“It has been a while since you stayed with us, Ms. Wellner,”
That’s how the email began.
“It has been a while since we had the pleasure of welcoming you to The Taj Mahal Palace & Tower, Mumbai. Is it that your travels haven’t brought you to Mumbai? Or, have we fallen short somewhere, for which you haven’t been back?”
I received this message on May 19th, 2009 – just under six months after the terrorist attacks that began on 11/26/2008. At the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower , fifty-two people were murdered. I stayed at that hotel about eight months earlier. My room was facing the harbor in the “heritage wing”, which is more than a century old.
You know those rooms, or at least their exterior, since the terrorists made them their particular target. Those were the rooms that you saw on television, in flames. They were were not a part of the hotel’s triumphant reopening less than a month later, which was celebrated by high tea that was attended by one thousand of Mumbai’s elite.
The email was sent by the hotel’s director of sales, and it was a mass email, with the opportunity to safe unsubscribe at the bottom. It continued:
“Please let us know – we would be delighted to do anything we can to help you choose us again when next you are in Mumbai.”
I first arrived in Mumbai at about 11 p.m., on a direct flight from New York. Through a break in what I thought were clouds, but I figured out the next day was smog, I saw what looked like white holiday lights strung up in the street, and then people, hundreds and thousands of people, streaming, dancing. I speculated that there was some sort of a national holiday, a street fair. As the plane descended, I saw that it was just a street and people walking around, shopping, eating – a usual weeknight in this city. Greaves India had arranged my trip and for a car to collect me and bring me to the hotel. The driver inched his way through traffic of all kinds – cars, buses, people, animals — moving at every angle. In the yellowish tinge of night, there were flashes of bright color, horns honking constantly into the burnt air, with blasts of garlic, bug spray, exhaust. I peeled off my denim jacket, it was nearly 90 degrees and humid. We drove past the Cama Hospital for Women and Children, outside people were sitting cross-legged on the pavement, others unrolling bedrolls nearby, getting ready to sleep. I resolved that I would not get sick on this trip.
After an hour or so, we arrived at the Taj.
I walked up the carpeted steps of the hotel, my bags were seen to. I was brought straight to my room where I was checked in. I dined in the hotel that night, my heels clattering on the white marble floor. After dinner, as I walked passed darkened boutiques. I had difficulty finding my room again, there were two corridors on either side of the stair case that looked exactly a like to me, and I only realized I’d picked the wrong one when I clattered down to the end of the wrong hall, and back again. That night, I leaned out the window and looked at the scaffolded Gateway to India – under repair from damage sustained in a 2003 terror attack, I’d heard. In front of the harbor wall, I saw taxi drivers stretched out on the hood of their cars. I saw elaborate horse-drawn carriages, decorated with flashing lights.
I woke up early the next morning and went straight to the window. The taxi men were gone, there were now vendors selling nuts, bright yellow and pink balloons, as groups of young women in white head scarves and blue tunics walked by. The gray water was now filled with boats with wide decks, tightly packed with people, who would scramble off onto ramps and then onto the sidewalk. And there were pigeons, and black birds I couldn’t identify, and always the sound of cars honking, honking. I didn’t know where to look first.
It was a relief to pull back into my room, which was white and cool and calm.
It hasn’t seemed decent to say so recently, but I really didn’t like Mumbai very much. Well “didn’t like” isn’t exactly accurate, I found it disturbing, with the interstitial slums threading through Rolls Royce dealerships and jamming up against country clubs, and the children rapping on the window of cars and pointing to their mouths begging for food, and other children selling audio books by Amartya Sen, while shriveled people with limbs going in every direction hovered, against the hypnotic bright flashes of saris. I grew up in New York and I love cities, the larger the better, and I feel more at home in an urban environment than I ever will in the country. My travels have brought me to the developing world, before, and since. But I couldn’t get my bearings in Mumbai. And every time I thought I did, I quickly lost my grasp.
For example, one afternoon, I was strolling in the tony gardens around Malabar Hill, taking in the sun and the flowers, and the flashing views of the harbor, I felt the muscles in my shoulders relax. Our guide was a gentle man named Dobash, who reminded me of my father in law. He was a professor before he retired and took up as a guide to stay busy. He was always teaching lessons.
At some point he asked me to look up, where birds were tracing idyllic circles overhead. The Parsis, he explained, do not bury or cremate their dead, they “expose” them in an open structure. We were near the Parsi Tower of Silence. He explained: Men’s bodies to be arranged in an outer ring, women in the center, children in the middle. Vultures eat the bodies, the bones are bleached by the sun and eventually dissolved by lime. He pointed up. Those birds, he said, were vultures. The sun suddenly seemed too harsh, and the bright flowers ominous. We are carrion.
Another morning, I had a business meeting, and we met at Aquarius, the hotel’s casual restaurant in the courtyard. We sat looking out onto the clear blue pool and the white scalloped wall covered in bright pink blossoms, and the conversation floated easily enough. After a while, the subject turned to the upcoming US election, and, then casually, the woman I was meeting with told me that she hates the Pakistanis with a passion. I must have looked startled, so she quickly added that she was from a military family. A little while later, she also told me that she had a first pregnancy that ended in a full term still birth, and then she discussed how, in her view, World War III would start soon. Everything always descends into chaos, she said. I had another sip of ice tea and watched the fountain burbling into the pool.
“We thought of writing to you, to let you know a little about all that has been happening at the hotel. The iconic Sea Lounge is now open; and so are most of your favourite restaurants – the Zodiac Grill, Souk, Masala Kraft, Harbour Bar… you can enjoy the Golden Dragon menu at Shamiana, till the restaurant reopens, while Wasabi by Morimoto continues to delight its patrons with its gourmet Japanese food on the roof-top, overlooking the Gateway of India. You can also shop for your favourite luxury brands at the hotel’s sprawling shopping arcade, offering some of the world’s most exclusive brands.”
The chaos of those days of terror in Mumbai are now resolving into a narrative. The Virgina Quarterly Review just published an extraordinary four-part series on it, HBO is airing an equally gripping documentary called Terror in Mumbai. Like everyone else, I watched the news as it unfolded live on TV last year, and naturally, like everyone else, I was totally shocked. But it is was only when I watched the documentary, which included the security camera footage from the Taj on the night of 11/26/08 that I realized something else: I was not surprised.
The security cameras recorded the gunmen as they moved through the same halls as I had, as they reared back to the banisters and kicked open doors. They also recorded the gunmen, slightly dazed, as they walked into the courtyard by the pool and past the very table where I sipped iced tea, and they opened fire.
I never felt in danger at any time at the Taj, in fact, quite the opposite — it felt like a place of refuge from a city that I felt consumed by. But what I saw in the HBO documentary — the gunfire and the bodies and the fact that the traffic kept moving outside even as the massacre continued — none of it seemed implausible.
I realized the source of my discomfort in Mumbai had been this thin layer of dread, lying just beneath the surface. But it wasn’t the dread, really, that discomfited me, it was that the dread was neither ignored, denied, or directly acknowledged. Just as the email from the Taj never once acknowledged the attacks that happened on its ground, while it politely wondered why I had not been to stay recently.
“We look forward to hearing from you, to welcoming you to our hotel. Please feel free to write to me at [email protected] With best regards…”
I plan to return to Mumbai as soon as possible.