Feeling the Horror
I never knew that the sound of gunfire could be so loud...
I never knew that with each grenade blast, the ground beneath me would vibrate and I would have to shake the noise off my mind, before I could think again.
I never knew that my job could take me to such a place where I would witness something so real and horrific just a few meters from where I was standing.
I never knew that a man standing a few steps away from me could be hit by a stray bullet...
Mumbai was attacked, but it was the nation that was held hostage.
I still can't believe this all happened! As I try to write it down, the reality of it sinks in further.
I had reported before from Faizabad, Jaipur, and Delhi when blasts had struck there, visiting after the explosions to report on what had happened, in the past tense. But this time, I was present as the terror unfolded in the form of intense gunfire and grenade explosions. Reporting on the siege of Mumbai from outside the Taj Hotel, it occurred to me that this was what today's reality was all about. I could see NSG commandos alighting from their vans outside the Gateway of India: looking smart in their battle gear, they would zip across one by one towards the Taj - on the way hiding behind lamp posts to take a moment and cautiously stare at the one open window on the first floor of the hotel where the terrorists were holed up. One commando would be waiting with his weapon cocked... ready to provide covering fire if the terrorists pulled the trigger. With a quick glance, decisive eye contact and a confident nod, the commandos would move ahead and enter the porch of the hotel. I could spot commandos hiding behind jeeps and cars with their weapons drawn.
As I watched, I realised, "Oh my God! I had seen this in the movies!!" I stared in awe and amazement and felt...this is as real as it gets. The closest I had come to gun battles was as Max Payne, or that saviour in DOOM, or the protagonist of Medal of Honor. Sitting comfortably in bed with the laptop in front of me, using arrow keys to crouch behind trees and duck flying bullets, taking down my enemies one shot after the other, and the best part of course - starting over whenever I "died". Only here, I couldn't find the keyboard. I couldn't press that escape button to end all that was happening.
I was reporting before the camera with my back to the Taj when suddenly I heard a loud burst of gunfire which seemed to be coming in our direction. I saw all reporters and cameramen head for cover, some were lying flat, including my cameraman Sunil. I dashed behind a Chevrolet Tavera.
After that, we would often hear a sudden burst of fire from the terrorists, countered with precise shots from the NSG indicating an obvious confrontation somewhere inside. Every bullet fired, every grenade lobbed, would trigger a series of thoughts in my mind. I would try and imagine what it must be like inside - for the hostages and for the commandos. I had a car to duck behind but what about all of them inside? I couldn't even begin to understand that terror and uncertainty they were living through, and I prayed that they would be fine.
But it wasn't all just happening inside... about 5 people away from me... I suddenly heard a man yell, his hands stuck to his back. He was bleeding. A stray bullet had just grazed his back. Just five minutes ago - I had been standing where he was.
The operation went on like that through the full day of the 28th of November. It was the next day which proved to be the climax.
There was a lull after 3:00am on the 29th morning. But it wasn't the end. My colleague George and I were on duty and things had been quiet for a while, when the battle started again. I thought I would've got used to the noise of bullets, but it seemed to have grown even louder. We lay flat on the ground - trying to sit up from time to time but every noise forced us to crouch again. Lying down on the ground I stared up at the Taj as smoke billowed out of the first floor. I remembered standing there with my family as they took photographs when we had visited what was then Bombay - I had been just 8, and the city had impressed me no end, having skyscrapers then while Delhi had none. And the Taj...
Today, that spectacular dome was engulfed in smoke... a symbol of Mumbai obscured by that cloud of terror. The firing had intensified, there were non-stop gunshots from the NSG, the targets had perhaps been sighted and cornered, we guessed... more loud explosions and then there was silence. The operation was over... four terrorists killed!
Even as I sit and write this I find it hard to believe that all this actually happened. It seems so surreal. I tried very hard to focus on every little thing that I had seen - it's tough when so much happens around you. The three days of the operations seem to have passed in a blur. It was all so fast, much like the bullets flying all over the place. But for those who lost their loved ones, for those who fought bravely inside and for those who died in the line of duty... it was all real, and continues to be so, as the investigation, the search for solutions and the blame-game continues.
Sadly, Mumbai today has too many spots where one recalls moments of terror and irreparable loss. And the Taj, the Oberoi, Nariman House, VT Station, Café Leopold and Girgaum Chaupati have all added to that list. In the years to come, people will drive past these spots, slow down their cars and think of all the horror that unfolded inside these buildings from the 26th till the 29th of November, 2008. They will remember how, once again, terror touched the lives of unsuspecting, ordinary, innocent people like you and me.