With 166 dead and around 300 injured, the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai was one of the most ghastly and sinister experiences of independent India, which shook both the nation and the world, with the perpetrator count being a mere 10 fidayeen(Lashkar-e-Toiba’s units which are ‘trained to sacrifice’).
Google Earth, Internet telephony network and satellite TV were what kept up the attacks and the slow response of the higher authorities was what scaled it to monstrous levels, searing its existence into all those who were unfortunate enough to witness or become a victim to it. For most of us Indians, it was something that just happened, like so many other events. It was something we saw on our Television screens, with the news reporters in the forefront drawing our attention to a burning Taj in the background. Not that it was needed, it was already impossible to tear one’s eyes away from it; the Taj was a sight to behold. The mighty hotel with smoke ensuing out of it, perhaps, was a metaphor to the Indian Institution which had bitterly failed in its duties to its citizens for both combating and later, investigating the horrible attacks. For all those involved in it, all those who lost their loved ones to it, or were injured for life, it was something which they probably cannot forget for all of their remaining lives.
Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark did a wonderful job of piecing all the events that happened before and during the 26/11 attacks into a linear timeline. They then began at the very start, the recruiting and training of the 10 fidayeen soldiers and ended at the retaking of the Taj by the Indian NSG(National Security Guard). The NSG was deployed to Mumbai a full 10 hours after the commencement of the attacks and in the meantime, it was the local authorities(who were helpless devoid of proper ammunition to face the loaded and battle trained fidayeen units), the Taj security guard and the Taj staff that held the fort, losing their men to secure guests who were stuck in the hotel. The Taj staff went out of their way to ensure the security of their guests, even going as far as risking their own lives.
To attribute a genre to The Siege, I would call it a thriller. But it is a thriller like no other. It is a thriller in which a reader already knows what was going to happen, but the question that is answered a little with each turn of the page, is how. It is chilling to the bone because after every few moments it hit again that everything written down in the book actually happened. All the carnage and horror inked down in those pages is not a figment of someone’s imagination, but infact a story of people who actually lived(or gave their all to live) through it.
The absence of the police force coerced the people into taking matters into their own hands. A pair of soldiers successfully led a large group of foreigners(largely Koreans) out of the Taj Towers with the help of a Taj Security Chief member, a Taj General Manager did the same and then went back in to assist other guests, and the most wondrous of them were the Chefs who built a human chain to safely escort the guests through corridors. One of the staff members who was stuck inside a room was kept alive by a stranger who kept her conscious by talking to her through her mobile phone for all the thirty-six hours she was stuck there. In the midst of all the terror and cold ruthlessness, there were people who demonstrated such courage and selflessness that make you wonder at human tenacity.
What the The Siege does is relay the untold story of all the innocent people who were caught in the wild schemes of an organization which ultimately sought to serve its own goals of terrorizing the world, and these also included the young people who were allured with warped promises and assurances of religion and carefully trained to die. A particular exchange still rings in mind:
(Ajmal Kasab after being shown the mutilated bodies of his comrades)
“Ajmal turned furiously to his police guard, his world imploding:’Take me away’. He was driven back to his solitary cell, where his interrogator was waiting for him. ‘So, Ajmal,’ he said, smiling. ‘Did you see the glow on their faces and smell the fragrance of roses rising from their bodies?’
Bitterly, Ajmal wept.”
Here are two of some other incidents mentioned in the afterword:
At Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, where Ajmal Kasab and his accomplice gunned down fifty-eight commuters, wounding another 104, a thirteen year old boy was saved from the firing and taken to a hospital where doctors calculated when to tell him that his parents, an uncle and three cousins had perished.
After the bodies of thirty-two staff and guests were recovered from the Trident-Oberoi Hotels, a Turkish Muslim couple, Seyfi and Meltem Muezzinoglu, held captive for eight hours, recalled how they burst into mourning after watching the gunmen execute a group of female hostages. “We stepped forward, opened our hands and said our prayers out loud,” Seyfi said. “And you know what happened? One of the gunmen was staring at us with big eyes. He didn’t believe it and started looking at the floor. He was ashamed. We spoke our prayers in Arabic, and we spoke them loud, hand in hand in front of those bodies.”
The Siege is the first book of its kind that I liked. I have a hard time reading journalism books. I find them hard to appreciate. But this one is an exception, maybe because the events were carefully arranged into how a storyteller would tell them without compromising the facts, or maybe because the stories themselves surpassed my aversion to these kind of books. Whatever the reason, the Siege gives us a box office view of the Taj Attacks, revealing facts and heart-wrenching stories and feats that our television sets failed to. Above all, it is a book that should be read once, atleast by every Indian.