Last weekend, I was in Delhi..

This weekend, I was in Delhi. For my cousin’s wedding reception. 

Noticed quite a few things, much as I did not want to

1. The weather seemed less colder than the last year. I remember my brother’s wedding reception around the same date a few years back. And I am sure it was much colder that day. In fact, saturday afternoon was a bit sunny, and I was walking around with folded shirt sleeves. 

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The national anti-terrorism revolution has not seemed to affect Delhi that much. Life, sentiments, and rationalizations are very different when you talk to Dilliwalas. I guess there are some like me (with stakes in both cities) who tend to get emotional with Connaught Place blasts as much as they get emotional with the CST blasts. In the last week or so, all that I have talked about, when I would meet friends and acquaintances, was the recent terror attacks, and how it affects that Indian sensibilities now.  However, the weekend was a rude and real reminder that life has already moved on in almost all the other cities. People are still talking about the day, but they are not as frenzied as mumbaikars. 

 The question came back to haunt me – This thinking, upheaval, revolution and resolution… its all restricted to the upper middle class. I am hard pressed to find poor and lower middle class folks participating in this jingoism. 

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 Delhi had a favorable poll turnout.  So did the other states. I am quite sure that not too many people were seen asking for Rule 49-O. Otherwise, it might have been in news… 🙂 With the ridiculousness typically associated with all  jingoism, I guess people are realizing how idiotic the whole idea of jumping for 4-9-Oh is! First, it an urban (and in this case, educated) legend. Second, undermining democracy is not the solution to the problems of democracy. 

As an afterthought, the results have been a bit of a surprise for others, not that much for me. I could see Delhi and Rajasthan being the results that they were. MP was also pretty much a given. Mizoram, somehow, i have never followed the politics there. I shoult take some more interest. My IIM-Indore interview in 2001 is a rude memoir that I carry with me!

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Heroes At The Taj – Michael Pollack in Forbes.com

Got this forward from Rohit Mathur. And I must say, I love our politicians! 

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Heroes At The Taj – Michael Pollack in Forbes.com 12.01.08, 7:40 PM ET

My story begins innocuously, with a dinner reservation in a world-class hotel. It ends 12 hours later after the Indian army freed us.
My point is not to sensationalize events. It is to express my gratitude and pay tribute to the staff of the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai, who sacrificed their lives so that we could survive. They, along with the Indian army, are the true heroes that emerged from this tragedy.
 

My wife, Anjali, and I were married in the Taj’s Crystal Ballroom. Her parents were married there, too, and so were Shiv and Reshma, the couple with whom we had dinner plans. In fact, my wife and Reshma, both Bombay girls, grew up hanging out and partying the night away there and at the Oberoi Hotel, another terrorist target.

The four of us arrived at the Taj around 9:30 p.m. for dinner at the Golden Dragon, one of the better Chinese restaurants in Mumbai. We were a little early, and our table wasn’t ready. So we walked next door to the Harbor Bar and had barely begun to enjoy our beers when the host told us our table was ready. We decided to stay and finish our drinks.

Thirty seconds later, we heard what sounded like a heavy tray smashing to the ground. This was followed by 20 or 30 similar sounds and then absolute silence. We crouched behind a table just feet away from what we now knew were gunmen. Terrorists had stormed the lobby and were firing indiscriminately.

We tried to break the glass window in front of us with a chair, but it wouldn’t budge. The Harbour Bar’s hostess, who had remained at her post, motioned to us that it was safe to make a run for the stairwell. She mentioned, in passing, that there was a dead body right outside in the corridor. We believe this courageous woman was murdered after we ran away.

(We later learned that minutes after we climbed the stairs, terrorists came into the Harbour Bar, shot everyone who was there and executed those next door at the Golden Dragon. The staff there was equally brave, locking their patrons into a basement wine cellar to protect them. But the terrorists managed to break through and lob in grenades that killed everyone in the basement.)

