A Sliver of Memory from 1997

29th June 1997 – The 25th marriage anniversary of my parents. I was in Std XII then, my brother was in college, and my sister had just started working at TCS in Mumbai. We all felt that we should treat it like a big deal. And so we planned a lot of things. Except that the real sources of money at that point were what we could scrape together from saving something every month from our pocket money, my annual NTSE scholarship (a princely sum of Rs 1750) and whatever my sister could save from her first month’s salary, assuming that she also had to reach Ranchi from Mumbai in reasonable time.

The countdown was interesting. A train from Mumbai would reach Kodarma/Dhanbad from where one of my cousins (Sanjay Bhaiya) was going to pick my sister and get her to Ranchi (hopefully before 6PM). Till then, me and bhaiya would have tried to get everything together. We had enough support from Mamas and Mausis and Bhaiyas and a whole bunch of relatives in Ranchi.
We bought a nice Kurta Paijama set for dad, a his and her watch set, a tiny gold earring and a sari for mom, made arrangements for the cake etc. and tried to get ready. And it was great fun. This now brings me to the picture here.
anniv7

Mom and Dad aren’t used to this sort of public display of affection where Dad would put a piece of cake in Mom’s mouth or vice versa. Esp. in the presence of so many people. SO, mom was majorly embarassed and this one picture is of that particular moment as my Mom was trying to avoid the cake. On a side note, my mamaji who had the camera (of the famed 36 ka roll era) in his hand had decided to not wear his glasses because of the usual problem that all bespectacled people had with clicking pictures with old world cameras. This also implied that this is one of the rare few pictures from that anniversary album which is pointed at the right place at the right time. Most others have the heads of key people missing.

This moment remains close to all of us for how we scrambled to pull everything together, the great time we had and of a time when we did not have much, and fortunately, we did not need much.

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Faded Memories: Playing Cricket circa 1994, with Mahi.. or… Dhoni(?)

It was 1994. One year since I moved from Kendriya Vidyalaya, the government school that I was used to studying at, to DAV Shyamali in Ranchi. End of my standard 9th exams, a below average academic year by the standards set for myself, in a new school, and a notice on the notice board which talked about an upcoming cricket camp during summer vacations, I joined the camp. I guess more because it was cricket, and twice a day, than the fact that it was a camp.
That was first time I changed from being a backyard gully cricketer which probably 90%+ of school going boys were in those years, to someone who took (or wanted to take) cricket a little more seriously. And that was the time I met my cricketing quad – Anil Singh, Niraj Singh, Mahi (Mahendra Singh Dhoni) and myself. The camp was for 12-15 year olds. I was 14 then, and Mahi was 13. Niraj and Anil were my classmates.
Note: We still remember him as Mahi. His earlier cricket records from school league would mention Mahinder Singh. Not Dhoni. And yeah, it’s not the punjabi way of saying MAAAAAHI. It was Mahi, simple, with a very very short emphasis on ‘a’ (the ma of Maa – mother vs. the ma of Mandir). Or more ruggedly, “ka re, ee mahiyaa kahan hai”, which was not the mindblowing Maahiya kinds. It was the bihari Mahiyaa (with a very short emphasis on the first “a”).
The quad? because the four of us played for the DAV cricket team the same year. Anil was a left arm fast bowler, with a very nice angling run-up (Mitchell Johnson kinds) and had a natural outswinger. But too inconsistent, and too prone to nautanki (like trying to invent a left arm version of Kapil Dev’s vintage bowling pose). Niraj was a leg spinner who also batted up the order. Mahi was a keeper batsman (used to come in at 1 down or 2), and I was an off-spinner (the most lowly of breeds in the game of cricket).

In a short stint, I did well (I had my own off-spinner’s version of Anil Kumble – run up to the crease, jump, and pace – full package deal). That was the era, when India used to have spin trios all the time (Raju, Kumble, Chauhan kinds). So, having bowlers like me, Niraj et al in school league, which was more about slam, bam, thank you ma’m, was not a misplaced error from the selection committee.

Those of you who’ve followed ‘Dhoni’ would remember K R Bannerjee, the school teacher who moved him from soccer to Cricket. Though, in my memory from 1994 onwards, I don’t remember Mahi ever playing football/soccer that seriously. All my memories of him are of him playing cricket with me and the school team folks, or of him playing cricket with the team which had my brother and the likes of Tunna. But then, I must be wrong about his simultaneous calls from district level cricket and football being an urban legend.
We used to live in Mecon colony in Ranchi, and Mahi’s house was in the lane behind our house. J block. And, my brother was his tennis ball cricket team-mate ( they won a few local tournaments together), and I was his leather ball/school league cricket team mate (we also won a few tournaments together).

