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In the page-turning tradition of Black Hawk Down, the definitive account of the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai
Mumbai, 2008. On the night of November 26, Lashkar-e-Toiba terrorists attacked targets throughout the city, including the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, one of the world’s most exclusive luxury hotels. For sixty-eight hours, hundreds were held hostage as shots rang out and an enormous fire raged. When the smoke cleared, thirty-one people were dead and many more had been ...
In the page-turning tradition of Black Hawk Down, the definitive account of the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai
Mumbai, 2008. On the night of November 26, Lashkar-e-Toiba terrorists attacked targets throughout the city, including the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, one of the world’s most exclusive luxury hotels. For sixty-eight hours, hundreds were held hostage as shots rang out and an enormous fire raged. When the smoke cleared, thirty-one people were dead and many more had been injured. Only the courageous actions of staff and guests—including Mallika Jagad, Bob Nichols, and Taj general manager Binny Kang—prevented a much higher death toll.
With a deep understanding of the region and its politics and a narrative flair reminiscent of Midnight in Peking, journalists Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy vividly unfold the tragic events in a real-life thriller filled with suspense, tragedy, history, and heroism.
Winner of the 2014 CWA Non-Fiction Dagger
Will Pike and Kelly Doyle – Will, twenty-eight, and Kelly, thirty, from London, were at the end of a two-week holiday in Goa when they decided to stay one night at the Taj, checking in on the afternoon of 26 November 2008. They were due to return home the following morning. It was Will’s first visit to India.
Andreas Liveras – the multi-millionaire Andreas, seventy-three, made his fortune in the bakery business in London after emigrating from his native Cyprus as a young man. Ranked 265th on the Sunday Times Rich List with an estimated fortune of £315m, he also owned luxury yachts. In November 2008 he was in India with his friend Nick Edmiston and his Indian cruise director, Remesh Cheruvoth, to launch a new yacht charter business in the subcontinent.
Sabina Sehgal Saikia – forty-five, was a formidable foodie and restaurant critic, a TV celebrity and journalist. She lived in New Delhi with her husband, Shantanu, and children, Arundhati, fourteen, and Aniruddha, eleven. She had come to Mumbai to review a new outlet at the Taj and attend a society wedding.
Bob Nicholls – the British-born security expert, forty-four, ran a VIP protection company based in South Africa. He came to Mumbai in November 2008 with six colleagues, Faisul Nagel, Reuben Niekerk, Reagan Walters, Zunaid Waddee, Charles Schiffer and Zane Wilmans, after winning a contract to provide security for the forthcoming Champions League Twenty20.
Ravi Dharnidharka – a captain in the US Marines, the 31-year-old Ravi had spent the past four years flying combat missions in Iraq, including during the bloody battle for Fallujah in November and December 2004. He was visiting Mumbai for the first time in more than a decade to reconnect with the Indian side of his family.
Mike and Anjali Pollack – the New York-based Mike Pollack, thirty-two, a managing partner at Glenhill Capital, a public equities investment firm, had come to Mumbai with his Indian wife, Anjali, thirty-three, to visit her parents. On the night of the attacks they were due to have dinner at the hotel with friends, leaving their two young sons with Anjali’s parents.
Amit and Varsha Thadani – the heir to a Mumbai textile and restaurant empire, Amit, thirty-two, had booked his wedding reception in the Crystal Room on the night of the attacks. He and his new wife, Varsha, thirty, who had taken their religious vows the previous day, invited 500 guests.
Bhisham Mansukhani – was an assistant editor at Paprika Media, publisher of Time Out India, specializing in food and drink. Aged thirty, Bhisham was at the Taj to attend the wedding reception of a school friend, Amit Thadani.
Kuttalam Rajagopalan Ramamoorthy – was a 69-year-old banking executive from Tamil Nadu, known to his friends as Ram. He was on a business trip to Mumbai on 26 November and had checked into the hotel after lunch, having turned down an offer to stay with his nephew in the city outskirts.
Line Kristin Woldbeck – a marketing executive from Norway, Line was on a month-long holiday in India with her boyfriend, Arne Strømme, a landscape architect. Both Line and Arne were keen photographers and avid travellers and this was their fourth trip to India. They arrived in Mumbai on the morning of 26 November from Gujarat and were due to fly on to Delhi the following day.
Karambir Kang – the 39-year-old General Manager and Vice-President of the Taj, Karambir had worked for the hotel chain since graduation, starting in sales. The son of a Sikh general in the Indian army, he had taken over the reins at the Taj a year before, moving his wife, Neeti, and sons, Uday, twelve, and Samar, five, into a suite on the sixth floor.
Amit Peshave – the son of two GPs from Pune, 27-year-old Amit had worked at the hotel for seven years, starting off as a trainee waiter. A few weeks prior to the attacks he was appointed General Manager of Shamiana, the hotel’s ground floor twenty-four-hour coffee shop.
Hemant Oberoi – the Taj’s 53-year-old Grand Executive Chef had worked for the Tata group his entire career. Widely known across India, Oberoi had a blossoming book and TV career and had inspired several restaurant chains, as well as personally designing most of the Taj’s restaurants.
Florence and Faustine Martis – Faustine Martis, forty-seven, the head waiter of Sea Lounge, the hotel’s first-floor tea-room, had worked at the Taj for more than two decades. Originally from Kerala, he lived in Thane, north-east Mumbai, with his wife, Precilla, and children, Florence, twenty-one, and Floyd, sixteen. Two months before the attacks he managed to secure a job at the hotel for his daughter, as a trainee computer operator in the Data Centre.
Vishwas Nangre Patil – appointed Deputy Commissioner of Police for Zone 1 in June 2008, a job that gave him jurisdiction over most of Mumbai’s five-star hotels and the heart of the tourist sites. Brought up in a village in southern Maharashtra, Patil, thirty-two, joined the police in 1997 and rose quickly, making his mark by clamping down on illicit parties in the state’s second-largest city of Pune.
Rajvardhan Sinha – Deputy Commissioner of Police, Special Branch 2, Rajvardhan had responsibility for monitoring foreigners in the city. Born in Bihar, he was a veteran of jungle warfare against Naxalite militias operating in eastern Maharashtra, and a batch-mate of Vishwas Patil, meaning they had trained together.
Rakesh Maria – the legendary Crime Branch boss of Mumbai, Joint Commissioner of Police Maria, fifty-one, made his name by hunting down the perpetrators of a series of bomb blasts that rocked the city in 1993. The story of how he solved the case was later turned into a Bollywood film, Black Friday. Maria, whose father was a Bollywood producer, was a major character in Suketu Mehta’s memorable non-fiction work Bombay Maximum City, appearing under the pseudonym of police chief Ajay Lal.
Hasan Gafoor – Mumbai’s Commissioner of Police, Gafoor, fifty-eight, was only the second Muslim to hold this rank in Mumbai. The son of a nawab from Hyderabad, Gafoor was among the many privileged officers who dominated the upper ranks of the Mumbai force.
Deven Bharti – Additional Commissioner of Police Bharti was second in command to Rakesh Maria at the Crime Branch. He was also a veteran of the Naxalite insurgency of eastern Maharashtra.
Govind Singh Sisodia – Brigadier, the Deputy Inspector General of the National Security Guard, India’s specialist counter-terrorism force. Joining the Indian Military Academy, the subcontinent’s elite officer-training college, in Dehradun, Sisodia graduated in 1975, and was commissioned into the 16 Sikh Regiment.