We took refuge in the small office of the kitchen of another restaurant, Wasabi, on the second floor. Its chef and staff served the four of us food and drink and even apologized for the inconvenience we were suffering. Through text messaging, e-mail on BlackBerrys and a small TV in the office, we realized the full extent of the terrorist attack on Mumbai. We figured we were in a secure place for the moment. There was also no way out.

At around 11:30 p.m., the kitchen went silent. We took a massive wooden table and pushed it up against the door, turned off all the lights and hid. All of the kitchen workers remained outside; not one staff member had run. The terrorists repeatedly slammed against our door. We heard them ask the chef in Hindi if anyone was inside the office. He responded calmly: “No one is in there. It’s empty.” That is the second time the Taj staff saved our lives.

After about 20 minutes, other staff members escorted us down a corridor to an area called The Chambers, a members-only area of the hotel. There were about 250 people in six rooms. Inside, the staff was serving sandwiches and alcohol. People were nervous, but cautiously optimistic. We were told The Chambers was the safest place we could be because the army was now guarding its two entrances and the streets were still dangerous. There had been attacks at a major railway station and a hospital.

But then, a member of parliament phoned into a live newscast and let the world know that hundreds of people–including CEOs, foreigners and members of parliament–were “secure and safe in The Chambers together.” Adding to the escalating tension and chaos was the fact that, via text and cellphone, we knew that the dome of the Taj was on fire and that it could move downward.

At around 2 a.m., the staff attempted an evacuation. We all lined up to head down a dark fire escape exit. But after five minutes, grenade blasts and automatic weapon fire pierced the air. A mad stampede ensued to get out of the stairwell and take cover back inside The Chambers.

After that near-miss, my wife and I decided we should hide in different rooms. While we hoped to be together at the end, our primary obligation was to our children. We wanted to keep one parent alive. Because I am American and my wife is Indian, and news reports said the terrorists were targeting U.S. and U.K. nationals, I believed I would further endanger her life if we were together in a hostage situation. 
So when we ran back to The Chambers I hid in a toilet stall with a floor-to-ceiling door and my wife stayed with our friends, who fled to a large room across the hall.

For the next seven hours, I lay in the fetal position, keeping in touch with Anjali via BlackBerry. I was joined in the stall by Joe, a Nigerian national with a U.S. green card. I managed to get in touch with the FBI, and several agents gave me status updates throughout the night. 
I cannot even begin to explain the level of adrenaline running through my system at this point. It was this hyper-aware state where every sound, every smell, every piece of information was ultra-acute, analyzed and processed so that we could make the best decisions and maximize the odds of survival.

Was the fire above us life-threatening? What floor was it on? Were the commandos near us, or were they terrorists? Why is it so quiet? Did the commandos survive? If the terrorists come into the bathroom and to the door, when they fire in, how can I make my body as small as possible? If Joe gets killed before me in this situation, how can I throw his body on mine to barricade the door? If the Indian commandos liberate the rest in the other room, how will they know where I am? Do the terrorists have suicide vests? Will the roof stand? How can I make sure the FBI knows where Anjali and I are? When is it safe to stand up and attempt to urinate?

Meanwhile, Anjali and the others were across the corridor in a mass of people lying on the floor and clinging to each other. People barely moved for seven hours, and for the last three hours they felt it was too unsafe to even text. While I was tucked behind a couple walls of marble and granite in my toilet stall, she was feet from bullets flying back and forth. After our failed evacuation, most of the people in the fire escape stairwell and many staff members who attempted to protect the guests were shot and killed.

The 10 minutes around 2:30 a.m. were the most frightening. Rather than the back-and-forth of gunfire, we just heard single, punctuated shots. We later learned that the terrorists went along a different corridor of The Chambers, room by room, and systematically executed everyone: women, elderly, Muslims, Hindus, foreigners. A group huddled next to Anjali was devout Bori Muslims who would have been slaughtered just like everyone else, had the terrorists gone into their room. Everyone was in deep prayer and most, Anjali included, had accepted that their lives were likely over. It was terrorism in its purest form. No one was spared.

The next five hours were filled with the sounds of an intense grenade/gun battle between the Indian commandos and the terrorists. It was fought in darkness; each side was trying to outflank the other.

