.
I ended each call telling him those very useless words “be safe.” He took it in good grace.
By the end of the first day, he felt like a friend, someone I had known for a long time. The thought of what would happen to him terrified me. I had difficulty sleeping that night. The next day, November 27, the phone calls, and the gun battles, continued.
People watch from the top of a residential apartment as a helicopter carrying National Security Guard commandos prepares to attack militants at Nariman House at Colaba Market in Mumbai on November 28, 2008. “Every time the explosions go off, the entire building shakes,” he told me.
His inside information was more accurate than what many television channels were screening. But I didn’t tell him about reports that over 20 hostages had been killed in the hotel. Instead, I told him that India’s NSG, National Security Guard, was close to getting them evacuated. He had still barely eaten anything, and was using the intercom to speak to other hostages trapped on the same floor. On the third day, at 11 a.m., I got the call I had been waiting for.
“I am saved.”
Early morning, he had a knock on his door saying “housekeeping.” He opened it to find 20 commandos and armed men in plain clothes. He was escorted out like royalty.
Later that day, I went to meet him. We exchanged a hug. He was full of praise for the security forces who had rescued him. He was taking back “souvenirs” of his ordeal: a bottle of water and a half-eaten packet of salted peanuts.
It is difficult to explain the relationship that formed between us in those three days. I’ve never been on the front of covering any terrorist attack or violence; I don’t have it in me.
A little background: I hail from a tiny state in India called Goa, known for its peace-loving and laid-back life. I’ve only ever seen terror attacks on TV; I was completely detached from them. I was safe; everyone I knew was safe — I couldn’t fully grasp the impact of what was happening. The 26/11 attacks changed me because there was a personal element to the violence. I felt the fear, the anxiety, the helplessness and the despair.
Suffice to say, that naive trainee reporter who had led a sheltered life had finally grown up.
I wrote this essay for Ozy on the ninth anniversary of the Mumbai terror attacks. Read the original piece, here.