Taken hostage in the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack

Hello, may I speak to Srijit?”
“Yes, speaking.”
“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

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A taste of the North East in Kalina

In the morning, the suburb of Kalina is a quiet place. A few shop shutters go up, a straggle of people return from daily Mass, and stray dogs start riffling through the piles of garbage being swept from the street. 

Near the St Roque Grotto, a small two storey space starts to come to life. As part of his morning ritual, Yaomi Awungshi, 36 is having tea and breakfast with his family. In some time, the plates and cups are cleared and the place is open for business.  

The business being Thotrin Café, the suburb’s newest, and what they call the city’s only, North Eastern restaurant. “We serve food from typically cooked in our homes, and from other states,” says Awungshi.

“This area has a lot of families from the North East. We wanted to offer them the tastes of home,” chimes in his cousin Worsem Zimik, 34. Awungshi and Zimik both belong to the Tangkhul tribe – they identify as Nagas but geographically, their home is in Manipur. The menu features Naga tribal dishes and some from other North Eastern states too.

Food stories

The restaurant launched three months back. It is a small space with just four tables. There’s a blue ceiling, few potted plants, and a full length motivational poster covering the door to the kitchen.

“You can call us and request any dish and we will make it,” says Awungshi proudly, adding that recipes are sourced from family and friends. On the menu are dishes like the Manipuri salad shingju, oxtail soup, thukpa, mayang pai manak – a meaty potato mash made with King Chilli and fermented river fish; steamed chicken with bamboo shot and shiitake mushrooms; thesui – fermented soyabean, ngari – fermented river fish with King Chilli, and even escargot. They also serve pork and beef items but that’s off the menu – they don’t want to alienate customers. Dishes are of substantial portions, cheap (the most expensive dish is Rs 220) and meant for sharing.

The diners streaming in and out of the place include family and friends from nearby, Catholics from all across Kalina and Vakola, and members of the community who come from as far as Mira Road and Borivli. “We get a lot of students too. They come to study at the Kalina University and so, settle down here. They often don’t have the time to cook or look for specific ingredients. This was our way of helping them,” says Zimik. When he first came to the city to study law 15 years back, there was no place to buy homemade food or ingredients so he started cooking himself. “We have airhostesses who are regulars who always gush about the food and say it tastes like home.”

Zimik, who had to abandon his dream of becoming a lawyer due to financial reason, has worked in the hotel industry for over a decade. He is currently an operations manager at AB Celestial, Mahim. He believes the time is ripe for the city’s diners to ‘indulge in their love for regional food by trying out our food’. He would know. One of his work stints was at King Chilli, the Chindian fusion restaurant down the street from Thotrin. There, customers could order off-the-menu Manipuri food items like Khaiko Kasathei (a dry fish salad) and Harsa Kasathei (chicken salad with onion, lime juice and King chilli) and Alangsa, a beef offal stew-like dish. The dishes, once only eaten by members of the community, are no popular with anyone looking for a taste of the North Eastern cuisine.  

The right ingredients  

The popularity of the King chilli (or bhut jolokia as its popularly called) these days means it is easier to source. For other ingredients specific to the region, people turn to small community stores that source their wares from the North East.  The Kalina Masjid lane has two such stores selling foodstuff, vegetables, breads and sweets specific to the Manipuri and Naga community. Think fermented fish and bamboo shoots.  

Thotrin gets its produce from the store sharing its name, which Awungshi started three years back. He  gets his produce from home, thrice a week, and the pickles, fried items and bread all made by the family.  The small space is packed with clear packets of fresh vegetables – mustard leaves, Indian bean root, white pepper, aiyang thei (Naga eggplant), fermented bamboo shoots, and dried King chilli.

vegetables
Fresh vegetables and dried fish comes in every week from Nagaland

The fish comes in pickled form or a dried version (usually done over heated charcoal) and packed within small woven bamboo baskets. There’s a rack from which hang pickled sweet red plums, packets of meat masala, and tins of fish and meat pickle. Two small refrigerators nearby hold vegetable salads and pork pickle. The dry food stack has strips of dried beef intestines, fried beef and pork, chewy doughnuts sprinkled with coconut, crispy rice cakes and a sweet puri-like bread made from black rice. “When we opened, on the first day itself we had 100 customers!” laughs Awungshi. “That’s when we knew we were right in starting the place. It was that time we had the idea to open the restaurant too.”

