Wednesday, December 3, 2008



Picture credit Ritam Banerjee

26 Nov : When the news broke, no one had any idea of the potential devastation coming up. Not inside CST. Not elsewhere.

Exactly a week earlier, Nov 19th, I had taken a local from Vikhroli to VT (the maiden name of CST. As part of VT's maika, my entire childhood, college years were with her, and I shall always refer to her by the earlier name). I walked across to the main line. Even the time was exactly the same - a few minutes before 10 pm, to catch a train to Solapur that was to leave at 10.30. With time on my hands, I sauntered over to purchase a packet of 'soap papers' - a most useful innovation only available at our railway stations, and then a toothbrush that I took my time in choosing. As is usual in India, the shopkeeper, uninvited, advised me on the do's and dont's of choosing the right toothbrush and we had a desultory conversation. There was time yet, so i stopped at the magazine stall as well. Then, a reviving cup of tea. Weaving through people peacefully sitting, some sleeping with their luggage, I made my way to Platform 14 where Siddheswar Express always departs from. The station was exasperatingly crowded as always. So much so, that my 'strolley' overnighter was better carried than pulled behind me. So many dogs as well. Sleeping, walking around. As far back as I can remember, the Central Railways Main Line concourse has belonged to one and all.

And when the news broke on TV at around 10.15 pm 26 Nov night, my friend Rashmi Bansal had just reached home. Her 'getting away' was doubly relieving. As a key organizer of the IIMA alumni do at the Oberoi, where a professor from MIT was the key speaker, she had been at the hotel since noon. Sent me a terse message at 6 pm for having ditched my plans of attending the talk. The alumni gathering ended at 7.45. Our plan had been to stay on - she and I - for one of our 'sisterhood' dinners. For a quick catch up. Usually at Japengo, at the INOX. Idea being that we would catch the locals from VT back home post dinner - she heading to Vashi, me to Vikhroli. Not later than 10 pm.
On 26 Nov she left the hotel at 8.30. And caught the train at 9.15 pm.

When the news broke over the TV channels, it was not yet clear how sophisticatedly ruthless this was going to prove to be. What it sounded like was that one or perhaps two guys in a misguided moment were running amuck inside CST. Perhaps there would be a few injuries.

Peculiar human tendency - a part of the mind was appeased. All those I knew personally, and who were to be in town were now at home. The nagging worry was about the guys who respectively sold me the toothbrush, magazines and tea at VT. But I somehow wanted to believe they would know how to take care of themselves.

It took a couple of hours to sink in. To the world. The audacity . As the scale of the exercise gradually came to light. Taj, Oberoi, Vile Parle, Nariman House... Later in the days to come, we would learn 57 deaths in CST alone, hundreds injured. And nearly 200 acrossboard.

And when a news channel made an announcement just after midnight, that the CEO & MD of a well known company was likely to be inside the Taj, perhaps taken hostage, the mind went numb.

This was my friend and MBA classmate.
How could I find out if all was well? What could I do? Should I text him directly?

I did that anyway, and was frantically calling up other friends and colleagues for confirmation when I was absolutely aghast to receive an sms reply : 'Holed up in Taj. Blasts, firings still on'...

As my blood ran cold, compounding my fear was this: Did the terrorists also have access to the media? Had they also just heard via the media that this MNC's top brass was inside?
Wouldn't that totally and completely compromise their safety? Soon the other channels were picking this up and flashing it as well. I replied back to him - sms again. 'You hang in there, OK?' And more on those lines...
And he again responded immediately.

This morning, I was reading Michael Pollack's spine chilling account of being inside the Taj. I quote here : We were told The Chambers was the safest place we could be because the army was now guarding its two entrances and the streets were still dangerous. There had been attacks at a major railway station and a hospital. But then, a member of parliament phoned into a live newscast and let the world know that hundreds of people--including CEOs, foreigners and members of parliament--were "secure and safe in The Chambers together."

And Pollack goes on to describe how the terrorists soon arrived at the Chambers as well... Some of those hiding escaped. Many did not...

My friend, his wife, his colleagues, and their wives, spent hours in a room on the first floor, before they took a gamble and decided to make a getaway attempt. I cannot even begin to imagine their state of mind through every nanosecond of it all. At 4.45 am, I received a text from him 'With everyone's prayers, we managed to get out safely from the Taj. Thank you all'.

They had made an incredible escape. And a true selfless friend as always, instead of just heading home exhausted, he immediately ensured that all his friends who were in touch with him were put out of this killing suspense.

I can understand that the media was doing what it needed to - and perhaps all the channels were doing the same.
BUT. At the same time, I agree 100% with the view being increasingly expressed - that the media went way over the top.

We saw Karkare.
So did the terror masterminds....
For GODS SAKE this was the ATS chief no less.. the Anti Terrorist Squad chief.. If we have now found satellite phones, cell phones at the Taj, at the Oberoi, why do we believe these two at the CST didn't have any??
We saw the NSG landing atop Nariman House....
So did they...
The unarmed firefighters going up outside the Taj...

The list can go on...