David Headley – born Daood Saleem Gilani in Washington DC in 1960; his father was a renowned Pakistani broadcaster and his mother an American heiress. He was brought up in Pakistan but moved back to the USA at the age of sixteen. During the eighties he was arrested for drug smuggling, and became an undercover agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration. Anglicizing his name to David Headley, he joined the Pakistani militia Lashkar-e-Toiba and helped plan and craft the Mumbai attacks. He also worked for the US intelligence community throughout this period, passing back information about Lashkar’s intentions for Mumbai.
Ajmal Kasab – born in 1987 to a poor family in the village of Faridkot in the eastern Punjab, Pakistan, Ajmal was one of ten young men recruited and trained by Lashkar-e-Toiba for the Mumbai attacks. He underwent religious instruction and nearly a year of physical training before being dispatched to India in November 2008.
Lashkar-e-Toiba – a Pakistani militia formed in 1990 to fight in Indian-administered Kashmir. The activities of Lashkar, which was funded and armed by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, were focused on sending highly trained fidayeen (guerrilla) units to fight Indian troops until the death.
Hafiz Saeed – the amir (spiritual leader) of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the parent organization of Lashkar-e-Toiba. Born in the Punjab, Saeed, aged fifty-eight at the time of the Mumbai attacks, was an Islamic studies lecturer in Lahore until he travelled to Saudi Arabia during the eighties and began actively supporting the mujahideen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. Soon after he returned to Pakistan he formed an Islamic movement underpinned by the Ahl-e-Hadith sect. It would lead to the establishment in 1990 of Lashkar-e-Toiba.
Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi – the amir and co-founder of Lashkar-e-Toiba, chacha (uncle) Zaki, as he was known to all Lashkar recruits, was born in Okara, the same district of the eastern Punjab as Ajmal Kasab. During the eighties he abandoned his studies to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. He was Lashkar’s chief military commander and was described by Indian investigators as the mastermind behind the Mumbai operation.
’Mughal ceilings, let your mirrored convexities multiply me at once under your spell tonight.
He’s freed some fire from ice in pity for Heaven.
He’s left open – for God – the doors of Hell tonight.
In the heart’s veined temple, all statues have been smashed.
No priest in saffron’s left to toll its knell tonight.
God, limit these punishments, there’s still Judgment Day –
I’m a mere sinner, I’m no infidel tonight.’
Agha Shahid Ali, ‘Tonight’, in Call Me Ishmael Tonight: A Book of Ghazals
(W. W. Norton and Company Inc., 2003)
Wednesday, 26 November 2008, 8 p.m.
A sliver of moon hung over the Arabian Sea as the dinghy powered towards the ‘Queen’s Necklace’, the chain of lights strung across Mumbai’s Back Bay. The ten-man crew of Pakistani fighters rode the black waves in silence, listening to the thrum of the outboard motor and hunched over Chinese rucksacks, printed with English logos that read: ‘Changing the Tide’. Ten AK-47s, ten pistols, ammunition, grenades, explosives and timers, maps, water, almonds and raisins – they laid out the contents in their minds. It barely seemed enough to take on the world’s fourth-largest city. ‘Surprise will get you in and fear will scatter the police,’ their instructors had assured them. They had practised night landings, and planting timed bombs in taxis set to explode all over the city, hoping to create the illusion that an army had invaded Mumbai. Brother Ismail, the team leader, held high a GPS unit, programmed with landing coordinates, as the sea sprayed over them, stinging their sunburned faces.
They had volunteered for jihad a year before, and been put through religious indoctrination and military training that had taken them from secret mountain-top camps in Pakistan-administered Kashmir down to safe houses in the swarming port city of Karachi. Four days ago, at dawn on 22 November, they had finally weighed anchor.
One day out in open water, they had hijacked an Indian trawler, the first test of everyone’s mettle. The second had been saying farewell to their handlers, from whom they had become inseparable, and who melted away into the sea mist, heading back to Pakistan. The third was forcing a captured Indian captain to navigate the seized trawler on towards invincible Mumbai, 309 nautical miles away, in the knowledge that this was the first time they had been alone.
In reality they were not by themselves. A satellite phone linked them back to a control room in Karachi that called regularly with updates. But these were landlocked boys, from impoverished rural communities, who knew only about chickens and goats, and they were stupefied by shooting stars arcing above them. On the second night, 24 November, they had all lain up on deck and imagined being sucked up into the heavens, while one of the ten had told the story of Sinbad, who had explored the Arabian Sea, where ‘the rocky shore was strewn with the wreckage of a thousand gallant ships, while the bones of luckless mariners shone white in the sunshine, and we shuddered to think how soon our own would be added to the heap’.
Finally, on 26 November, the GPS had sounded their arrival off the coast of Mumbai, and they had called Karachi to find out what to do with the captured captain. It fell to Ajmal Kasab to act. He had just turned twenty-one and felt compelled to prove his worth. Two others held the Indian sailor down, while Ajmal slit his throat. Blooded, they jumped into a yellow dinghy that pulled them onwards towards the glistening Indian city.
Each of them, Ajmal recalled, seemed lost in thought. This was a one-way journey that was supposed to culminate with their deaths. There would be no hero’s return, no village tamasha (celebration) to fete their victory, and no martyr’s poster in the local mosque to immortalize their bravery. There would be no ringing eulogy printed in a jihad magazine. As they approached the city, Ajmal’s mother, Noor Elahi, was crouched at home by the fire in Faridkot, frying stuffed parathas for his younger brother and sister, a pot of thick curd sitting up on the kitchen shelf. She had no idea her favourite son was staring at a rapidly nearing foreign shore, his head filled with instructions to ‘kill relentlessly’.
Ajmal had started on this road in November 2007, with another boy of his age, both of them pledging, mujahid-style, to fight for each other until the end. But this boy had had a family who had talked him back home, while other cadres got homesick and were also fetched by concerned fathers, brothers or uncles. By May 2008, half of the would-be warriors had changed their minds. Ajmal had waited at the camp gates, but no one had come for him. In the end, and alone, he had given himself over to the outfit, signing a testament in which he pledged to ‘cut open the kafir’s jugular to quench my anger’.
Then, the handlers had packed his rucksack and put him to sea with nine others, all of them wearing new Western clothes, sporting cropped hair and carrying fake Indian IDs.
At 8.20 p.m., dry land reared up. As he slipped on the pack, Ajmal remembered a promise made by their amir, the cleric who had sent them on their way, conjuring up their deaths: ‘Your faces will glow like the moon. Your bodies will emanate scent, and you will go to paradise.’
The higgledy-piggledy fishermen’s chawl (tenement), close to the tourist mecca of Colaba, was deserted when they leapt ashore. Residents were distracted, watching an India-England cricket match on TV. Only local resident Bharat Tandel challenged them, as they ran up to the road: ‘Who are you and where are you going?’ A shouted answer came back: ‘Hum pehle se hi tang hain. Hume pareshaan mat karo [We are already stressed, so don’t pester us].’
An hour later, the growl of gunfire and the bark of explosions reverberated across the city.
Jadu ghar (House of Magic)
Faustine Martis wanted a memorable death. But the senior waiter, who had worked at the Taj for more than two decades, could not find the right time to broach the subject with Florence, his dizzy, 21-year-old chatterbox of a daughter. On their way into the city, Florence loved to talk and normally Faustine was happy to listen. Recently he had got her a job at the hotel, but often their shifts were incompatible. Even when they were on the same roster, they had to contend with the geometry of their commute.