By the time dawn broke, the commandos had successfully secured our corridor. A young commando led out the people packed into Anjali’s room. When one woman asked whether it was safe to leave, the commando replied: “Don’t worry, you have nothing to fear. The first bullets have to go through me.”

The corridor was laced with broken glass and bullet casings. Every table was turned over or destroyed. The ceilings and walls were littered with hundreds of bullet holes. Blood stains were everywhere, though, fortunately, there were no dead bodies to be seen. 
A few minutes after Anjali had vacated, Joe and I peeked out of our stall. We saw multiple commandos and smiled widely. I had lost my right shoe while sprinting to the toilet so I grabbed a sheet from the floor, wrapped it around my foot and proceeded to walk over the debris to the hotel lobby.

Anjali and I embraced for the first time in seven hours in the Taj’s ground floor entrance. I didn’t know whether she was dead or injured because we hadn’t been able to text for the past three hours. I wanted to take a picture of us on my BlackBerry, but Anjali wanted us to get out of there before doing anything.

She was right–our ordeal wasn’t completely over. A large bus pulled up in front of the Taj to collect us and, just about as it was fully loaded, gunfire erupted again. The terrorists were still alive and firing automatic weapons at the bus. Anjali was the last to get on the bus, and she eventually escaped in our friend’s car. I ducked under some concrete barriers for cover and wound up the subject of photos that were later splashed across the media. Shortly thereafter, an ambulance came and drove a few of us to safety. An hour later, Anjali and I were again reunited at her parents’ home. Our Thanksgiving had just gained a lot more meaning.

Some may say our survival was due to random luck, others might credit divine intervention. But 72 hours removed from these events, I can assure you only one thing: Far fewer people would have survived if it weren’t for the extreme selflessness shown by the Taj staff, who organized us, catered to us and then, in the end, literally died for us. They complemented the extreme bravery and courage of the Indian commandos, who, in a pitch-black setting and unfamiliar, tightly packed terrain, valiantly held the terrorists at bay.

It is also amazing that, out of our entire group, not one person screamed or panicked. There was an eerie but quiet calm that pervaded–one more thing that got us all out alive. Even people in adjacent rooms, who were being executed, kept silent.

It is much easier to destroy than to build, yet somehow humanity has managed to build far more than it has ever destroyed. Likewise, in a period of crisis, it is much easier to find faults and failings rather than to celebrate the good deeds. It is now time to commemorate our heroes.

 

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Gateway Experience 2: My Rants

[Warning: Long Post]

I have a variety of mixed emotions as a landmark day in the history of Mumbai, and India comes to an end. During the day, I did my bit to spread the word of the event around. I sent out mails, twitters, facebook status messages, etc.  While I was doing it, I was not sure what the impact would be. I was expecting a large number of people. But my definition of large was a few thousand people. But the day turned out to be something else.

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This Sunday, Gullu and Shivani had come over. Despite Shivani being -x days into her due date for delivery (they had a beautiful baby girl the night before gateway), our topic was largely around the state of affairs and what “we” can do. We also agreed, like probably thousands of other people across the city, that the time to stay silent was passe. It was high time we did something. After a lot of debates and discussions, the only thing we left the day with was that if nothing else, we need to show that we are alive, awake and together. That we are in it together, and we are ready to fight this time. We may not have the final solution yet, but we need to show that we all are collectively thinking about it, and that we cannot be taken for granted. That day, I started writing a mail to Amit Varma, Prem Panicker, Ideasmith, Patrick, Greatbong, Kuffir, Sakshi Juneja, and several other prominent bloggers. The mail was around organizing a daily 1 hour silent protest at the gateway. To start a movement that does not die down after one candle vigil, one silent march, one round of slogan shouting. A movement that goes on till we get an answer. That mail is still saved in my drafts folder. 

