By Mythreyee Ramesh
It was to have been a night of fun and laughter. But 26/11 at Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, eight years ago, life as he knew it suddenly changed for Bhisham Mansukhani, a freelance journalist.
Bhisham and his mother were at the iconic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel to attend the wedding reception of a friend. Having met a few of his friends at the hotel’s lobby, they decided to proceed to the banquet hall where the reception was being held.
“A few of us decided to have a drink. That was when we thought we heard firecrackers,” he recounts. Even as they were wondering about firecrackers inside the hotel, the glass panel above the bar shattered. Suddenly there was gunfire. “We all ran and hid under the tables,” recounted Bhisham.
Emotional even eight years after the incident, he narrates how the staff at the Taj Mahal Palace made all the difference, saving so many lives that night. “I did not realise the intensity of the attack at first. I thought it was a gangster attack and would be over soon. The staff led us through the Chambers from the banquet hall and we were locked there. More and more people were added to the chamber, as the night wore on. That was when I realised it was more serious than anticipated. Suddenly, we heard that the dome was on fire. I thought to myself, this was as serious as it gets,” he says.
A few hours later, an evacuation was planned but right when they were to head out, there was a barrage of gunshots by terrorists. “There was complete chaos in the corridor. People were running around, women and children were crying, leading to a stampede in the corridor. I wasn’t reacting. I stood there frozen,” he recalled.
That’s when Rajan Kamble, the Taj staffer, was shot, trying to save a guest, right in front of Bhisham’s eyes. He narrates, painfully, how Kamble was laid on a couch and doctors in the room tried to save his life. He also recalled how Kamble had to bite on his hand so as to not cry out in pain and give away their location. “ My mother was sitting opposite to me, quietly praying. I went from feeling a tiny sense of hope to wanting it to end. I thought it was better for us to be shot at. Hope had turned to fatalism.”
As the morning came, there was a loud bang on the door, the staff carefully opened the door a crack to find the marine commandos .
“As we entered the Taj lobby, there was a thick sheet of blood, glass was broken all around and the air was thick with gunpowder, making us all tear up. It was like a scene out of a film,” he said, recalling the minutest details, clearly still fresh in his mind.
As they stepped outside, letting some sense of comfort engulf them, they heard gun fire from the top floor. While the cops who were supposed to protect them ran for shelter, the staff formed a human chain around them and bravely escorted them to the BEST buses that were stationed outside for them. “I never thought I could get out of the hotel. It is an experience that is going to stay with me always. We were all vulnerable, and the NSG commandos and the staff were incredibly brave and saved us that day. It has made me realise the randomness of life but also that randomness is reality,” says Bhisham.
While he confesses to not understanding the concept of justice and revenge, he says that we should make peace with the fact that we will always be vulnerable. “Something inherently changes the way you see things after you’ve seen a terrorist attack. Some get captured and killed, some just get away. There is no closure. There is no explanation,” he explained, responding to how life has changed for the last eight years.
He was moved when terrorists attacked the Bataclan Theatre in Paris, last November. Having spent many months in Paris, he describes the city of Paris as a beautiful city with an essence of innocence and freedom. When the Bataclan attack occurred, he couldn’t help notice how Mumbai had become a template for terrorists to use.
While his mother and him make it a point to not discuss the attack, the one time they did not see eye to eye was when they took opposing stands to capital punishment. “If you respond to death with death and anger with anger, it is not going to work. It will make us fearful of living ordinary lives. I am saying this not just as a survivor,” he says.