|The Black Hole of Mumbai
On the evening of November 26th 2008 and for 48 hours more, a massacre of Indian and foreign tourists, business executives, religious leaders, rail travellers, street vendors and bystanders shook the world.
The action of religious fascists, it left over 200 corpses littered around Mumbai.
The Black Hole of Mumbai, Into the Fire and Abandoned record the ensuing drama for a young Japanese tourist.
The Black Hole of Mumbai
It wasn’t the best start to my holiday around India. On the morning, of November 26th, I had checked out of my first stay in Mumbai. The hotel was stretching my budget so that night I moved to the Carlton, a dingy guest house just behind the Taj International Hotel. The windowless, grim room with its broken furniture was bad enough but when I almost vomited at the state of the shared toilets, I decided to be away from my room as much as possible.
So that’s why, an hour later, I was heading to the famous Leopold Restaurant with an Australian guy called Steve. He said he was hungry and asked me if I would accompany him there. I wasn’t hungry and on an earlier visit I had found it to be relatively empty. I had not been impressed by either the food or the slow service in the tourist hangout.
It was around 9pm when we stepped inside. I finally saw how popular this renowned restaurant was. It seemed like English visitors and other Europeans were sat at every table, gossiping away as they ate their meals or sank their beers whilst Indian waiters busied themselves taking and shouting orders. Indeed, it was so busy that we realised we would have to wait for a table if we wanted to eat, whereupon we would have another wait to order. I wasn’t keen at all, having suffered waiting to be served at this restaurant on the previous day when it was almost empty.
I suggested to Steve: “Well, it seems too busy and we’ll have to wait. Last time they took ages, and I’m not hungry. Why don’t we just go and sit up stairs, have a drink and see what snacks they will serve there?”
Steve agreed: “OK, let’s go!” and we made our way to the staircase up to the bar on the mezzanine floor. A waiter was standing by the door leading to the staircase and he dutifully opened it for us. In return, I smiled and gave him a: “Thank you,” before ascending the stairs.
We found the bar to be almost as busy as downstairs, but there was a table free beside the glass plate that looked over the restaurant, which would give me an opportunity to amuse myself watching the diners should I get bored with the chatterbox’s conversation. I didn’t know at the time but one of those sitting below was Joey Jeetan, a 31 year old London actor who had played suicide bomber Shehzad Tanveer in a TV drama about the 7/7 London bombings.
I noticed two very slim young women speaking German to her taller tubby friend. They had just come upstairs and were making their way to the toilets, which prompted me to remember to wash my hands if we ordered a snack. Otherwise there were only a few non-Indians, so any hope of meeting more entertaining companions than my Australian friend disappeared.
I was just about to sit at the table when suddenly there sounded a series of monstrous bangs. “It must be boys throwing fireworks,” I thought. Nevertheless I joined everyone else and squatted down on the floor so they wouldn’t hit me. I found Steve and everybody else down there on the floor too. Everybody looked shocked and confused. Two really big bangs followed. Steve now looked worried. He turned his head and, spotting a cupboard door no more than 1.5 metres high, said to me and the others: “Let’s hide in there!”
I was the first to react and scrambled to the door, but such was the panic that someone cut in and went in before me. I was glad to be one of the first in as it didn’t look like the room could hold many of us, being only around 2.5 metres wide and 3 metres deep, like a baggage storage room. I crouched down and made my way to the farthest wall where I sat down on the floor. More people rushed in. One idiot must have just bought a very expensive drink as they brought it into the dark hole with them, barged into someone else and dropped the glass and its contents onto the floor. Very quickly there were around 20 of us packed inside. It seemed like we had all managed to squash into the tiny space, as Steve was the last one in. He pulled the door shut, and ordered: “Everybody turn your mobiles off and be quiet or you’ll give us away!”
I don’t know what it was like in the Black Hole of Calcutta but this hole was hot. Sweating bodies crammed up against me. I had my back to the wall but I couldn’t see the other people, only feel them. On my right my hand detected some of the shards of the broken glass on the floor.
