Saturday, November 29, 2008

So, Where Were We?

At dawn, it rains, a benison on beleaguered Mumbai. In the morning, we wake to wet pavements and a free city. The temperature drops from the mid-thirties to a gentle twenty-eight - at home, we’d be rootling out the charcoal, and ringing round to see who’s got a bag of buns, to go with the sausages in our freezer, but here, it’s just nicely do-able.

The gates in the basement of Verona are still locked; the security guard has to unbolt them, to let me out. The air’s soft with rain and a new lightness, as yesterday’s determined chin of defiance sags with relief. Everybody goes about their business, not jubilant, just quietly glad.

How difficult was it, for you?” a Times Now reporter asks a commando, as he hops onto a bus with his comrades, once the Taj is secured, and they’re allowed to clock off. He grins, and shakes his head. “For us, nothing is difficult.” Before the translator reaches the end of the sentence, I have tears in my eyes.

The Black Cat commandos are out, blinking in the morning sun, after sixty hours of unimaginable strain. They look like they could do with twenty-four hours’ sleep, a shave, and a hug from their Mums; not necessarily in that order. The camera catches one of them, mobile in hand, leaning on the harbour wall, overlooking the Arabian Sea. His smile says everything.

Azam Amir Kasav, sole surviving terrorist, is only twenty-one years old. On its front page, the Times of India refers to him, in a matey way, as Azam, but by page two, they’re calling him Kasav. Either way, he’s from Pakistan, and confesses the plan to blow up the entire Taj hotel. According to him, the team undertook the assignment, in the belief that they would come out alive: this was no suicide mission, the police find the chart of their proposed return route, by sea.
Word now is, the terrorists were heavily drugged. What is this drug, which will remove all fear, but leave a person capable of operating an AK47? Mad, misguided, barbarous, clean-shaven and well-pressed – yet every one of them, some mother’s son, as my Nan used to say.

Every visitor we have wants to see the Gateway of India. It’s disappointing, I always say. It’s in the Lonely Planet Guide, they always say back. So we go. “Gateway of India, please, Monu,” I mumble, as we climb into the car, avoiding his eye. Monu doesn’t say anything, but he can go Tch! with his shoulders, and does. The Gateway’s a two-hour drive, even with three Ganeshes on the dash-board and a following wind. (This is what I say to Worried of Stokesley, when the terrorists land in Colaba. Even if they had our actual names on a hit-list, we could be in London, with time to take in a show, before they reach Powai by road...) We pile out of the car, crumpled, and take in the grubby glory of the Gateway. In practice, you can hardly look at it anyway, you’re so busy swatting away touts, flogging everything from plastic Eiffel Towers to dubious ice-cream out of a bucket, as well as photographers brandishing digital cameras, with tiny portable printers round their necks, and picturesque child-beggars in rags and bare feet. I have yet to see the Gateway, not shrouded in tattered tarpaulin and bamboo scaffolding. Now you’ve seen that, I say, turning our visitor round, look at this. The Taj Mahal Hotel. The doormen wear puttees, and have moustaches as wide as buffalo horns – they’re very smiley, even when you’ve got a red nose and mad hair, straight off the boat from Elephanta Island. The Taj is an oasis of civilisation.

And now it’s gutted, despite all its tinkling chandeliers and priceless antiques. The cameras are allowed in again. In the ruined hotel foyer, where so many people died, a tall vase of gladioli stands, untouched, on a side table.

Security in India is stricter than in the UK. You enter every mall through a magic doorway, and have to surrender your bag for scrutiny. “What are you doing reading this poster?” chides the billboard on the steps of In Orbit, “when you could be looking around for suspicious objects?” I am routinely waved in with a smile, whereas Mr Roland gets frisked, every time – not because I am lovely and he looks shifty, it’s a boy/girl thing. Terrorist organisations across the world are coming to realise this loophole, and are using not only women, but women with mental handicaps, in burkhas, on suicide missions.

Five-star hotels are the regular stamping-ground of ex-pats, in a country which does neither pubs nor street caf├ęs. We turn into the drive, and stop, while the security men give the car the once-over. Monu pops the bonnet open, and they look inside, to discover that that’s where we keep the engine. They run a handbag mirror, lashed to a stick-on-wheels, under all four sides of the car, in as many seconds. If they’re really rigorous, or short of things to do, they tap the boot, and Monu surrenders the ignition key, inscrutably, while they check out the monsoon box and the emergency umbrella. I sit in the back, smiling, trying to make the guards smile back. They always do, waving us on. “Just because the boot’s full of kittens and lollipops,” I say, “it doesn’t mean I haven’t got a grenade in my handbag.” Monu laughs. – It hasn't seemed so funny, since Wednesday.

The death toll stands at 195, as I write, comprising crack anti-terrorist officers, policemen, tourists, businessmen, waitresses, even children. Every Indian we speak to is angry, not scared. Now the guns are cooling, the name and shame game has begun, and politicians abandon the united front they assumed in troubled times. Obvious suspects, like Pakistan and Al-Qaeda, are top of the list, but Britain is also implicated, because two of the dead terrorists are carrying British passports. Even Taj staff are accused of complicity. It’s going to take longer to sort out, than it did to live through.

Our year in India is so nearly over. We won’t be bullied into scuttling home early, nor do we want to stay out of stubborn foolhardiness. When the dust settles – sadly, literally – we will see, and decide. Until then, a waiting game.