Embers still burn within the survivors
Lhendup G Bhutia | 21 Nov, 2018
TEN YEARS AGO, as night began to fall on Mumbai’s Babasaheb Ambedkar Nagar colony, a woman lay on the floor of a one-room house. Viju Chauhan was nine-months pregnant. In her twenties then, she sat up, her head propped by a small mound of pillows to watch a cricket match on TV. India was playing England, but she wasn’t paying much attention.
Viju blinked, and nudged her husband. It was time. Outside, little lights from hundreds of TV sets tuned to the match flickered at windows throughout the slum. In its light, the two along with their four-year-old son made their way through the slum and into a waiting taxi. It was close to 9 pm.
Just a few kilometres away, Bhisham Mansukhani was travelling in the opposite direction. He was to attend a wedding reception with his mother at the Taj Palace & Tower Hotel. Mansukhani rarely ever reached such parties early, but this time he would.
Nearby, Sourav Mishra was running late. Sitting at a table in the dimly-lit Leopold Cafe, he looked at his watch. It was nearly 9.30 pm. He wanted to excuse himself. He had a long distance to travel; his apartment was at the other end of the city, in Navi Mumbai. But his two companions that night, friends from France, Kate and Clementine, insisted they order a final plate of golden prawns. It was Mishra’s first time at the café. Filled with people, it had a festive ambience. He gave in.
Unlike the other three, Praveen Kumar Teotia was neither too late nor too early. He had nowhere to go. A commando with the Navy’s special forces unit Marcos (short for Marine Commandos), Teotia had a few hours to kill before reporting to duty. He had reached the Naval base in Colaba from his training programme in Gujarat only a few days earlier. And two days later, he was to go on leave and be on a train to his hometown, Bulandshahr, in Uttar Pradesh.
Teotia was relaxing in front of a TV set, his mind in between the mundane work ahead and his coming break. Then, his reverie snapped. The phone began ringing off the hook and he sensed a commotion. The Naval base grew increasingly tense with every passing minute.
By then, many people across Mumbai were beginning to realise something awful was going on. Sharan Arasa hadn’t switched on his TV set, so he didn’t know the scale of the crisis. But his mobile phone kept ringing. On the other end was the frantic wife of a friend. Her husband, who worked at the Oberoi Trident, wasn’t answering his phone. Some trouble had erupted there, Arasa knew, with a few gunshots being spoken of. A few hours passed. When still no news emerged, Arasa picked up the keys of his father’s Skoda Octavia, sneaked out of home and drove from Juhu, picking up two more friends at Mahim, all the way to South Mumbai to find out what had happened of their friend at the Trident. It was around 11 pm. Unknown to them, he had already been evacuated from the hotel.
In a few minutes, all these individuals would be caught in the vortex of one of the deadliest terror attacks in India. More than 160 people would die that night and in the days that followed. Over 300 more people would get injured. Several parts of Mumbai would come under attack—the crowded Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST); two luxuryhotels Taj Palace & Tower and the Oberoi Trident; a popular tourist watering hole, Leopold Cafe; a public women’s and children’s hospital, Cama and Albless Hospital; and a Jewish community centre—earning the event its own metonym, 26/11.
These five, however, would survive 26/11. They would emerge alive after coming incredibly close to death, but not unscathed. Each of them affected in their own way, their lives reshaped by the trauma of that night.
IN THE CAFÉ, Mishra’s eyes fixed on a tourist a few tables away. With his hair braided in dreadlocks, the man was a dead ringer for Johnny Depp’s pirate character Jack Sparrow. At that moment, the table this lookalike was seated at exploded. It had been a grenade. But Mishra did not know that.
Mishra’s body began to move, as though beyond his mind’s control. He saw a woman in a black dress, perhaps dead, sprawled on the floor. There were bullets being fired, but he wasn’t quite sure. The café had one side open to Colaba’s main thoroughfare, a street stunned into silence as his body tried to push him into passing vehicles. He got into one, but the driver threw him out.
He was bleeding, he realised. He thought he was dying. He wasn’t entirely incorrect. Many people bled to death that night. And then, he found himself being carried. A man, who he later found was a hawker named Kishore, not more than 19 years old, was carrying him away from the site of the attack to put him in a taxi a few yards away.
The hotel was like a war zone. There was smoke, blood and bodies everywhere, says Bhisham Mansukhani, hostage at the Taj Palace & Tower Hotel on 26/11
Mishra was in all probability the first26/11 victimto be brought to St George Hospital. In another hour, several more victims would be brought in from CST, located next to it. So when Mishra first arrived at the hospital, seeing a gunshot wound and the possibility that he might have been involved in a gang war, its staff were a little hesitant to admit him.
Just a kilometre away, at Cama Hospital, Viju was admitted to a ward on the third floor. Viju gulped in fear as she heard the resident doctor’s prognosis: she was going to deliver that night. Little crackling sounds came from a distance. “Maybe a wedding,” she thought. “Maybe India won [the match].”