store 1
The vegetable rack at Thotrin store

Both places are open through the week. Sunday afternoon is the only time you will find them shut – it’s because the family goes to church. People from the Tangkhul tribe are largely Protestant and go to a small hall within the Air India complex at Kalina for afternoon (and English) services. And after church, they are usually joined by a small group of people who come to get a bite to eat at the restaurant.   

The brothers look at Thotrin as a space that brings the community together, a social hangout spot. “We want to take this food and the restaurant all across Mumbai,” says Zimik with a smile. “We want to make it famous.”

Thotrin Café is situated opposite St Roque Grotto, Kalina Kurla Cross Road, Santacruz East; open from 9.30 pm to 11 pm; call 077382 30296

 

 

Worth the Mani

I am at a table with three strangers. We don’t talk; our mouths are busy shoveling down idlis, wadas and upma. The only sounds we make come from the cracking of a crisp dosa, and the slurp of hot filter coffee.

A waiter hovers by, ready to refill our bowls with ladles of fragrant sambhar. The thin and tangy vegetable stew coats the idlis (steamed lentil rice cakes) on my plate, giving them an orange tint. In another bowl, the soup-like rasam, made with tamarind juice, tomato, chillies, and spices, soaks through the medu wada (crisp fritters made with urad dal), softening them up.

I wipe both dishes clean, resisting the urge to lick my fingers as many around me do. Someone near me gives a satisfied burp. Nobody bats an eyelid. At Mani’s Lunch Home in Chembur, table etiquette and manners are secondary to enjoying a good meal.

Rasam Vada
Rasam vada.

In Mumbai, there’s cheap and then there’s lunch home cheap. Mani’s Lunch Home, or Mani’s, falls in the latter category – nothing on their menu costs over Rs 150. The 80-year- old institution serves simple, homely, vegetarian South Indian food. Last year, it shut down its Matunga outlet and moved to the eastern suburbs of Chembur.

I visit the new digs for a late breakfast. It takes time getting used to the white walls, metals chairs and air-conditioned interiors. The old Mani’s felt like the dining room of a friend’s home, warm and inviting. Here, under the glare of white lights, the four of us sharing a table are extremely conscious of each other. We sit properly, without fidgeting.
Once our orders arrive though, all propriety is forgotten.

A flurry of waiters deposit plates of dosas the length of my arm, tiny containers of chutney, filter coffee in tumblers, fluffy idlis, crisp wadas and bowls of sambhar and rasam. There’s no cutlery so we use our hands and dig in. My Ghee Roast Dosa is paper thin and crumbles as I break into it, revealing a mound of masala’ (boiled potatoes with onion and tempered with mustard and curry leaves). In between bites, I pour the filter coffee from the stainless steel tumbler into the cup, cool it and take small sips. It is milky
and sweet enough to jolt me awake.

dosa
Masala Dosa. Photo courtesy: Mani’s Lunch Home

Eating at a lunch home is a lesson in portion control. I barely wipe the last drop of sambhar from the plate, when a hand materialises out of nowhere and fills it up. After two rounds, I feebly wave the waiter away. He is understandably surprised. Whoever says no to extra, and free, servings?

By now, I am regretting all the food I’ve ordered. I can’t seem to finish all that I have ordered. My fellow diners have finished up, paid and left. They know their limits. They also know that you don’t waste time at a lunch home, you eat as quickly as you can and leave, making way for other hungry diners.

As I pay the bill, the owner KS Narayanaswamy walks over for feedback. I am full of praise but, he isn’t fooled. He saw me wave away second helpings. “You didn’t finish your paper dosa,” he says, accusingly. I sheepishly apologise, promising to return and do justice to everything I order.

This was part of my breakfast series for Roads & Kingdoms; read a full review of the place in Midday