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‘I will always remember that night’: Architect recalls 26/11 horror & mayhem

Sudip Choudhury, an eyewitness to the chaos & mayhem that followed dastardly 26/11 attacks, recounts how they as well as city residents were running helter-skelter to save their lives on that fateful night.

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Being an Architect from Delhi, Mumbai was always a city of awe. It appeared to be an aberration from the rest of the country. Where everywhere else trains never ran on time, Mumbai trains did. Where everywhere else people had time to waste, Mumbaikars didn’t, they were busy being productive.

Mumbaikars were professionals and still are, very unlike NCR. It is unfathomable in spite of all the hustle bustle, lagging infrastructure, there is no let up on the go-getter spirit of Mumbai.

I have always seen the swirling waves of the Arabian Sea lash the shores of Mumbai, India’s financial and film capital and a sprawling megacity of 20 million.

I have always been filled with hope.

Except November 26, 2008, which was marked by a 60-hour siege by terrorists from Pakistan who killed 166 people and soured ties between New Delhi and Islamabad. I feel that Mumbai is still marked by the trauma of the attacks.
I remembered that night when hell descended on Mumbai. I was with my company management out for a social-cum-business evening. The host was a friend of a member of our team. We noticed that he was receiving calls very frequently, initially he brushed away saying that there is some unrest in the city, probably some gang warfare. After about 45 minutes, he got off a call and advised that we should all disperse and head back home. The news that some terror attack is underway was being broadcasted on TV media.

We packed ourselves in the car and set off, our host kept calling us every now and then to check our whereabouts. Mumbai streets was crowded and became even more so as we travelled and we could make out that people were in the know that something terrible is going on somewhere in the city.

As we weaved our way on the main road, we were stopped by the cops from getting on and diverted away on to inside streets and bylanes. Radio news in our vehicle talked about a terrorist attack and how some terrorists had hijacked a car and were shooting indiscriminately to kill people. And the cops were trying to nab them by closing down main roads.

Mumbai was pure mayhem, everyone wanted to escape. But where?

Mumbai was in turmoil for long hours.

Eventually as we hit the road of our hotel, which had very little traffic as it had a few prominent hotels on it – we saw groups of people in front of the entrance gate. As we just turned in towards the gate of our hotel, the hotel staff stopped us and let us through only on confirming that we were guests staying at the hotel.

In the meantime our hosts advised us to request the hotel to allow the car and the driver to stay within its premises, the driver was to stay put more for his own safety. The hotel staff agreed.

As we walked through the hotel lobby, all televisions were on some news channel and the voice was grim and stern. I switched on the television as soon as I got to my room. The visuals were all blood, death, smoke and bullets in that order – as reports were coming in from the railway station.

Next day we left for Delhi, while Mumbai was in the throes of one of the most shocking terror attacks the world had ever seen. As I entered home, the television was still on and stayed on like that for two days straight as the whole scenario unfolded with images of fire leaping out of windows of the Taj Hotel.

Mumbai attacks

It was only a couple of months that I had visited Mumbai on a few occasions and that too at the Taj for Conferences. I was mapping mental images of what I saw when I was there and what was being shown on TV.

And then I returned to Mumbai a few months later as the India representative of the Spanish Designer appointed to redo the two restaurants completely gutted in the attack. I clicked some pictures of the blackened insides and bullet ridden walls and furniture.

Mumbai attacks

It was a silent and solemn site visit for me. Although the area had been cleared off, bullet holes, blackened walls and wood splinters still remained. One could very well put together a mental image of what happened on that fateful day. People were not just aimed at and shot, they were hosed down with streams of bullets.

Mumbai attacks

I saw billboards carrying a picture of some brave cops, some survivors and Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan which had sprung up all over Mumbai for a memorial organised by a newspaper.

I was told by many that they suffered emotional scars, which are even slower to heal. Some told me that they feel this could happen again.

It was a mixture of defiance and fear. I know Mumbai will come to a halt as it marks the anniversary with a day of prayer and commemoration for those who died.

I am in the national capital, but my mind is in Mumbai, especially at Colaba’s Leopold cafe, where bullet holes and grenade blast marks have been preserved as a badge of honour.

I am thinking of the defining image of the attack: the burning Taj hotel, whose distinctive gothic red domes had been set ablaze by the gunmen.

The hotel has been painstakingly restored and rooms in its 1935 heritage wing, where some suites cost $16,000 a night, have been opened to the public. But, I will never forget that night of terror.

((Sudip Choudhury, a seasoned architect, was in Mumbai on that fateful day))

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