Most mornings, Florence, her black hair streaming, clung on to her father as he weaved on his Honda motorbike through Mumbai’s deafening north-eastern suburbs. Parking up, they then plunged into Thane train station and the crush of the central line. She sat for an hour, humming a filmi love song, while he stood jaw to jaw with the other commuters, stacked up like parathas in a tiffin.
At Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, one of the busiest stations in India, they took a moment to check their watches beneath the old Victorian railway clock, before picking their way across the heaving concourse to catch a bus to Colaba. Getting off at the Regal cinema, Faustine, decked in his broad-brimmed hat like a cricket umpire, and Florence, fine-boned, tall and picky like a wading bird, strode past the invitation-only Bombay Yacht Club that smelled of stale bread and lemon cake, before entering the heart of tourist Mumbai. Ahead, the Taj rose up, like a grand sandcastle tipped from its mould.
At the hotel’s staff entrance, the Time Office on Merry Weather Road, Faustine, forty-seven, placed a thumbprint on his staff card, while his daughter, just three weeks into a probationary contract, clocked in, using the antiquated machine on the wall. Kissing her father goodbye, she set off for work in the second-floor Data Centre, from where the Taj Group’s global systems were monitored, while he descended to the basement to change into his white jacket and black trousers, before heading to the first-floor Sea Lounge, where guests took breakfast and high tea.
The next opportunity for talking would not come until evening, around 9 p.m., in the Palm Lounge, an airy conservatory adjacent to the Sea Lounge. Florence liked to sit there on her break, admiring the crowds of honeymooners and tourists swirling around the brightly illuminated Gateway of India, while the chefs spoiled her with a scoop of coffee ice cream.
Faustine had been dwelling on his death for many days now, while Florence had avoided listening to ‘his mawkish thoughts’. The idea had come to a head in the lead-up to his copper anniversary, twenty-two years wed to Precilla. Now, on 26 November, the date was upon him and he had renewed his wedding vows by presenting his wife with a new mangalsutra, a gold pendant strung on a yellow thread, and a shimmering gold and green silk sari. To celebrate, he had given Florence a pair of white plimsolls, which she had put on straight away. Faustine had promised to bring something special back for Floyd, his sixteen-year-old son, later that night.
The Taj had been in Faustine’s life longer than he could remember. A Christian, originally from Kerala, he had started working there when the city was still Bombay – a name coined by sixteenth-century Portuguese settlers who had marvelled at its bom bahi (good harbour). This view lit up many of the hotel’s restaurants and bars – and could be seen from the best suites, which nowadays commanded up to £5,000 a night.
Faustine had begun, his head crowned with a luxuriant mane of chestnut hair, in room service, where he had remained until the city was renamed Mumbai in 1995 by the Shiv Sena, a Maharashtrian grass roots party, who, railing against migrants and Muslims, turned base chauvinism into political gold. Soon after, he had become a waiter, and finally the balding Service Captain of the baby blue Sea Lounge, a place for a tryst, with its lucky lovers’ seat, a ying-yang coiling chair. There he was paid to be whatever the customer wanted. It was for this reason that when the time came he wanted to be served by others, his invisible life celebrated by a great and uproarious crowd of mourners. Now all he had to do was pin Florence down, and make her understand.
Tuesday, 25 November 2008, 7 p.m. – the purchase department
A grand hotel such as the Taj was like a galleon inserted in a bottle, a private world that, once entered, the well-heeled need never leave. It consisted of the Palace, the original U-shaped grand hotel, built in 1903 facing the harbour, originally five and later six storeys, plus a modern Tower added in 1973. On the lam from south-west France and fancying a croustade, why not try La Patisserie, in the southern corner of the Palace? Back from Af–Pak and needing a book on Gandharan sculpture? The bellboy would show you across the Tower lobby to the Nalanda bookshop. A chiropractor was on call, while Pilates classes were by the pool and depilation and detoxification could be done in the privacy of your room. On the top floor of the Palace, where the most exclusive suites were located, teams of liveried butlers catered to every whim.
The Taj was a beacon, conceived of in the Belle Époque, when its unique grey-and-white basalt façade had become the first landmark visible from the deck of approaching Peninsular & Oriental liners. A confection of ornate balconies and bay windows, topped off by triumphant pink cupolas and a central dome, it had shimmered in the early-morning haze for more than a hundred years, and was described as Mumbai’s jadu ghar, the House of Magic.
In the old days, as the passenger ships came into view, a bell rang in the bowels of the hotel, alerting the staff to the imminent off-loading of wealthy travellers, who would be welcomed with the ethos atithi devo bhava (the guest is god). This idea was conceived by the hotel’s founder, Jamsetji Tata, a Parsi industrialist and philanthropist, who had wanted to build a hotel that pointed to the future, making everyone forget the dying years of the nineteenth century, when Bombay had been ravaged by plague. Today, new recruits like Florence Martis were issued with crib cards that they carried in their shirt pockets and that set out Tata’s historic values.
This entire spectacle took martial organization, overseen by the man described by his staff as the god of the backstage, Grand Executive Chef Hemant Oberoi. Small, portly and poised, with a salt-and-pepper moustache and a high forehead that glistened when the kitchens galloped at full tilt, Oberoi ruled his realm from a tiny cabin he called his adda (sanctuary), which was crammed with more than two dozen Ganeshas, flags and citations from leading chefs around the world. It was situated at the heart of the first-floor service area that straddled the Palace and the Tower, and a ceramic tile hung on the wall: ‘So bless my little kitchen, Lord,/And those who enter in,/And may they find naught but joy and peace,/And happiness therein.’
Planning for the day ahead started the evening before, after Faustine Martis and the Sea Lounge day shift had gone home. Oberoi had to make sure there was just enough of anything perishable (kept in walk-in cold stores) to get them through the lunchtime and evening sittings: sole for the French-themed Zodiac Grill, shellfish for Masala Kraft’s signature prawn skewers, and fatty tuna flown in daily from the Maldives for Wasabi’s sushi chefs. For meat and poultry alone there were more than twenty suppliers kept on call to ensure that nothing ever ran out.
Serving fresh dishes from around the world – in a city where temperatures sometimes reached 38 degrees Celsius and the air could be laden with 80 per cent humidity – required special measures. Supercooled containers from the city’s docks fought for space outside the delivery entrance with lorries filled with sticky Alphonso mangos from down the coast in Ratnagiri, and musty truckles of Kalimpong cheese from the hill stations of the north-east. Cycle rickshaws and handcarts darted in and out, delivering fruit, nuts and herbs from local markets, with spice mixes like masala powder ground to each chef’s taste. In the delivery hall, boxes were sorted and dispatched by hand: chickens and lamb to the butchery on the first floor of the Palace, charcuterie to the cold store behind. Too much, and it would all turn to mush. Too little, and Oberoi’s chefs would grind to a halt.
By midnight, on the cusp of 26 November, when the sleeping crows were propped up like dominoes in the trees around Apollo Bunder, Chef Oberoi was still working. The hotel was in the jaws of the wedding season and he knew that tomorrow every one of the Taj’s dozen restaurants and bars was fully booked for breakfast, lunch and dinner. His kitchens would be expected to turn out thousands of meals that broke down into 100 kilos of rice, 20,000 eggs, 200 kilos of prawns to peel, hundreds of fresh coconuts to chop, 200 kilos of flour and six trucks of vegetables and fruit. Later, there would be 30,000 pieces of linen to wash down in the laundry, soaking up 100 gallons of cleaning products. He wearily ticked the boxes, signing off on everything.
