'The idyllic setting made a terrorist attack unimaginable'

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 November, 2008, 12:00am

While walking out across the lobby towards the ballroom to attend a function organised by the Hong Kong Tourism Board on the night before the attack, I noticed a rabbi standing in the centre.

Rather than seeming lost in a foreign culture, the rabbi was deep in discussion with other Indian men dressed in smart western suits.

Beside him, sitting on the lounge sofas were western women in colourful saris.

For the Tourism Board function led by its chairman, James Tien Pei-chun, a band of Chinese musicians had been invited to play traditional instruments to promote Hong Kong.

Journalists and tourism representatives gathered to hear how the world's increasing connectivity had made Hong Kong an attractive destination for meetings, conventions and incentive events, even for businesses in Mumbai.

That night, under the domed roof of the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, built by the mighty industrialist, J.N. Tata and within a stone's throw of the Gateway of India, the rabbi, Indians in suits, western travellers in saris and Chinese musicians in qi pao enjoyed the evening.

Along with the maddening traffic, the beggars on the street and the disappointingly inept airport for a financial capital, it was this image that left the deepest impression.

But it was also that image of open globalisation and modernisation which made it a target for a terrorist attack. Twelve hours later, the Chinese musicians were safely on a plane to Hong Kong.

But 24 hours later, that cultural melting pot came under attack, with reports suggesting that a rabbi was among the hostages.

At dawn, I took a walk from my hotel on the east coast of the narrow strip of land that forms downtown Mumbai to the Trident-Oberoi, the other hotel that was attacked, on the west coast facing the Arabian Sea.

Along the half-hour walk, I could see Mumbaikars brushing their teeth on the street and sweeping the road in front of their stalls.

Students from the Universty of Mumbai were practicing cricket in the nets of the city centre's park, taxi drivers washed their wheel hubs and an animal-lover was leaving food for dogs and birds.

Outside the Trident-Oberoi, scores of middle-class Indians were jogging along the promenade that leads to Chowpatty beach. The idyllic setting made a terrorist attack unimaginable - and the security guard at the Taj hotel also seemed unable to imagine such a thing.

On my return, he took only a cursory glance inside my bag, and even though the metal detector beeped as I went through, he did not ask any questions.

Nevertheless, the bag checks and metal detector were never going to prevent an attack.

The guards patrolling the perimeter of the hotel were better suited to deterring beggars than providing genuine security from armed militants.