Her husband Shyamu was making his way down with a list of medicines to be purchased, when he saw, in front of him, two bodies slumped on the floor. Shyamu ran backwards now, until he reached the ward on the third floor. By then, others in the ward had begun to discern the sound of gunshots. They turned off the lights, shut the door and stacked metal beds against it. Other patients and their relatives, Shyamu noticed, began hiding themselves inside trash cans. Holding an iron rod in his hands, with his trembling son behind him, Shyamu turned to the female doctor. “I told her, ‘You take care of Viju, I will take care of this’,” Shyamu recalls. Stifling her screams, sweating profusely now, Viju was taken by the doctor and nurses to the delivery room, where a single tubelight was switched on.
At the door, Shyamu and the ward boy hatched a plan. If the attacker broke in, the ward boy told Shyamu, he was to snatch the gun. The ward boy would jump on the terrorist. Shyamu had another backup plan. If they failed, he would pick his son and jump from the third floor window.
The building began to shake and rattle now. In the delivery room, Viju was giving birth. Shyamu took the rod into a tighter grip now. A loud banging sound could be heard. The terrorists were right outside.
Mansukhani was at the bar of the Crystal Ballroom on the first floor of the old wing in the Taj when what sounded like firecrackers rang through the air. Only a few people had showed up by then. Even the groom and the bride were in a room on one of the floors above. They would be evacuated later.
When the glass panel above the bar came shattering down, the guests realised these weren’t firecrackers. The hotel staffers quickly locked up the room. Within minutes, they were being escorted through service corridors into another part of the hotel. They were brought to the Chambers. Located on the first floor of the new wing, this was an exclusive space that catered to select patrons of the hotel. Given its relative isolation, it was assumed to be the safest place to hide.
More and more people were brought in here. At one point, there were over a 100 people, Mansukhani recalls. And although the crowd began to swell, nobody was particularly alarmed. “We were all chatting on phones, laughing and joking among one another. We all thought we would be evacuated shortly,” he says.
Mansukhani got a message from a friend asking if he was alright. His reply: ‘At the room with the largest single malt collection [of whiskies in the country, as the Chambers was reputed to have]. And I haven’t spilt a drop.’
Just a floor above, Teotia was making his way through smoke and darkness. He was part of the second Marcos team that had entered the hotel. He was the point man of this group of eight commandos: since he must walk ahead of the rest, it meant he would be the first to walk into an ambush.
Sourav Mishra has taken up painting. It is because he thought he was going to die that his life now seems a gift
It was around 3 am when they entered the hotel. Members of the earlier group joined them. As point man, he was the first to enter a dark dining area. In the darkness, suddenly to his right, the safety catch of an AK-47 went off. Within seconds, he was on the floor, blood trickling down his neck. His left ear had been ripped off. The rest of the team had retreated, leaving Teotia alone. He retaliated by opening fire. But more gunshots went off in the room. He realised then that all four terrorists were holed up in the same room.
Teotia lobbed a grenade at them. “This was the turning point,” he would later recount. “It went all downhill from there.” The grenade didn’t explode. According to him, if it had, the commandos would have managed to secure the hotel that very night.
The terrorists and he exchanged fresh rounds of fire, this whole encounter lasting nearly half an hour. Around that point, his team outside, giving him up for dead, began to lob tear gas shells. One went off very close to Teotia. He had very little chance now. Either he stayed in the room, suffocating from the shell, or he could risk death and make a mad rush for the door. He chose the latter. Placing his gun to the hip, firing as he moved, he started running towards the exit. He reached outside and collapsed. He had taken three more bullets to the chest, one ripping cleanly through a lung.
A floor below, patience was running thin. The people huddled in the Chambers had realised the situation was a lot more serious than they’d pictured. A little after 3 am, the staff came up with an evacuation plan of their own. Small groups of around four would quietly use the corridors, slip down the stairs, and hopefully make it to the exit. The plan failed miserably. Within a few minutes of the attempt, terrorists had shown up and begun shooting.
According to Mansukhani, it was news channels that had let out information that guests were holed up in this part. The guests ran back into the rooms. One of the Taj staffers, Rajan Kamble, was shot in front of Mansukhani’s eyes. The guests pulled Kamble back into the room. He spent the rest of the night on a couch, biting his hand to keep himself from crying in pain and giving away their location. He would die a few days later.
At St George Hospital, Mishra lay on a bed, as beside him, more and more dead bodies were being piled up. Below on the floor, one couldn’t walk without stepping on blood. He had been operated upon. A bullet that had broken a rib and lodged itself there had been removed. But in the rush, nobody told him if he would survive.
A nurse arrived then. “Oh, I forgot to tell you,” she told him. “The wound might get infected. But you won’t die.” Another operation would be done later at another hospital to remove the splinters.