Wednesday, 26 November 2008, 4 a.m. – the kitchens
Chef Oberoi went to bed late and the cooking began early. While wealthy guests lay between Egyptian cotton sheets, the Taj bakery fired up. In the bakery, a predominantly female corps was up to its elbows in flour, salt and yeast, filling the air with the sweet smell of fermentation. Soon, the chrome trays by the door were stacked with sticky delicacies.
By 5 a.m., the stainless steel kitchens were clattering as the executive chefs, sous-chefs, sauciers, commis and pot washers arrived. By 6 a.m., the garde manger was boisterous, with salads washed and pared while across the corridor in the main kitchen, sauces, gravies, jus and stocks were brought to life. In a city with the most overheated real estate market in the world, where a recent survey by Bloomberg calculated that it would take someone on Taj wages 308 years to save for an average-sized apartment in swanky South Mumbai, the hotel put its employees up in cheap accommodation all around, including the crumbling four-storey Abbas Mansions for single men, opposite the south wing of the Palace, the women residing in nearby Rosemont Court.
From now until the early hours, Chef Oberoi would glide through the kitchens with a spoon in his breast pocket, dipping into plates as they flew out of the pass, pulling them back with a cry: ‘Not as described on the menu!’ Over two decades, the chef, who came from a Punjabi backwater that snuggled up to the border with Pakistan, had turned his childhood memories of local tastes into international favourites. The star attraction at Masala Kraft, an Indian restaurant on the ground floor marble axial passage that connected the Tower lobby to the Palace, was a modern take on his mother’s atta-chicken, the whole bird marinated in spices before being roasted en-croûte in a tandoor.
When Oberoi, the son of a stationmaster, had started to travel, the collecting became obsessive, comforting plates from the canteen of a trundling sleeper car turning into the inspiration for bestselling restaurant dishes. The further he went, the more ambitious he became. Mumbai’s first real Japanese food was served in Wasabi, on the first floor of the Palace, in 2001, inspired by Oberoi’s meeting with the US celebrity chef Masaharu Morimoto. Oberoi also opened Souk, a Lebanese-themed restaurant on the top floor of the Tower, after a stint in the Middle East. Paul Bocuse, the French grand master of nouvelle cuisine, gave him the idea of opening Zodiac Grill, to reach out to Mumbai’s ‘Ultras’, the super-rich who could afford to pay Bocuse-style eye-watering prices.
Oberoi lived for cooking. Behind his office door was a set of fresh whites, in case he had to work the night through. His wife, who lived just around the corner, complained she never saw him. He inspired a devout loyalty from his 200-strong Kitchen Brigade, his star chefs immortalized in a bold group photo that hung in the chefs’ dining room, their faces grinning, their weapons of choice held aloft: a knife, a pepper grinder, a spatula and a tomato. ‘We stay because of the Tatas,’ Oberoi would observe, wryly referring to the family that still owned the hotel. ‘We certainly don’t do it for the money.’ A Taj restaurant manager earned £300 a month, while a competitor in Mumbai might pay them twice as much.
By 6 a.m., in draughty Abbas Mansions, the noise of the day shift rising disturbed the night shift just bedding down. Amit Peshave, the 27-year-old baby-faced manager of the hotel’s twenty-four-hour coffee shop, Shamiana, pulled a thin cotton bedsheet over his head in a vain attempt to block out the din. At this time of year, the chilly mornings took some getting used to. Today he felt exhausted. The Shamiana job (which also involved managing Aquarius, the poolside café) was his first senior position, and he had only been in it for a few weeks. Located on the ground floor, on the corridor linking the Tower lobby to the pool and Palace gardens, Shamiana was where all-night drinkers and insomniacs ended up. Everyone agreed it was among the hardest jobs in the hotel.
Today Amit needed to catch up on a report he was writing about an Italian food festival he had hosted the previous weekend. He had been working on it until 2 a.m. and had still not finished. The last couple of days had been doubly gruelling, since Chef Oberoi had also asked him to look after Sabina Saikia, a notoriously picky restaurant critic who was reviewing the new ‘Chef’s Studio’. She had been rude and demanding, but he took it in his stride. ‘Only two more days,’ Amit told himself, rolling over. Friday was his long-awaited ‘off-day’, the first since taking the promotion. Maybe he would drive his motorbike to Juhu Beach, in the north, catch a game of snooker, or ogle the college girls at Pizza by the Bay, a cool, all-white restaurant on Marine Drive.
When Amit had joined the Taj seven years before as an industrial trainee, working under Faustine Martis at the Sea Lounge, the older man had got him running around balancing trays, ‘seeing how fast I could go before dropping everything’. By 2006, he was Faustine’s boss. ‘But that was just the way it is: I was a graduate and he wasn’t.’
Amit dozed off again. When he woke, he was late. He leapt up, showered and jogged around to the Time Office. Changing into his black manager’s suit, he felt for the ‘Taj Values’ crib sheet in his breast pocket. ‘Embrace Talent and harness Expertise to leverage standards of Excellence in the Art of Hospitality.’ Every day he would gather Shamiana’s waiters and test them on it, too. It was one of the first things Faustine had drummed into him. Recite the Taj Values. Learn them by heart. Everything else will follow. The cards had changed a lot since Faustine had begun work and now also encapsulated the Tatas’ ambitious financial goals, reminding everyone how from one hotel they now controlled a global empire of 112 outlets in twelve countries, with 13,629 rooms, and a goal of turning over $2bn, or £650m, by 2016.
When he reached Shamiana, which was decked out like an Indian wedding tent, with diaphanous ceiling drapes and twinkling chandeliers, it was packed. The head waiter, Rehmatullah Shaukatali, who had been at the Taj so long some colleagues called him ‘the heirloom’, was run off his feet. Amit greeted him and his young sous-chef, Boris Rego, manning the display kitchen. Rego’s father was the most famous chef in Goa, and had trained at the Taj in the seventies, becoming friends with Oberoi. ‘The Indefatigable’, Amit called Rego Jr. The smiling chef shouted over the hubbub. ‘What d’you want for supper, Boss?’ For days, Rego had been promising to make his manager a special pizza. ‘Tandoori chicken, lot of capsicums, extra mozzarella cheese and a hell of a lot of onions, Chef,’ Amit hollered back. Rego saluted: ‘It’ll be ready by 9.30 p.m., sir.’
The Shamiana manager checked the noticeboard in the kitchen where Chef Oberoi pinned updates at dawn. Several VIPs and MPs were due. Always a nightmare, Amit thought. They drank too much, bullied the staff and tried to skip the bill. There was a big Sindhi wedding tonight, three banquets and a birthday party booked for 8 p.m. It would be hectic. He saw that the swimming pool terrace supervisor had called in sick. His assistant would have to run the poolside barbeque tonight. He called Adil Irani, one of Aquarius’s up-and-coming waiters, asking him to muck in, too.
By 7 a.m., out in the Tower lobby, Karambir Kang was on the prowl. With a walk that his friends joked looked like a shark carving up a pod of seals, the hotel’s General Manager began his first tour of the day, appraising everything, as the rising scent of beeswax mingled with freshly cut Night Queen.