Back then, like his earlier years in international cricket, he was a mercenary batsman. Few snapshots I remember very vividly from 1994-1997 era- hitting Subroto Banerjee (who had just come back from an India team outing) for a six towards the square leg boundary (the ball landed on top of a huge water tank, several storeys tall a couple of blocks away from the stadium), hitting the double ton in school league final (a 35 over match), hitting 5 sixes in the space of 10 balls in a day-night tennis ball tournament (where for some weird reason, he had not come in at his usual 1 down, and had come pretty late down the order). One of those sixes was a hoist over cover boundary (and believe me, its not very easy with a tennis ball, when playing under dim lights).

The only thing I had in common with him was the devil may care attitude about our game. Hit me for a six, and I would hardly be flustered. Get him out first ball, or beat him three balls in a row, he would hardly be flustered. And he would have the widest grin for everything. That is something still seen on TV. Though I dont remember seeing him get angry about anything back then. He does now. Guess the stakes are too high now.

A batch junior to me in school, and with our limitations limited to the cricket ground and thereabouts, he was the usual 9th standard Ranchi kid back then. Always up to some mischief or the other, had a wise-crack for almost everything, was interested in the girls around, but probably hadn’t talked to more than a couple, loved batting more than keeping, loved taking a single off the last ball to keep the strike, and avoiding doubles even when the opportunity would be for a quick three. Don’t remember him as someone who’d walk away with his bat if he got out early. He also wanted to hit more boundaries than take runs. And he could run the first run really quickly, if it was the first delivery of the over.

There aren’t a lot of outings we had together. Why? I was from a background where hopes resided on my academic abilities more than my athletic abilities. My brother anyways was a much better cricketer than me, and had succumbed to the ways of preparing for engineering entrance examinations long before me. Though, to be fair to myself and everyone else, I did play a few important matches during that year’s school league, and had the call to join the district team. Its a different matter that the final round of NTSE exams on 14th May 2005 coincided with the district team training and selection camp. That being said, the outings we had together, we never dropped a game. And in some of them, I did play my part as well.
So, starting with the camp, I took 7/12 in the final match of the camp, and Mahi scored 43 of 30 odd balls. I think he took 30 odd balls because Jitendar Bhaiya (the wicketkeeper of Mecon cricket team who was running the camp) had threatened him with repercussions if he threw his wicket away.
In the school league finals (under 15), I took 3/22 in 6 overs, after he scored a double ton against my earlier school, Kendriya Vidyalaya. School league finals (with oldies), I had taken 4/23, while he scored a half century.

We went to the DAV east zone selections together, where we both got selected. It was the year, when the trials had happend in torrential rains. For one of the catches during fielding trials, I had skidded a distance of over 15 feet, involuntarily I must add. Anyways, I was considered as a bowler who had pace variations, a nice loop, and a nice dip. It’s a different matter that I took up off-spin bowling because I did not have the height or arm for pace bowling, and unlike Kumble I was conceptually against building a career in spin bowling, unless I could actually turn the ball. For him, there were no adjectives. He came, played for his trials in the nets, and there was a tick. No one asked a question, no one gave any answers.

By the way, the only time I remember batting in a match in those scattered matches across two years (I did not play much after 1995), was in an internal match where he was in the other team. For the record, I did not get him out in that one, but conceded only 15 runs from 4 overs for 2 wickets. Some achievement, huh?

Fading memory – me and my brother talking about him in 1999, when he had started playing for Bihar/ Railways. Our fear back then was that even if he survived the politics of Bihar cricket (you had to be a favorite of Deval Sahay to be in the Bihar team), it would be difficult for him to survive the national cricket/zonal cricket politics and reach the Indian team. And this was the era, when the teams world over had brilliant wicketkeeper-batsmen (Andy Flower, Alec Stuart, an emerging Gilchrist, etc.), and we wanted to place our bets in him. Bhaiya felt that he was not as good a wicket keeper, but his batting should have been enough to get him the slot, if there was no politics.

BTW, that just reminded me of an incident that a colleague of mine narrated about Devang Gandhi. When he got selected for the Indian team as an opener, apparently, Sadagopan Ramesh missed out. At that time, the culture of Ranji was that you played more cricket within the zone, which mean that DG (from Bengal) would play more against Tripura, Orissa, et al. DG was scoring heavily at that time in Ranji. SRamesh quipped – against teams like that, even Mahatma Gandhi would have scored a double century.

Anyways, almost everyone that we know from those years in Ranchi, like Kaushal or Deepak et al, they’ve all met him post his rise to stardom, and they all say that he is still the same. The wickedness and the nicety in the same pack. And its good to see him rise so much. It’s a small town story that we see in movies. He really did not have a kit full of bats, or a car dropping him for nets or a set of boots (one for batting and one for keeping). He often played cricket wearing canvas shoes (or chappal, for tennis ball cricket). But he was brilliant then. And he is excellent now, in a different way.

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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