Only three hours earlier I had been listening to Al Green on my iPod and feeling sorry for myself, feeling lonely and reflecting on the fact that I had not even met anyone in the city to have a conversation with. Then I had met Steve, which had culminated with me being suddenly transported from being on my lonesome to being jammed and intimately packed together with 20 other strangers. Be careful what you wish for.
The bangs continued. There was no doubt now that downstairs wasn’t kids throwing fireworks. People were firing guns and people were probably getting killed. We didn’t know who was doing the shooting or why. They could be terrorists or gangsters. It could be a shoot out with the police, even an army coup.
I had no idea that earlier, whilst I wandered back to my hotel at 8pm, on the way glancing at the Gateway of India monument that ten Islamic Jihad terrorists high on cocaine and LSD had sailed into Colaba, and were landing beneath the Gateway. Armed with Kalashnikovs, pistols, grenades and explosives they had already killed three sailors in order to reach the port. Local fishermen had seen them and reported them to the police but it seems that these reports were ignored. Instead the terrorists, young men aged between 18 and 28, and originating in Pakistan, were, whilst I was talking to Steve and bemoaning the lack of things to do at night in the city, free to spread out seemingly in pairs across south Mumbai with their goal of killing 5,000 of us.
Nor did I know as I crouched down that at that moment at least 50 people lay dead or dying in the very train station which I had decided not to visit that evening, the Victoria Terminus where two of the terrorists were throwing grenades and firing AK 47s.
Elsewhere their fellow conspirators were joining in, lining up visitors to the sick at Cama Hospital and shooting them at point blank range, slaughtering members of the audience at Metro Cinema and staff and guests at the luxury Oberoi Trident hotel. Two more had taken the Rabbi and his pregnant wife alongside other hostages for slaughter at the Orthodox Jewish-owned Nariman House, which, like the Oberoi, was in Colaba.
We were trembling with fear and cursing our luck for being in Leopold’s but, outside on the streets, random passers by were being mown down as the terrorists went from one appointed target to another. I don’t know who is less fortunate; those whom death completely surprises or those like us who hid, waiting in fear for the moment that would signal our agonizing demise.
Downstairs, inside the Leopold, people were dying. One of them was the Indian waiter who had opened the door to let us go upstairs. My thanks to him were probably the last words he ever heard. Or did he die a hero, throwing himself down over some stranger’s body to protect them from the deadly gunfire, like so many of the heroes down there?
Back in our hole, between the cracks and bangs we remained oblivious to all this. We heard only a chilling sound of silence.
I began to shake. It seemed to me that the two women who had come upstairs to go to the toilet were crouched down on my left as I heard the whispers in German of two young women. One of them began uttering stifled whimpers and was clearly crying. She set me off.
In front of me, an Indian man’s voice whispered: “Don’t worry. It will be fine.” Then it must have been his sweating hand that reached out and gently held mine. I concluded it must be the man I had seen coming in after me with his girlfriend. I thought: “It should be her hand he’s holding not mine.”
I didn’t feel I would die. I just wished that my mum was there with me. Why? I don’t know because she could not have done anything. It’s funny the thoughts you have in those situations.
I remember thinking: “Thank God I took travel insurance out.”
At one stage I even thought: “Maybe I could take a photo of us all.” But then I’m Japanese.
I wondered whether if I died I would go to Heaven or simply to nowhere, to nothing. I just prayed it wasn’t all too painful.
I hoped that if the people firing downstairs came and started shooting into the cupboard that I would be shielded by the people in front of me. It didn’t even occur to me that one grenade lobbed into our black hole or the restaurant being set on fire would probably do for us all. Having my own human shield wasn’t a very brave thought and I guess I’m not the hero type. Steve clearly was. He would be the first to get it if they started shooting into our hideaway. Still, I had him to thank for getting me into this mess, and if I hadn’t have insisted on not being hungry, we could be lying down there, each in a pool of our own blood.
I wasn’t the only one on whom the threat of death induced strange reactions. There was the guy near me who, running for his life, decided to take his whisky with him. Perhaps he believed that it would be of help in the next world. There were also the people in there who kept their mobiles on in case loved ones need to contact them.