Karambir’s competitors working for other hotel chains regarded him as the Taj’s attack dog. But among his staff who flitted about buffing and polishing, brushing down the cantilevered Grand Staircase that dominated the central atrium of the Palace, the blue-eyed General Manager was seen as affable. At thirty-nine he was also a youthful ‘captain of the ship’, as he described the GM’s job, someone who led from the front, the visible face of the Taj on the hotel’s bridge, a man who inspired his team and claimed he was ‘always the last to leave’. Doing his rounds, he stopped every now and then to crack a joke, or ask about a family problem, making it his business to know guests and employees alike. Up on the mezzanine, the half-landing before the first floor, he also took a moment to make a private namaste to the black bust of the hotel’s founder. A Tata man through and through, Karambir admired those who had started it all.
He was as particular with his attire as he was about the hotel: a navy suit, crisp cotton shirt, matching silk tie and handkerchief, usually chosen by his wife, Neeti. Today it was orange and gold check, a bright note to lighten a hard day as the high season was upon them, with all of its associated stresses. Up on the Palace’s third floor, his deputy Food and Beverage Manager was conducting a morning stock-take in one of the hotel’s alcohol stores, hidden behind a false door, marked as room 324. On the fifth floor, in a flower-strewn room, the hotel’s ‘public areas’ florists constructed towering assemblies. Today it was roses from the north-east arranged around a base of shocking pink chrysanthemum and hibiscus flowers from Kerala.
He strode out of the Palace lobby and into the Taj’s poolside cloister, pressed with vitrine mosaics and topped by onion cupolas, giving it the appearance of a hammam installed in a Florentine boarding school. Architects grandly call this the Indo-Saracenic style, a cocktail of Indo-Islamic, Gothic Revival and Neo-Classical styles, in the way that India was also a blend of Islamic, Hindu, Sikh, Christian and Buddhist values. For Karambir, the Taj was part Kew Gardens and part haunted palazzo. Around him came the swishing of palm frond besoms as groundsmen removed the overnight leaves. They earned 6,000 rupees a month (£70), and were gone to their chawls by the time the guests emerged. His circuit done, he went back to his office behind the Tower reception area to leaf through the roster of the day’s events.
He could have done this on his laptop or his BlackBerry. Everything was set up to digitally assay the days and weeks ahead. But Karambir liked to feel his way with his fingertips. The Taj deserved this kind of intimacy. For him, the hotel was a special case, so needy that he lived here too, up on the sixth floor of the Palace, in a stunning suite overlooking the Arabian Sea that he shared with Neeti and their two boys, Uday, twelve, and Samar, five. Located in the top southern corner, it was surrounded by some of the hotel’s most exclusive apartments.
The son of a Sikh major general who had fought Pakistan in 1965 and 1971, Karambir found his metier in the sales department of the Taj group soon after graduation from Fergusson College in Pune, moving into sales. When he was posted to New Delhi, he transformed the flagging brand into the city’s most popular hotel in under a year. He was sent to Lucknow to establish a new Taj out of nothing – his friends joked that the group’s owner, Ratan Tata, would tell Karambir to take a morning flight to a new city and, when he got there, advise him that he was taking over. Given how much of his life was spent in five-star hotels, it was fortunate that Karambir loved everything that went with them: good company, a glass of wine and an expensive cigar. After his mother came to terms with the fact he was never going to join the army, she joked that her son had become so hospitable he should have been a housewife.
When Karambir met Neeti Mathur, a North Indian girl with rook-black hair, at a Taj conference in 1994, he told his father she was the one. Neeti gave up her job to become a full-time mother. Uday, their elder son, was calm and stoic like his father, and Samar was peppy like his mother. Neeti got used to couriering her husband’s clothes to the next hot location and talking to him mostly on the phone. Somehow he always made it back home for parents’ evening or school plays, often slipping in late. The family was delighted when Uday won a place at Mumbai’s Cathedral School, one of India’s best.
After seventeen years in sales, in 2006 Karambir was given his first hotel to manage, the stale Taj Lands End, Bandra, a fashionable district to the north-west, loved by Bollywood stars. ‘It was putting me in the deep end,’ he recalled. His boys were delighted, hoping they would get to see more of him. And he out-performed himself, more than doubling occupancy in under a year. In November 2007, he was given the Tatas’ jewel, the Taj Palace and Tower on Apollo Bunder, becoming General Manager and Vice-President. Neeti was excited to be back in the heart of Mumbai. But the Taj proved demanding, with the family complaining that they saw less of Karambir than before, as he was always on call.
Today was no different. His planner showed that most of the hotel’s 20,000 square feet of conference, banqueting and function rooms – located on the first floor of the Palace – were booked. The indents and event sheets presented by Chef Oberoi listed the Sindhi wedding in the Crystal Room, a favourite location for society functions, which, when fully opened, stretched the length of the pool. The board of Hindustan Unilever, one of the hotel’s most powerful clients, was also expected, with thirty-five French, Dutch and Indian executives and their wives coming for a luxurious dinner in the Prince’s Room, an intimate private dining space in the southernmost corner of the hotel.
A large European Parliament party was arriving imminently, with trade commissioners and Members of the European Parliament (MEP) from Britain, France, Holland, Spain, Italy and Germany. Also checking in was a committee of Indian MPs. The Taj would soon be hosting several international cricket stars, including Shane Warne and Kevin Pietersen, who were launching the new Champions League Twenty20, and their advance team were landing in the hotel today. Sunil Kudiyadi, Karambir’s security chief, was up in his fifth-floor office, finalizing the hotel’s security plan. Over in the modern Tower, there was no let-up. A visiting Korean trade delegation of more than a hundred had booked Rendezvous, a function room on the top floor, next door to Souk.
This morning would be especially frantic as Karambir had to leave the hotel after lunch. The chairman of the Indian suit manufacturer Raymond’s, a Mumbai ‘Ultra’, was throwing a bash in the Taj Lands End and Karambir was on a three-line whip to attend, with the Formula One driver Mika Häkkinen making a guest appearance. It was an hour or more each way, even with the Sea Link toll bridge, so he and Neeti might not see each other until the morning. In his absence, Grand Executive Chef Oberoi would take charge.
Before leaving, Karambir had one especially sensitive task to attend to. The hotel was mollycoddling Sabina Sehgal Saikia, the most powerful food writer in India. While professional kitchens across India were male dominions, Sabina had levelled the playing field by becoming their chief surveyor. Having her in the hotel was a double-edged sword. On good form and in the right company, her words could turn a new restaurant into a money-spinner. But she was as famous for her vicious tongue-lashings. Nowadays, suffering from diabetes and general ill-health, she was increasingly bad-tempered. Sabina was feeling down and had not yet recovered from the death of her father in February. When the Taj first floated the idea, she had not wanted to come.
She only said ‘yes’ when she realized the trip coincided with a society wedding in Mumbai. Instantly, she had regretted it and rang a close friend in Delhi, Ambreen Khan, who was also heading to Mumbai. ‘My life is out of control – I am so stressed out,’ Sabina had complained, telling Ambreen she was under pressure to stay in Delhi for a niece’s pre-wedding party on the night of 26 November. ‘What should I do?’
She had met Ambreen when the latter was doing PR for the Oberoi hotel. ‘Be careful or she’ll eat you alive,’ Ambreen’s boss had warned. But Ambreen found Sabina ‘easy to deal with’, telling a confidante: ‘She is sweet and wants affection.’ There was a price. Once Ambreen was inducted into the inner circle, Sabina was demanding, on the phone ‘every day, all day, and hard to decline’.
