When Professor P V Viswanath was requested by the Jewish Chabad movement in New York to monitor the Indian media’s coverage of the 26/11 terror attack while it was still underway — Nariman House, where the Mumbai Chabad centre was located, was one of the sites of the attack — he didn’t imagine he would end up talking to a terrorist over the phone.
But as it turned out, somebody at the New York headquarters was frantically trying to reach Mumbai’s Chabad Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg on his cellphone, and suddenly, the phone was answered. The person on the other end identified himself as Imran, one of the two gunmen, speaking in what appeared to be Urdu.
Born in Kerala and schooled in Mumbai, the Tamil-Brahmin Viswanath has been in the United States for nearly four decades. A PhD holder in economics and finance, he teaches corporate finance at the Lubin School of Business, Pace University, New York. Keenly interested in languages, he speaks French, Spanish, Tamil, Hindi, Urdu and Yiddish fluently, as well as some German, Italian, Hebrew, Marathi, Malayalam and Bengali.
“My Jewish identity is an addition to my pre-existing south Indian and Hindu identities and I am constantly trying to better understand and integrate my different identities,” says Viswanath, a practising Jew. And, while those at the Chabad HQ didn’t know it then, Viswanath had actually visited Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg in Mumbai and was acquainted with them. There could not have been a better person to play interpreter.
“They arranged for me to speak to the person, but with another Chabad Rabbi also on the line. The idea was never that I’d be the person negotiating and talking to Imran, but that I’d be the translator. “ He says it was an “overwhelming” experience, for somebody with no experience of negotiation in a hostage situation.
Recounting the three or four conversations that took place between about 8 pm and 5 am New York time, Viswanath (60) says those at the Chabad HQ were mainly trying to find out from Imran what was going on in Nariman House, their uppermost concern being to free the hostages.
“Imran was very interested in justifying himself,” Viswanath says. “It was not clear why he was picking up the phone at all.”
At one point, Imran wanted to be put in touch with someone in the Indian government. Later, he said the Holtzbergs were safe. “Ek thappad bhi nahi maara hai,” he had said.
In 2007, Viswanath had spent a day at the Chabad-Nariman House. “My memories of the house are very positive, especially of the pleasant nature and openness of Gabby (Gavriel). Even though Gabby dealt mainly with Americans and Israelis visiting and passing through Mumbai, I was very impressed with his efforts to connect not only with the indigenous Bene Israel community, but also with the broader non-Jewish Indian community,” Viswanath says.
Hours into their negotiation, the professor says, he was struck by how banal the conversation was in a sense, except for the content. “We could have been talking about anything, with some disagreements.” Imran was not shouting or shrieking, but the conversation was not really moving forward — they could not even find out what had happened to the visitors and the Rabbi and his family.
Holtzberg’s cellphone eventually ran out of charge, and they could no longer get through. Viswanath says he was left with a feeling of helplessness, but over the years, has had occasion to think deeply about the essential commonality of all human beings.
“It is not so simple as to say these are evil people and let’s get rid of them. I think all of us can be manipulated by pieces of information or things we hope are true, or small bits of hate or suspicion about the ‘other’. “ he says. “We have such close relationships with people in our community that often those who talk differently or act differently seem foreign to us. It’s so easy to think bad things about them, you know, given the wrong pieces of information.”
Viswanath says he feels strongly that one has to constantly remind oneself of the humanity of everybody. “And that’s really the way to fight this evil.”