Over at Cama Hospital, the terrorists hadn’t been able to break into Viju’s ward. After a standoff with some policemen, the two terrorists had taken over a police Qualis jeep and escaped. Shyamu returned to the delivery room now to find that his wife had delivered a daughter. They would name her Tejaswini. But the name the doctors gave her that night would stick forever. The doctor told Shyamu in jest, ‘Iska naam Goli rakhna’ (Name her ‘Goli’ or bullet.) Tejaswini is still known by that name.
By this time, Arasa was near Vidhan Bhavan. A police Qualis jeep with a flat tyre asked them to pull over. It was the jeep containing the two terrorists. His two friends stepped out of the car and stood on the footpath. Arasa began to move backwards, realising that these two weren’t policemen.
Both the terrorists got into the car. When Arasa looked at his hand, he realised his mistake. Wrapped around his finger was the car’s key. He chucked it towards the passenger side of the car. Kasab asked him to pick it up. At that point, as Arasa picked up the key and looked up, he found a gun aimed at his head.
Arasa looked sideways at his friends on the footpath. One of them met his eye. He could sense he was about to be shot. But the car drove off. Strangely, Kasab had spared him.
Next morning at the Taj, Mansukhani recounts, the door of the room began to shake under the banging of a gun’s butt. Everyone was terrified. But it was only their rescue team. They would still come under attack, with several members of the Taj staff forming a human shield, but they would manage to get out of the hotel and into a waiting bus.
“The hotel was like a war zone,” Mansukhani says. “There was smoke, blood and bodies everywhere.”
FOR MANY YEARS thereafter, the question continued to haunt Arasa. Why hadn’t Kasab killed him? The police would often ask him that. “They would say, ‘He killed even the person who gave him water. Why did he spare you?’” he says. Kasab’s defence team even argued that he was not as heartless as claimed since he had spared Arasa. One of the sole surviving terrorist’s lawyers once asked Arasa this query in court. “I told him, ‘Don’t ask me that. Ask [Kasab]’.”
He remembers being asked to come to Arthur Road Jail to identify Kasab several months later. It was nothing like he had imagined from the movies, where the witness, hidden behind the glass panel, identifies a culprit from a row of suspects. Here they were all in the same room. And he had to identify Kasab by tapping him on the shoulder. “It felt strange to do that,” he says. “But without his guns, he did not look fierce.”
Once Mishra recovered, he made several attempts to find Kishore. He would go to Colaba, try shopkeepers and hawkers, but nobody knew of him. Mishra took up painting and became a more cheerful person. It is because he thought he was going to die that his life now seems a gift, he believes. Many months later, he traced Kishore to a small town in Karnataka. A few months later, he invited him to Mumbai.
For a few years after his attack, Mishra would travel to Colaba every few months to sit across Leopold Cafe by the window of another restaurant .Too afraid to step into Leopold itself, he would sit here to recollect memories of that night. He would wonder if he had behaved poorly—leaving two women as he escaped. It was the way people behaved in panic, he told himself. The two French girls hid under tables because they were taught to do so in disaster management classes. Mishra had never had such classes.
In November 2012, on the insistence of a news channel, Mishra finally returned to Leopold.
Viju and Shyamu, despite thinking they would never have another child, had another daughter, Jaishree, a year later. “By mistake,” says Shyamu. She was born at the same ward, much to the amusement of the hospital staff.
Teotia, however, is bitter. “I didn’t suffer that night,” he says. “I suffered for nine years after that.” He survived four bullet wounds. Several operations were conducted to save him. A few more were conducted to graft a new ear. Even today, his body is riddled with bullet splinters. His right lung doesn’t function properly and he is deaf in the left ear. When Teotia began to walk, it was an incredibly cumbersome process. He remembers feeling miserable as he stood panting on a road, two months after 26/11—he had just been discharged and nobody had shown up at the hospital to receive him—having just gotten off a bus, and now having to make a kilometre-long journey on foot.
He was given a desk job when he rejoined, although, he says, the work was mostly cleaning up after his superiors. Although he won a Shaurya Chakra, his promotions stalled. Many of his immediate superiors rebuked him, he says, calling him names. Unable to train, he began to put on weight. After a few years, determined to not let all this affect him, he began to train again. He started running marathons. This year, he participated in two Ironman competitions in South Africa and Malaysia. These are considered to be among the toughest tests of endurance in the world. Last year, he resigned from the Navy. “It was a challenge,” he says. “People called me names. They said my life was over. I said, ‘Let’s do it, let’s prove it’.”
In February 2009, the Skoda was returned to Arasa. It had bloodstains and bullet holes all over. The driver’s seat, where the terrorist Ismail Khan had died, was particularly messy. It took a month to repair the car. Once Arasa got it back, he employed someone to drive it to Siddhivinayak temple in Dadar. He mustered the courage to take the wheel only on the way back. “For the first 10 minutes, it was eerie,” he says. “Then it got okay.”