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December 02, 2008

In Mumbai, Life-Saving Hospitality in the Heat of Battle

The newly reopened Leopold Cafe, Monday, December 1, 2008.
Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP Photo

by Guy Martin

Terror attacks can be defined by the bits of war architecture that they're missing. The self-styled Deccan Mujahideen didn't bother to insinuate bombs onto mass transit or to hijack passenger jets. Instead, these were amphibious assault troops. For putatively insane Islamo-fascists, that's a new tactical niveau.

However. What will never get cut from the terror playbook is their commanders' selection of the hospitality industry--specifically, hotels and restaurants--as soft targets. The institutions of travel are, by definition, open. We travel for sustenance, for respite, for trade, for stimulation. Hospitality is the daily practice of sustaining the billions of us who are on the move. At its best, hospitality is the practice of grace.

As a locus of hospitality, Indian culture stands at the origins of human occupancy of the globe, so that, here in the cradle, the act of extending oneself to a guest has a well-burnished, ancient, unconquerable sort of calm. Specifically, during the 86 hours that Mumbai's restaurants, hospitals, and hotels were under siege from the assassins--as the army and police struggled to pull even with the ferocity of the multiple events--literally hundreds of hotel guests and restaurant-goers were saved by level-headed waiters, busboys, front desk personnel, and managers. It was divine generosity, or put another way, hospitality as the last wall of defense against the abyss.

Over the next few weeks, Mumbai--and India, and the world--will grapple with the magnitude of last week's attacks. In the meantime, let us salute just a few of the dozens who tried their best, in times of extreme threat, to fend off the barbarity with nothing at hand but their humanity.

Under the initial hail of bullets on Wednesday night, the waiters at Leopold Café tried to lead diners through to a back door. The general manager of the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, Karambir Kang, working outside the hotel bringing patrons to safety, lost his wife, Neeti, and two young daughters, to one of the diversionary fires set by the terrorists. He stayed on duty outside, assisting the police and passing out water. The front desk personnel at the Oberoi and Trident hotels successfully informed some 200 guests to lock themselves in their rooms after the property had been taken by the assassins.

The labyrinthine century-old Taj presented an excruciating war of wits: How quickly could the staff hide guests before the terrorists, who had studied the layout of the property, could find and kill them? Nitin Minocha, a sous chef at the Golden Dragon, the hotel's Chinese restaurant just off the lobby, barricaded the doors as the terrorists stormed in, buying enough time for him and his co-workers to lead some 200-plus diners to an upstairs series of club rooms called The Chambers. Then the kitchen staff proceeded to feed everybody for three days. Minocha was shot in the arm escorting guests to freedom. Six kitchen staffers were killed. The staff of the Sea Lounge, on the second floor, bedded its guests down in the bar. A Taj maintenance worker went in as the guide for the marine assault unit during one of the roughest gun battles on Thursday.

Dr. Prashant Mangeshikar, his wife Tilu, also a doctor, and their daughter were, incredibly, saved twice by Taj staffers. The Mangeshikars were in the hotel lobby as the gunmen burst in and the mayhem began. They were shepherded into the Golden Dragon, then upstairs to The Chambers, where they spent the siege. At dawn Thursday, security forces instructed them to come downstairs and evacuate in small groups of four, but the terrorists were waiting. The Mangeshikars' group came face to face with one of the gunmen. 

"He looked young and did not speak to us. He just fired," Mangeshikar told reporters.  "The man in front of my wife [turned around and] shielded us. He was maintenance section staff. He took the bullets. He was shot close to the spine."

Mangeshikar, a gynecologist, managed to drag the maintenance worker, Rajan Kamble, back into The Chambers, where, for the next 12 hours, he and his wife held the wounded man's perforated intestines in his body with bedsheets and bandages, trying to stop the bleeding. Kamble was evacuated, barely alive, Thursday night and remains in critical condition in a Mumbai hospital. 

As a barometric pressure reading of Mumbai's spirit, a salute to Leopold Café: The renowned backpacker-and-Bollywood-extra hangout is owned and run by the defiantly hospitable Jehani brothers, whose family has managed it for 75 of its 137 years. They decided to reopen it Sunday afternoon for cocktails, 36 hours after the last commandos had killed the last terrorists in the Taj, just across the street. The hotel had not been fully cleared of bodies. 

There was applause and such a crush of customers at the café that the police suggested to the Jehanis that they shut it down.   

"We want the terrorists to know that they have not won," Farzad Jehani, in whose establishment ten people died, including two of his staff, told the Times of India.  "We have."

The best example of what we might call pukkah levels of grace was experienced--as reported by the Daily Mail UK--by Brit businessman Nick Hayward, dining off the Taj lobby, who was barricaded into a kitchen with staff and guests for the first half hour. As the grenades and automatic weapon fire continued and news began to trickle in over their cell phones, they decided to hide in the adjacent Zodiac restaurant, which they could reach without having to go through the lobby. There, under fresh barricades, they held out until 5 a.m. Thursday, when it seemed for a moment as if the lobby-- at least that part near the Zodiac--had been retaken from the terrorists. But the Zodiac refugees still had to move from their bivouac through the wrecked lobby to evacuate the hotel, an exit during which anything could happen. The lobby was strewn with bodies. This is approximately when the people in The Chambers--Nitin Minocha and Rajan Kamble, among others--were told to evacuate, came down, and were shot. Gathering themselves for the move, Hayward went to the Zodiac's bar, found a bottle of Louis Roederer Cristal, opened it, and began pouring it into some glasses. He was immediately set upon by a headwaiter.

"No, no, no, you can't do that," the waiter implored Hayward. "Those are the wrong type of glasses.  I shall find you champagne flutes."   

As Hayward had come to expect, the wine service in this life-or-death moment was, as he put it, "immaculate."


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