Sabina had come to this game by chance, starting life as a classical musician, before joining The Times of India to manage its 150th anniversary celebrations. It was her otherworldliness that caught everyone’s attention and often made for the best stories, told by her with her unnerving frankness. In the nineties, a PR working for the Dalai Lama’s exiled government had called with an enticing offer: ‘Richard Gere is in town and wants to throw a concert for Tibet. Can you organize?’ Sabina had not heard of Gere, but agreed to meet him in the InterContinental’s coffee shop, worrying immediately that ‘this good-looking man’ would annoy her boyfriend, Shantanu Saikia, ‘an Assamese hothead’, who was waiting outside in his car.
Gere never stopped talking, she told everyone. ‘The longer it took, I knew the more pissed off Shantanu was getting,’ she recalled. ‘I kept wondering why these other diners on tables were staring at Gere. “Can’t these Indians see a good-looking Caucasian and leave him alone?”’ Then his phone rang. He apologized, saying it was his girlfriend, Cindy Crawford. Sabina had not heard of her, and all she could think was: ‘OK, your girlfriend is calling and I have my boyfriend waiting outside. Is this business or what?’ Finally, Gere thanked her and gave her his card, with his private number. When he offered to walk her to the door, she declined. ‘You stay inside or I’ll have some explaining to do.’ That weekend, Sabina and Shantanu rented a video, An Officer and a Gentleman. ‘Mii gawd,’ she shrieked, scrabbling through her bag for Gere’s card. She had lost it.
In 1998, dabbling again, Sabina had tried a food column. It was a huge success. But these days she had fallen out with The Times, although she could place her pieces wherever she wanted. ‘She either trashed places or lapped up their hospitality,’ said Ambreen, who warned her friend, ‘You’re mean and hard on people. Bad will come of it.’
Now Sabina was dilly-dallying over the Mumbai trip and Ambreen was unsympathetic. ‘What’s the matter with you?’ she asked, interrupting her friend’s monologue. ‘The whole of Delhi is going to be at the Mumbai wedding.’ At this thought, Sabina perked up and committed to come.
She had touched down in Mumbai on Monday, 24 November, to be met by a chauffeur-driven Jaguar sent by Karambir. Sabina had been stunned, calling Savitri Choudhury, another strong-minded freelance hack, who lived in Mumbai and worked for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation among others. ‘Sabi, they are launching a Chef’s Studio. Hemant Oberoi is doing a special dinner for me.’ Pause. ‘I want you and Vikram to come. Let’s make a party of it. OK?’
At the Taj, Karambir had shown Sabina up to the Sunrise Suite. With marble floors, a magnificent ribbed wooden ceiling, a lounge, a bedroom and a dining nook, it filled most of the hotel’s southernmost cupola and was next door to Karambir’s family’s apartment. There was champagne on ice when Savitri and her husband called round at 8.30 p.m. Feeling exuberant, Sabina pulled them through the door. ‘Come on, let’s jump on this huge bed.’
Oberoi’s Chef’s Studio was an idea imported from the US and Europe, where he had eaten at several Chef’s Tables – intimate settings placed inside the kitchen of a star cook. For Mumbai he had to refine the idea, as no ‘Ultra’ was going to sit in a kitchen and pay 125,000 rupees (£1,500) for a dinner for six people – excluding wine. ‘Sabina, you’re on top form,’ Savitri told her, as they ate from Versace plates, served by Amit Peshave. ‘The food is amazing.’ They kept bringing more. ‘It was the first time I had Kobe beef. With Sabina, they went overboard. Typical Taj.’
After eight courses, Sabina went up to her suite, feeling groggy. She called Shantanu, who was now her husband. ‘They are really laying it on,’ she told him. But he was busy at the family wedding party in Delhi. The whole family was nonplussed at her flying off to Mumbai for somebody else’s celebrations. The needy Sabina did not get it and was hurt. ‘You don’t know what you’re missing,’ she said, cutting the line. She called Ambreen: ‘You can’t believe this suite. Please come over.’ But Ambreen was working. As General Manager of the Indian Express, she needed to attend a conference. Sabina spent the night alone in a bed fit for a king.
26 November 2008, 4 p.m. – the Palace lobby
Karambir Kang was in Bandra, Chef Oberoi was studying orders in his cabin, Amit Peshave was still not done with his Italian food festival report, and out in the Tower lobby holidaymakers and businessmen stood three deep before the reception desk. Along the marble axial corridor, beside the Grand Staircase, was the calmer Palace reception, where VIP guests sat in wing-backed chairs, waiting to check in. Will Pike and Kelly Doyle were among them, dressed in flip-flops and beach gear, catching some stares from the doormen.
They had just flown in after two weeks in Goa and the ride in from the airport had been a baptism of fire. ‘My first experience of real India,’ Will murmured as their cab was circled by salesmen at every traffic light, wielding books, phone rechargers and dusters. ‘It’s mental.’ Now in the perfumed calm of the Taj, he felt himself relaxing. ‘Good afternoon, Mr Doyle,’ said the receptionist, using Kelly’s surname as everything had been paid for on her credit card. Will grinned, a smile that stayed on his face as they were shown to their sea-facing room, up the Grand Staircase on the third floor. He was two years younger than Kelly and her junior at work, with his salary a fraction of hers. He joked that he was permanently emasculated.
When they entered room 316, the panorama of the Arabian Sea hit them. What a view. Opening their bags, spilling sand and wet clothes on to the floor, Kelly headed for the bathroom. Will tried a window, but it was double-glazed and would not budge. He perused the TV channels and the hotel restaurant list. After two weeks of Kingfisher beer, grilled fish and malai kofta, there were too many choices.
As he lay back, contemplating the ruched silk curtains, he felt he had been away from London for weeks. The whole holiday plan had been a chaotic, seat-of-the-pants scramble, with Kelly booking flights but forgetting about visas, leading to an embarrassing scene at the airport and a humiliating return to work. They eventually made it out on 10 November, a week late, but it had been worth it, with a memorable fortnight spent on Goan beaches, riding trains and in a yoga retreat.
It was Kelly who suggested the last-minute splurge. Will, who had spent two weeks smoking charas (hashish), was not so sure he could acclimatize, or even that he wanted to. The Taj might be the most famous hotel in India, the kind of place where Gregory Peck and Duke Ellington had hung out, steeped in history and refinement, but it was not his scene. They had to come through the city to catch their flight home, Kelly argued, so why not?
When it opened in December 1903, the Taj had been a disaster. The British did not like it and it was too expensive for Indians. Broken-hearted, the founder, Jamsetji Tata, had set sail for Europe and died the following year from heart disease. He was buried at Brookwood cemetery, Surrey, in the Tata family mausoleum. But slowly maharajas and nawabs began to treat the hotel as a second home, coming with retinues of servants. By the time the Prince of Wales and Princess Mary landed on Apollo Bunder for a state visit in November 1905, the Taj was turning a corner, awash with indigenous royalty.
As India changed, the hotel kept pace, the old aristocracy eased out by the well-off figureheads of the independence movement, including Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who proposed to his wife, Rutti, in the sea-facing Ballroom and would lead the new Pakistan in 1947. Sarojini Naidu, a child prodigy and poetess, who became the president of the Indian National Congress, spoke at the hotel. After the Partition of India eventually was declared, it was from the Taj that the first eulogies of independence rang out. When the British staged a formal departure, it was from the Gateway of India, built to commemorate the 1911 visit by King George V and Queen Mary. Once the bastion of colonialism, the Taj had effortlessly realigned itself as an emblem of self-reliance.
