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Sunil Sethi: A friend's terror and disappearance

AL FRESCO

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At 12.34 past midnight on Wednesday I received the following text message from my friend at the Taj in Mumbai: “There is firing going on. My room in darkness. TV off. Phone on silent. They are inside. I’m scared and totally alone.” At 12.45 am another: “This is desperate. There are terrorists inside.” After that the messages petered out. There was no further response to my texts t asking if she was safe, or if she could possibly make contact with staff or other guests.

I knew she was going to Mumbai to attend a journalist colleague's son's wedding. She had carefully planned the trip to coincide with a stay at the Taj, at the hotel's invitation, to taste the food in their restaurants. It was a job she undertook often as a leading food writer and restaurant reviewer. As a special guest, the management put her in a suite on the sixth floor, near rooms occupied by the general manager's family. Wednesday evening was the main wedding reception but Sabina was feeling unwell; she told a friend that she would make a brief appearance and come back early. (Other guests, also at the wedding, were informed by the hotel management not to return.) She asked the bearer outside her door to get her some medicine. He never came back. To a friend who spoke to her at 10.30 pm after seeing the first images of the hotels under attack, begging her to come to her house instead of returning to the Taj, Sabina said, “But I’m back already...there’s trouble here...I can hear shooting outside.”

What happen to Sabina Sehgal Saikia, indeed, to hundreds of other hotel guests and staff that night that will slowly emerge in a composite of stories to unlock the calamitous failure of national intelligence, anti-terrorist machinery and disaster management. How else is it possible that two dozen terrorists can bring the command of the police, elite defence and commando forces to their knees in a battle that has raged for two nights and two days, and with no end in sight? For the last 48 hours I have been witness to the misery and frustration of Sabina’s husband, brother and her numerous friends and media colleagues to find out what happened. They have been combing the city’s hospitals and morgues, been in touch with hotel and authorities, scouring her mysterious cell phone record which shows last calls from Raigad of all places— but there is no tangible information, only speculation, each new report more bizarre than the last.

From the terrorists’ perspective, the operation was a masterclass in meticulous planning, coordinated strategy and skilled information-gathering. The devil is in the details, it’s said, and the exercise was as precise in its targets as in its powerful symbolism and in paralysing the metropolis. In the Taj takeover, clearly their first objective was to get to the top floor of the old wing as swiftly as possible, close to the dome and the sea-facing suites, and set them on fire for the world to see.

What more potent image could there be than of the Taj going up in flames? Whether they lobbed grenades in the upper corridors or shot their way into rooms, they knew the map of the hotel well. As Ratan Tata pointed out, they seemed well-acquainted with the hotel’s back office—the labyrinth of interlinked Victorian-era stairs, nooks and subterranean kitchens that link the 400 rooms of the old block to the new. It’s the reason the Taj is taking longer to purge than the Trident and Oberoi, with the stories changing with alarming frequency: first, one injured terrorist left, one hostage, two to three terrorists or more hostages.

The rooms are still being opened, one by one, and unless there is evidence to the contrary Sabina’s family and friends are waiting, hoping for a miracle.

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