FOR SURE, we need mechanisms in place that clamps down on this media circus in the future. If the government imposed a diktat and banned such telecasts - as a matter of the integrity of the nation (as is often done in relation to defense matters), would not more lives have been saved? Perhaps what we needed was a single point government spokesperson as the source of information.
True this would have been frustrating for us as 'viewers' (voyeurs?). But it may have been a necessary step.
Of course expecting proactive behavior of the present government that has been so out of synch with everything, and MOST of all security... is a different matter.

I am almost tempted to believe in singer Abhijeet's 'conspiracy theory'.

Didn't the constable who was in the back of the ATS team's vehicle, the one who had a narrow escape, mention that they had been told to follow / look out for a red car? Where did that info emanate from, one wonders. Yes, in every way, we as a nation have played into the hands of the strikers of terror .

Another important lesson for all of us, in this past week - politicians, aam aadmi, page three elites - has been the new and always on presence of the 'camera and microphone' that captures anything and everything spoken 'in private'.

In fact, 'in private' is becoming an obsolete term. As we all have to measure our thinking, and mind our p's and q's. This, IMHO, is not a bad thing at all.

Politicians can no longer issue a flat denial as they used to. The Kerala CM, snubbed by Major Unnikrishnan's dad, was captured on camera : 'If it was not for the fact that he was the father of Major Sundeep Unnikrishnan, not even a dog would have gone to meet him'.

And here the media has played an excellent vigilante role - of going after the CM hammer and tongs. One channel even dug out the fact that the CM's office actually did send dogs in, to the Unnikrishnan home in Bangalore. Sniffer dogs had arrived in advance before the CM did... to check 'if all was safe'.

M. Naqvi of the BJP put his foot in his mouth when he ranted on something about 'women campaign against democracy in their lipsticks and powder, speak out against politicians; they are like the terrorists of Kashmir'.

Simi Garewal, the grand ol' dame of indeterminate age and now we see indeterminate experience as well - took the cake and the bakery of this 'foot in the mouth disease' that is afflicting us en masse, when she referred to certain flags seen in the shanties of Mumbai as 'Pakistani flags'.
Once more, driving home to all, how completely disconnected is the Indian elite to the world outside the confines of the air conditioned cars and five star hotels frequented and rendesvous'd in.

What the careless references to dogs, lipsticks, 'small incidents that happen in big cities (R. R. Patil), Pakistani flags (turned out to be religious flags) have proven is this...
Every time we open our big mouths, we tend to shoot it off. Every time we lose sight of being true to humanity and essential value systems - respect, love, a deep caring for the other, we make monumental gaffes.

And I want to emphasize that this is increasingly true for all those of us who are not necessarily in the media glare.
The times we live in, with cameras and mikes on cell phones, careless comments can be captured anytime. These are to be avoided. And I don't mean just for the sake of image - of presenting the right picture.

I have relatives and friends in the US. The Hindu NRIs. What bothers me no end is how loosely some of them come up with 'quick fix' extreme right wing solutions. Even while they call to find out if all is well - in Mumbai.
Stereotypes abound, and unfortunately these 'extremists' of a different nature have zero connection to ground realities. The reality of young molten happening India. A united India that recognizes the real enemy - of apathy.

Would this bigotry be expressed on TV? Mostly no! Because somewhere deep down even they are aware of both the incendiary nature as well as the lack of clarity of their privately expressed feelings if aired.

This is precisely what I mean. In the new interconnected world of the 24x7 glare of technology, it may not be a bad thing at all, to be far more circumspect. The more one thinks things through, learns to appreciate all perspectives, the sharper our value systems. The social-skills and inter-personal skills. The clarity of thought. And then the passion for productive change.

Just take a look at how Michael Pollack speaks of his recounting of his terror filled night. He is one person who would have been excused had he felt radical emotions. Yet what he says is this:
We later learned that the terrorists went along a different corridor of The Chambers, room by room, and systematically executed everyone: women, elderly, Muslims, Hindus, foreigners. A group huddled next to Anjali was devout Bori Muslims who would have been slaughtered just like everyone else, had the terrorists gone into their room. Everyone was in deep prayer and most, Anjali included, had accepted that their lives were likely over. It was terrorism in its purest form. No one was spared...

And he has the greatness to say :

It is much easier to destroy than to build, yet somehow humanity has managed to build far more than it has ever destroyed.

Last word :

As I write this, thousands are gathering at the Gateway of India. And other towns and cities. And I see true passion here. What is liberating is that there is no need to hide these fiery yet not loosely expressed feelings.

The freedom of speech of speaking from the heart...

Like blogging - Here one can get away with venting our feelings such as me calling the current bunch of Indian politicians snakes in the grass!!
Which they are, they are, THEY ARE.

LET US ALL VOW TO STOP PAYING EACH AND EVERY BRIBE WE ARE ASKED FOR, FROM NOW ON. We only line the pockets of this most corrupt breed.

And I go thru CST tomorrow. Keeping my fingers crossed. That I meet the chaiwala, the shopkeeper and the magazine stall guy.



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