The next three decades saw Hollywood come to love it, too, with Frank Sinatra and Sophia Loren rubbing elbows with world leaders, entrepreneurs and tycoons. In 1973, the over-subscribed hotel doubled its occupancy, with an American-designed Taj Tower. A new lobby was created at its base, on the harbour side, with a private club located above it and named after the hotel’s architect, William Chambers.
While the public areas were streamlined, the service areas became more labyrinthine with each renovation. The kitchens had moved down from the top floor to the first floor in the thirties and a new sixth floor had been added to the Palace in 1969. After the Tower was built, new service areas straddled it and the Palace but they did not quite line up. All over the place stepladders led up to storerooms hidden in otherwise inaccessible ceiling cavities. Windows became doors, panels swung round to reveal service lifts. Extra staircases were built but not added to the architectural blueprint. Interconnecting corridors developed irregular angles.
Will had taken some working on, and during their penultimate day in Goa Kelly kept at him. He needed to make his mind up. Her London salary meant they could afford a more expensive package, which included a free airport pick-up, a butler and a heritage room with a sea view. Kelly was already thinking about the king-size bed, the flat-screen TV, the bath and fluffy towels, a first-class treat after two weeks barefoot on the beach. ‘There’s only so long you can be a hippy,’ Will said, wondering if that was actually true. With his mind half made up, they had packed for the Taj, lured by a night of extravagance before real life kicked in on Monday morning, in London, where the forecast was for drizzle. The line of least resistance was one he had travelled for most of his life, although that was changing.
The Indian trip was the culmination of two great years. ‘This is my moment,’ he had said to himself, before leaving. His work had been going well. He was in a relationship with ‘a really cool girl and we are going to be together for ever and ever’. He had turned the corner early in 2007, after flunking his degree and spending several years managing Soho bars. One night a customer had offered him a job as a runner at Bare Films, a London-based TV production company, where he had first spotted Kelly. From then on everything had clicked into place.
Precise, pretty and high-octane, Kelly was an up-and-coming producer. She was also married. But Will – with his floppy hair, footballer’s physique and laid-back demeanour – made an impression. One night they went out for a drink and ‘things just developed’. He had woken the next morning, struggling into his jeans, feeling like he was an embarrassing indiscretion who had just lost his job. Three weeks later it happened again. Soon they were embroiled in a relationship that should never have happened but that neither of them could stop. Kelly’s energy was infectious. ‘You just know that if you follow her you’re going to have a really good time,’ Will told his friends. The only time he had felt anything like it before was when he was sixteen and had fallen in love with a girl at school. When that relationship had ended, he had ‘cried for a week’.
Kelly left her husband. Early in 2008, she and Will rented a ‘cool flat’ in Camden Town. From now on, they spent their weekends driving about London in Will’s red MG coupe or browsing Camden market for ‘quirky bits of furniture that didn’t fit into the minuscule flat’. They both liked to entertain, cooking paella for a dozen friends, or hosting a fancy dress party. Will DJ’ed in local clubs, styling himself ‘LazyPike (the Jungalier)’.
Work began to move, too, with a vague advertising idea Will had had for Pret A Manger coming together after he had submitted it via the ‘comments’ section of the company’s website. He wondered, as he posted it, if anyone read this stuff. The chief executive called soon after and asked Will to meet him in January. Planning was not Will’s strong suit. ‘And yet here it was all happening without me doing anything.’ The summer highlight had been a long, lazy weekend of music and camping at the Big Chill festival surrounded by friends and family, including Kelly, his little brother Ben, his sister Rosie, and their über-chilled father, Nigel, a retired advertising executive.
It was Kelly who had suggested an autumn trip to India, a chance to take a breath before Will’s Pret A Manger pitch. They also needed to think about where they were headed. They spent most of the holiday in the southern Goan resort of Palolem, where the array of palm-shaded bars and cheap guest houses attracted a large contingent of stoners, Will skinning up while reading and listening to music.
In his rucksack was a biography of the tortured father of computer sciences, Alan Turing, and A Mathematician’s Apology, G. H. Hardy’s requiem for his own fading career. An armchair obsessive, Will got immersed in things. When he wasn’t reading, he kicked a football around with local kids on the beach or filmed sunsets, train journeys and markets with an old Super 8. He bought Indian versions of the Ken and Barbie dolls, with plans to use them to film a stop-animation short. Will and Kelly were cruising. ‘We were really good at doing fuck all,’ he told his brother.
Wednesday, 26 November 2008, 6 p.m.
A ten-minute drive across town from the Taj to the Trident-Oberoi, which Karambir Kang liked to call ‘the second-best hotel in town’, the Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP) for Zone 1, Vishwas Nangre Patil, was having a gruelling day. He calculated that he was still only halfway through an eight-hour security review conducted by the Special Protection Group, ahead of a visit to the city by the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, on 28 November.
He reminded himself, as he stifled a yawn, that this was a small price to pay. Policing Zone 1 was all about the glory. It covered the city’s smartest hotels, apartments and villas, Mumbai’s historical heart, as well as the central backpacker district of Colaba. Zone 1 also came with a filing cabinet full of drawbacks: VIP visits (like the Prime Minister’s), foreign dignitaries jetting in, and mouthy well-to-do residents. These were people who earned in a day what a dishonest policeman could acquire in a career, and what a straightforward copper would never earn.
With the sleeves of his well-pressed shirt precisely rolled, Patil sported a tidy moustache and a square, stubborn jaw. He had been a surprising choice for Zone 1 when he got the job five months before. A native Marathi speaker from isolated Kokrud, a village of temples and farmers some 220 miles to the south, he had risen above his upbringing as a country boy. In a subcontinent where names mean everything, the Patils were traditionally landowners and warriors, and Vishwas Patil, the son of a renowned weightlifter, spent most of his childhood thinking he would join the army. He had been ‘crazy about uniforms’ since he was a boy, joining the National Cadet College in his teens, winning a gold medal for shooting. But having topped his class, he defied the expectations of his father to gain a Master’s degree before sitting the elite civil service exams in 1997. He joined the Indian Police Service, his first posting in a rural spot where he understood the people like they were his family.
The boy from Kokrud had assumed he would not get so far. The force in Maharashtra and elsewhere was led by privileged officers like Mumbai’s Commissioner Gafoor, the city’s police chief, the son of a nawab from Hyderabad. But in a little under a decade the outsider Patil had got himself noticed, shaking things up with high-profile campaigns, challenging privilege and appeasing conservatives, being promoted to the cherished DCP position in South Mumbai in June 2008. And now he was here at the top table, alongside the most senior cops in the city, including Commissioner Gafoor and Rakesh Maria, the legendary chief of Crime Branch.
As he sat listening to his seniors, Patil was becoming deeply worried. What gnawed away at him was how little attention anyone was paying to a number of warnings that had been staring him in the face since he started here, and that, if taken seriously, would surely have put the city on a war footing, irrespective of whether the PM was coming.
He had received the initial tip-off in his first week, a report that the Leopold Café, a popular tourist hangout near the Taj, was on a terrorist hitlist. Over the following days, looking through intelligence chits, Patil had discovered a disturbing pattern of warnings that were frequent and detailed. His predecessors had received dozens of classified bulletins about potential terrorist strikes on the city. But, as far as he could see, the intelligence agencies and the police had ignored them.