You may ask – why did I not send it? Because when I logged on to facebook, I noticed that there already are several protests that go on till the next week. Every day. The social media that I would have talked to, was already spreading the word around, but in an unorganized way. And it works fine for me. I am not one of those leader guys who can initiate a lot of these, unless pushed to the wall (at least not anymore). And I did not need to. Because my brethren were already doing what I had hoped to. 

Anyways, I have been getting active on twitter for the last few days. And following Prem Panicker, I realized that this rally at Gateway (and India Gate, Delhi) will become big if we all do our bit. And I started reflecting back on my conversation with Gullu. And I did my bit. For many’s surprise, I did not work after 4:30PM 😉

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So, back to the rally.

First reactions – AWESOME! Its like the people are  really reacting and acting. For a change. And not succumbing to the hogwash of “the spirit of Mumbai”.

Second reaction – Damn it. We are here. What next? The good or the bad thing was that there was no agenda. There was lots of anger, hurt and frustration.

Reaction when it was over – overwhelmed, emotional. I haven’t seen something like this happen ever before. The last time I saw the whole country “talk” about the same thing in the same emotion was the Kargil war. And I couldn’t resist a chuckle – This country unites only for cricket or war.

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Reactions now – ?????

Well. I will call the spade a spade. It was a huge turnout. For a change, a lot of people agreed on doing something together. But it was, end of the day, jingoism. Extreme aggressive patriotism. But it was directionless. Who is going to channel this energy? For long will this last? And a lot of frustrated angry thoughts crossed my mind –

1.       Who’s rooting? – In the last 7 days, I haven’t seen a single taxi driver/ auto rickshaw driver being interviewed about how they feel, and whether they are also party to such strong display of anger. Maybe, they need to keep their kitchens active. They don’t have the liberty to be online and plan a revolution. They need to keep earning their meager daily incomes.

2.       Who battle is it anyway? Is it, then, true that this is a battle that the elites are fighting against the polity? Is it true that we are hearing so much uproar because it’s the people who are close to the mouthpiece who are making the most noise? Because South Bombay was hit? Because Ratan lost 500 crores in those 60 hours? Because Shobhaa De was having dinner closeby? And a film director escaped by a whisker? Or a journalist died? Would the uproar be similar if 200 poor people had died in a bomb blast?

3.       Why now? Ideasmith’s tweet read –I bet there were no candlelight vigils for those who died in the #mumbai train blasts last year. I agree. And I wonder if we will have the same number of candle light vigils if a bomb blast happens in Assam or Sikkim. Or Bihar.

4.       Which way are we headed? Prem thinks that the direction will become clearer in due course. Under the leadership of who? Its basic mob psychology that he observed through his tweets during the rally as well. People want answers. They will turn to anyone who is ready to give one.  And it’s a mob. AT some point, the collective wisdom is the minimum of all individual wisdoms, if  it happens to be the loudest one. You need a leader to channelize the force. And what we don’t have right now, for sure, is the faith in any leader.

5.       Leadership? Why did we have only celebrities on the mike? Javed Akhtar? Alyque Padamsee? And the likes? Are they ready to leave the comfort of their day to day life and contest elections for a salary of a 30-40 grands? For that matter, how many of the 1 lakh people are?

6.       Political Change? If I look around, I see that one lampoon will be replaced by another one. Politics in India will continue to be the farce that it is. To be fair, I think we have brought it upon ourselves by letting them go unquestioned for long. But right now, the reaction against politicians seems to be the collective trying to shirk its responsibility. We brought them to power, by voting or by not voting. And we want them out. Lets wait till the elections, shall we. Or, has someone got a brilliant suggestion somewhere that I missed?

7.       Criteria for Politicians? One brilliant suggestion, which I fully agree with, is to have an age limit on politicians who serve the nation. The reason why firms/ departments don’t allow people to work beyond the age of 60, because you are considered a spent force by then. You start losing your mental and physical agility, and you are, thus, not the best candidate for running a ship. How come we trust the nation in the hands of people who probably won’t survive one tight slap from a fit 20-something guy. Agreed. What else? Criminal records? A mix of written, oral examinations, inter-party debates at local/regional level, followed by voting? Scores and everything shared with people? I will come back to this separately in another post.