And sure enough, suddenly one mobile bleeped on receiving a text, then another started ringing just seconds afterwards.
“For God’s sake turn it off! Everybody, please!” whispered a voice.
“You’ll get us killed!” added another.
Another voice came out of the dark:
“Sorry, I have to go downstairs!” It was Steve.
“Stay here!” “Don’t be silly! Stay here!” “Stay here!” other voices implored him.
“Sorry, I have to go,” replied Steve, momentarily shedding light on our tears and sweat as he left before once more firmly closing the cupboard door.
Now, I was unaware that my companion for the evening was a helicopter pilot who had previously spent seven years in the Australian Army. He had decided to put some of his military training to use. Whether or not he had been trained as a kamikaze chief I wasn’t sure as whilst he crawled around on the mezzanine floor, he picked up a butter knife, which he spotted lying on a plate on a table. His intention was to kill one of the terrorists with it.
That plan, it seems did not last long once he saw two gunmen firing into a mass of white people crumpled on the floor below. Instead he took a heavy coffee table and threw it down the stairs to jam the door where my waiter lay dead. The table crashed noisily against the door, and Steve followed it down the stairwell with a bar stool to complete the jamming operation. The noise prompted one of the gunmen to fire a round at the door, missing our hero by twelve inches.
It maybe that the gunmen chose not to bring their deadly menace upstairs for fear of being trapped up there should police arrive. It may also be that they were so crazed by the cocaine and LSD they had taken to sustain their frenzy that they simply ran out of logic. Which ever reason, they left us to ponder our fate.
Every moment I could feel my heart thumping. It seemed to pound so hard that it could give us away more clearly than the continuous whimpering and sniffles of my companions.
Suddenly the hole was lit up by a shaft of light and I felt a surge of pain and fear pass through my stomach.
A voice said quietly: “It’s OK to come out now.”
We had survived.
It was all over – or so I thought.
We crawled out of the cupboard like illegal migrants blinking as we entered into the light. I was last out and Steve was there to greet me, apologising: “I’m sorry I left you but I had to go and see what was happening. I jammed the main door to the stairs.”
I noticed a bullet hole in the terrace window close to where we had been about to sit and down below on the restaurant floor I could see empty gun cartridges
For a short while there was still an eerie silence. Downstairs, there were two elderly couples lying dead, each with the man lying on top of the woman as if trying to protect her. There were people lying wounded. London actor,Joey Jeetun, was covered in blood but had survived because of the incredible heroism of an Indian man who had told the actor to get down then thrown his body across him.
In all ten people, including my waiter had been killed. However, as we trooped down the stairs into the restaurant we didn’t see the results of the carnage. Steve chaperoned everyone out, telling us not to look to our left where the bodies were piled. Behind me came the Indian man who had held my hand and his Indian girlfriend. The two young German women still looked very scared. Two air stewardesses, they declared that they had left their bags down in the restaurant and needed to find them as they were due to fly off the next day. I thought to myself how fortunate they were that one of them had wanted to use the toilet, and that there was something to be said for women accompanying each other to the bathroom, because her friend following her upstairs had also escaped death or injury.
I snatched a brief glimpse back over my left shoulder and caught sight of a man’s trousered leg lying motionless on the floor. I assumed that the man was dead.
A television cameraman was already on the ground floor taking pictures. In the media world scoops make vultures out of artists. It seemed he had rushed to the scene more quickly than the police who had only arrived five minutes after the shooting had ceased even though they were stationed over the road. The cameraman offered to find the German women’s bags
As we walked across the restaurant floor to leave the bloody scene of bullet holes and smashed up furniture we were confronted by a mass of peering Indians photographing us with their mobile phones. I thought: “It’s almost like we are movie stars.”
Joey Jeetan, the actor, who had played being a suicide bomber and ironically survived in Leopolds by playing being a dead victim of the massacre, was later arrested by the security forces who suspected him of being one of the Mumbai terrorists.
Continue with Into the Fire