The first gobbet had arrived in August 2006 and stated that Lashkar-e-Toiba, an influential Pakistani jihadi organization that had cut its teeth sending Muslim insurgents to fight the Indian security forces in divided Kashmir, was ‘making preparations’ for a major assault on Mumbai. Several five-star hotels were mentioned as targets, including the Trident-Oberoi and the Taj. Since then there had been twenty-five further alerts, many of them delivered by the CIA to the Indian government’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, and passed on to India’s domestic Intelligence Bureau.
Patil had pondered the origin of the information. When he examined the detail, it seemed clear that the US was tapping into a significant source, the welter of leads drawing a picture of someone right inside the notoriously closed Lashkar, an outfit that everyone believed was funded by Pakistani intelligence.
It was not as though terror was new to Mumbai. Over the last few decades, the city had witnessed a dozen serious attacks in which more than 500 had been killed and almost 2,000 injured. After the most recent carnage in July 2006, when a series of train blasts had killed 181, the Maharashtra government had constituted a study group. Late by many months, it had still not filed any recommendations.
Patil could see that all previous incidents consisted of concealed bombs left on bicycles and scooters, abandoned in market places and outside prominent buildings. Some of the materiel was homemade, derived from potassium chlorate purloined from textile mills, where it was used as a colour fixative. Other blasts relied on black soap, as locals called the sticky military explosive RDX, smuggled into the country from Pakistan or the Middle East. But the more recent intelligence suggested Lashkar was plotting something new, a live raid on the city. Three warnings specifically mentioned the use of fidayeen, meaning guerrillas armed with grenades and AK-47s who fought to the death, inflicting heavy casualties before being overcome. Lashkar had deployed this strategy in Indian-administered Kashmir to deadly effect.
Eleven warnings suggested the plan would involve multiple simultaneous attacks. Six warnings pointed to a seaborne infiltration, which would be a first in India. Zone 1 lay at the narrowest part of the city peninsula and was accessible from Back Bay to the west and the harbour and docks to the east. Patil had contacted the coast guard and asked what was being done to beef up security. ‘Nothing,’ he was told. He called the DCP responsible for the port, who confided that he was so short of funding that he did not have a single high-speed boat to chase waterborne suspects. He had taken to hiring fishing vessels using his own money to get around his patch.
Unsure of how to proceed, Patil sought advice from one of his close friends on the force, DCP Rajvardhan Sinha, the deputy in charge at SB2, the wing of Special Branch responsible for monitoring foreigners. Patil and Sinha, who was known universally as Rajvardhan, had both graduated into the police service as batch-mates in 1997, although their career paths had taken them in different directions. Rajvardhan had been born in the fractious northern Indian state of Bihar, and his first superintendent posting was among the toughest any policeman could imagine: Gadchiroli, a town in the wild east of Maharashtra. It was part of the so-called Red Corridor, a stronghold of Naxalite rebels. Named after a village in West Bengal where the movement started, the Naxals had purportedly taken up guns to overthrow corrupt landlords, protecting local tribes from exploitation and stopping land grabs by corporations. The police were caught in the middle, with some officers enraged at what they saw as having to do the government’s dirty work, while others took the opportunity to become combat-ready.
Rajvardhan, who had a dramatic duelling scar running diagonally across the top of his nose, was in the latter camp. ‘You get that killer instinct when you are in the jungle,’ he joked with his colleagues. In his first week his convoy had been hit by an IED, trucks and jeeps spun on to their roofs, the men hosed down with bullets in an ambush as they fled into the forests. The cool-headed Rajvardhan had led them to safety on foot, without losing a man. His advice to Patil when he learned about the massing intelligence in Mumbai was to take the warnings seriously. ‘If the shit hits the fan,’ he told his friend, ‘you’ll be the one who has to deal with it.’
Patil had started nightly meetings for his brightest officers, giving them specific tasks in key locations. He personally visited several places named as targets. In July 2008, he began focusing on the unregulated fishermen’s colony at the southern end of Back Bay called Badhwar Park. It was close to the World Trade Centre, the Trident-Oberoi and the Taj hotel. Patil wrote to the Commandant Coast Guards, Western Region HQ, warning: ‘If anti-social/terrorist/anti-national elements desire to attack by rocket launcher, these boats can be used.’
Then, the Intelligence Bureau had received two more date-specific warnings about the Taj. One concerned a possible attack on 24 May and the other on 11 August, both prompted by tip-offs from a source in Pakistan said to be inside Lashkar. A more political officer might have avoided taking on the country’s most glamorous hotel, steered by one of the subcontinent’s most powerful industrialist families, the Tatas. Patil piled straight in, demanding a meeting on 12 August and spending nine hours with the security chief, Sunil Kudiyadi. In his subsequent report to Commissioner Gafoor, the Zone 1 DCP concluded: ‘Overall, the management has done very little to adapt the hotel to the changing security environment in the city.’
Patil was not a hotelier, and had no idea about the need to beguile guests. What he saw was a historic building ringed by a large number of unsecured, undefendable entrances and easily assailable porous walls. There was CCTV but it was ambiguously labelled and poorly organized. There was an alcohol godown (store) on the third floor, which was prohibited because of the fire risk. The systems in place to detect weapons and explosives being smuggled into the hotel were slapdash. No blast barriers or screens were installed, meaning the Taj remained vulnerable to a drive-by or drive-in suicide bomber. Patil told Kudiyadi: ‘Don’t think about what has happened in this city. Think about what they’ve not yet done. If they have set charges on motorbikes, look up to the skies.’ Patil wished to create a fortress, while the Taj needed to remain a theatre.
After the 12 August meeting Patil had decided to make things official. He issued written advice to Kudiyadi, copying in the General Manager, Karambir Kang. Given the building pattern of US-supplied warnings, he recommended that the hotel install blast barriers, armed police pickets and snipers on the roof. The advice was politely rebuffed: guests wanted to be greeted by brightly uniformed chobedars (doormen), not a SWAT team that would undermine the hotel’s luxury image.
He made some progress after 20 September 2008, when a massive truck bomb devastated the five-star Marriott hotel in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, killing more than fifty people. As grim scenes from the blast site were broadcast across India, Patil secured a meeting with the Taj management. Over the next few days, he drew up twenty-six emergency measures, including police gunmen overlooking the main porch and the deployment of between six and nine armed officers below. He recommended a security grille for the glass-fronted Northcote side door at the southern end of the Palace, automatic locking for other entrances and the permanent closure of the Palace lobby doors overlooking Back Bay. All staff, guests and visitors should enter the hotel through one choke point, the Tower lobby, where there would be metal detectors, bag checks and pat-downs. By the second week of October, the Taj had implemented many of these suggestions and Patil went on leave, with the hotel pledging to complete the rest.
Now at the security meeting Patil recommended something similar be done at the Trident-Oberoi, where the PM would be speaking. ‘The city is ripe for an attack,’ he warned. The intelligence services knew it too. One recent warning from the CIA commented that ‘Lashkar is equipped and ready to launch a broadside against the city.’
7 p.m. – room 316, Palace wing
Back in the Taj, Kelly was still in the bathroom, ‘doing girly things’, as Will watched the darkening sky turn purple. He banged on the door. ‘We won’t have time for shopping and a beer.’ She emerged in a strapless maxi-dress and sandals, with blood-red nails and lipstick to match. Perfect.
Posted January 12, 2014
Posted November 7, 2013
No text was provided for this review.