8.       We’ll boycott! Let’s go 49-0 -? I mean, c’mon guys. If all of us go and vote for no-one, the elections will be considered void. What happens then? Re-election. New candidates? Do we again vote for no-one? What happens then? How do we pay for so many elections?

9.       Through our taxes?  I forgot! We are withholding our taxes. How, if I may ask? How many corporate, HR and accounts department guys are ready to pledge that their companies will stop depositing advance taxes? Or, are we talking about the billions that are anyways not paid as taxes by the big guys? Or, are we talking about the taxes that should have been paid for the billions that our politicians hold in Swiss bank accounts? And do we just stop paying? Or keep it somewhere? Who’s keeping accounts?

10.   Anti Terrorism Fund? And where does this money go? In some anti-terrorism fund? Who handles that money? Who is the signatory? On what basis? This is a leaderless and faceless revolution anyway, right?

11.   Is this an opportunity? Bloody hell, this is! But I am still clueless on what next? Is it my fault that I cant help but think in a linear way. A leads to B leads to C. But here, the gateway is leading to another event at gateway. Gradually, the queues will start fading as the mundanities of day-to-day life set in. People need to earn their wages. Thousands of salaried people like me who must go to their jobs every day. Thousands of cabbies, vada pao sellers who must go back and earn their daily living. And thousands of students, who during the election month, must be preparing for their exams. And needless to say, that’s the fatalist in me talking.

 

There is another optimist in me, who does not care where it started, for whom it has meant a lot, for whom it has not, for what end are we doing, and how are we going to do it. THAT me believes that we will see change. Much before Obama made it his brand slogan, change was the only constant thing in life. But this time, we are talking about that point where a quantum change sets in.

Someday, we shall remember this day as the day the Kshatriyas of modern society were attacked, and that they took the war to the enemy. Someday, we shall remember this day as the day when the battle of a class became the battle of a nation, as the suppressed sentiments from three decades of tolerance give way to the enraged battle cries. Someday, we shall all look back, and say – Huh, so this is how it started!

 

Gateway Experience 1: A friend’s narration

This is what a friend wrote after coming back from the Gateway rally. And I think its definitely worth a read

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Just back from the show of strength at Gateway (not that I intended to go but happy that I happened to be there)

While we will know the number of people who assembled to show solidarity and demand explanation from media reports tomorrow, I would be surprised if the number is less than 25,000. College kids (both genders) stole the show but suede white collar workers and people on the wrong side of 50’s also made their presence felt. It took us a good 45 minutes to walk through a distance of 200 m. And I thought why should I care just because some smart asses in the media are trying to create hype to fill their pages and timeslots !!!!!!!

When I first saw the crowd I though it was a recipe for disaster. Too many people packed in a narrow lane with no directions (or anyone to direct…remember this was not an organized event but people gathering because someone forwarded them a sms or an email) and fire in their hands (relax, its candles). But wrong I was once again. People walked in orderly fashion, held hands and gave way to elderly. I never thought women could be so vociferous and men so creative with their slogans and placards. 

If you are thinking that it a typical throng gathering for a netaji zindabad rally, a performance by a Bollywood star or a game of cricket, you cannot be further from the truth. For a change people gathered against the politicians and shake hands of the otherwise ordinary policemen / military / firemen. A glance at the mass of people and you could feel chalta hai is chalta hai no more.  

I am smelling like a pig and my shoes and trousers are all soiled but I am feeling quite good none the less. I thought the country was going to the dogs, but wrong I was once again. 

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Beautiful Suggestion.. to honor the commandos

I vote for Krish Ashok’s suggestion

A small request to the Taj hotel management. How about a one-week, all-expenses-paid vacation for these guys at your hotel? This was about the only time they could have afforded to sit in your reception

Do you?

Awesome Video… Pakistani Media lambasting Indian Army

http://www.hotklix.com/?ref=content/152704

I had to post this!! this is some stuff…  I mean.. I have finally realized that people across the globe have the knack of picking the biggest lampoons for media and parliamentarian roles

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