26/11 attacks: At Badhwar Park, how a ODI match saved many from terrorists’ bullets

That Badhwar Park was spared, they said, was all thanks to cricket. That evening, India was playing England in the fifth ODI of a seven-match bilateral series in Cuttack and the fishermen were glued to their television sets in their sea-side homes.

November 25, 2018 2:33:45 am

The sun has set hours ago and a pandal near the jetty at Badhwar Park is brightly lit for a religious event that appears to be winding up. Along the road that has traffic zooming past it are fishing trawlers, some turned upside down, for repair. Like they do every evening, three elderly fishermen sit on an upturned boat catching up on the day’s events after dinner.

“They arrived right here,” they said while pointing at the sandy land strewn with litter. While November 26, 2008 is etched in their memory, they only seem to realise now that a decade has passed since 10 Pakistanis landed in their urban fishing village around 8.30 pm and unleashed carnage that brought Mumbai to a standstill.

That Badhwar Park was spared, they said, was all thanks to cricket. That evening, India was playing England in the fifth ODI of a seven-match bilateral series in Cuttack and the fishermen were glued to their television sets in their sea-side homes.

“Had there been no match that day, many of us would have been sitting here. We would have certainly questioned them if we saw strange men landing here. We can’t even think of what they would have done if we tried to stop them,” said one of the men.

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The day, one of the darkest in the history of the coastal megapolis, put Badhwar Park on the world map. Prior to that it existed in the shadow of its plush Cuffe Parade neighbourhood.

Fishing activity continues into the night as the two men bring back fresh catch of mackerel, locally called Bangda, in a big yellow container strung to an oar.

Leading up to the jetty is a long stretch full of at least 50 defunct fishing vessels and several small boats . Parking in his white sedan among the vessels is 27-year-old Sunny Dhanur, a banker. Of his six brothers, only two have joined the family’s fishing business.

“My aunt’s husband Bharat Tandel was sitting at the shore that night. He saw them alight here and told everyone that some men had come in an inflatable dinghy. He tried to ask them who they were but they ignored him. Everybody else was watching the cricket match,” says Dhanur, who was then a school student.

Tandel is no more. “He passed away two to three years after the attack,” he said. He is, however, remembered in the community as the witness to the beginning of mayhem in Mumbai.

Dhanur said in the last 10 years, life in Badhwar Park has seen some changes. “Earlier, we never had foreign tourists coming here. Nobody was interested in seeing Badhwar Park. The tourists started showing up only after 26/11.”

Praveen Tandel, chairman of the Machchimar Sarvoday Sahakari Society — established in 1968 — which has more than 3,000 members from Badhwar Park, said the community has been keeping an eye out for “outsiders”. “The people in our Machchimar Nagar have been very alert. If we see anyone from outside, they are asked to leave immediately. We don’t let them stay a minute longer,” said Praveen.

He remembers that day in 2008. “I was at the sea fishing when my daughter called me and said that there had been bomb blasts in the city. I panicked. I told my family to stay put at home and lock the door.”

He added that the few elderly fisherman, who didn’t much care for cricket and were out of their homes, saw the men arrive in a dinghy. They were alarmed but did not imagine them to be terrorists. “They came across as some kind of goons. Who would have thought they were terrorists?”

If it wasn’t for the uniformed men at its entrance, the police chowki at Badhwar Park would have been lost in the maze of two-storey homes of about a thousand families that live in winding lanes of the fishing village. The chowki has two rooms and a watching post atop its asbestos roof.

Standing up on the post with binoculars hanging around his neck, a policeman requests anonymity. “The place is usually quiet. Fisherfolk go about doing their business as usual. They have moved on since the attacks. I can’t really say whether they are vigilant or not. But we are,” he said. The tall pole next to the chowki is mounted with CCTV cameras pointed in different directions of the fishing village.

“In the recent years, petty quarrels among residents have been brought to our notice. Nothing very serious has been reported and round-the-clock patrol is done in the area,” said Rashmi Jadhav, senior Inspector, Cuffe Parade Police station under which Badhwar Park falls.

She added the fishing village is a “visarjan (immersion) point” and there is increased police deployment during festivals like Ganeshotsav, Durga Puja and Chhath Puja.

Machchimar Nagar has its own character. Nylon nets protect fish drying on bamboo scaffoldings from the neighbourhood’s feline population.

In the reticulation of narrow and congested lanes, in which one is suddenly met with a red two-door refrigerator or a large television, women don’t seem to have the time to catch a breath. They are brooming their houses, combing their daughters’ hair, filling up water and more often than not shelling prawns. Matters of coastal security don’t seem to be an immediate concern.

“Nothing has changed,” said a fisherwoman as she takes an empty garbage bin back to her house.