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In the line of fire

The revival of Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace hotel after a 2008 terrorist attack left it in flames is testament to the integrity of both the building and its remarkable staff, writes Amrit Dhillon. Pictures by Atul Loke


Fire and smoke filled the lavish suites where guests cowered; shrapnel from grenades and bullets fired from rifles tore through the rooms.

When terrorists struck the Taj Mahal Palace hotel in Mumbai in November 2008, the siege lasted for 60 hours. Battles raged in the rooms and corridors and hundreds were taken hostage, some stripped and bound.

By the end, 31 people lay dead.

The assault on the grand old edifice was one of 11 co-ordinated attacks in the city, in which 166 people were killed and 308 wounded.

Other targets included The Oberoi hotel, India’s busiest train terminus and the Leopold Cafe, a hangout popular with backpackers.

In the Sea Lounge of the Taj, with its stupendous vista over the Arabian Sea, only one piece of furniture was untouched by the devastation: the Lucky Sofa, a perch famed among generations of Indians in Mumbai for its role in match-matching. When two families meet for the first time to arrange a marriage – often over profiteroles from the hotel’s bakery – it is customary to assemble at the Taj and make a beeline for the Lucky Sofa.

“If it’s occupied, they wait. They refuse to sit anywhere else because their parents’ marriage was arranged on that sofa and their grandparents’ marriage,” says Taj executive chef Hemant Oberoi.

It was just beyond the windows of the Sea Lounge, at the Gateway of India monument, that the 10 Pakistani terrorists arrived by boat.

Soon, news channels around the world were showing the Taj ablaze.

By targeting the hotel, the Islamist terrorists had chosen a symbol of Indian affluence and sophistication, an institution that had played host to royalty, heads of state, tycoons, film stars and other celebrities. Given its significance to Indians, the parallels reporters drew with the attacks of September 11 on New York’s World Trade Centre seem entirely apt.

THE MAN PUT IN CHARGE of restoring the Taj has a profoundly personal connection to the tragedy. Karambir Sing Kang, general manager at the time of the attack, led his own rescue operation during the three-day siege, helping to save many lives – but not, alas, those of his wife and two young children. They were found dead, huddled in a sixthfloor bathroom in the staff quarters, asphyxiated by the smoke.

The Taj management gave him the option of leaving, surmising that every day in the hotel for him would be torture. Kang declined and stayed on to look after the restoration, telling a Forbes journalist: “It is important to stay here. This is the place where I lost everything. I need to see it get back. It’s healing to see it.”

Waiters, barmen and porters also emerged as heroes amid the carnage. Many of the 12 staff members who died gave their lives saving others. As the terrorists rampaged and guests panicked, the staff remained calm. When fires forced an evacuation from top-floor windows, they made sure guests left first.

Back in the Sea Lounge, they barricaded themselves and the hotel’s guests inside.

“The guests hid beneath tables until one emerged to look for the bar’s finest bottle of champagne,” says Oberoi. “He went to pour it into tumblers, the first he could find. But the barman jumped up – he would not have his guests drinking champagne in tumblers, so he fetched the right glasses.”

The reactions of the staff were later characterised as “extreme” behaviour in a Harvard Business School study titled, “How an Indian hotel chain’s organisational culture nurtured employees who were willing to risk their lives to save their guests”.

The report highlights their presence of mind the moment they realised terrorists had stormed the hotel: they turned off the lights, asked guests to hide under tables and told everyone not to use their mobile phones. Others rushed guests to safe locations. “What created that extreme customer-centric culture of employee after employee staying back to rescue guests when they could have saved themselves?” the researchers asked. Their conclusions included recruiting from school and the use of timely recognition instead of money as a reward. Respondents, commenting in the Harvard Review, questioned the morality of encouraging such self-sacrifice; the authors suggested other organisations might take a similar approach to “emulate that level of service”.

KANG HAS NOW LEFT FOR the Taj in the American city of Boston, so it is up to his successor, Gaurav Pokhariyal, to talk about the restoration.

The age of the hotel, he says, helped to prevent complete ruin.

When experts tested the 109-year-old building’s structural integrity, they found it had withstood the siege well, thanks to building techniques longer in use.

“Some of the walls are two-feet thick. Many of the rooms were saved from being burnt down because the teak doors were as thick as wardrobes.

The smoke entered the rooms from under the doors but the doors didn’t burn,” says Pokhariyal.

The man responsible for building the Taj was Jamsetji Tata. The story, perhaps apocryphal, goes that when he was denied entry to the Royal Navy Yacht Club in the 1890s (under the British Raj), a security guard pointed to a board that said: “No entry for Indians and dogs.”

Tata then vowed to open a hotel that far exceeded anything the British could come up with.

The hotel’s architectural features – a mix of Asian, Florentine and Moorish styles – are part of its fame: vaulted alabaster ceilings, onion domes, Belgian chandeliers, graceful arches, onyx columns, verandahs, a fairytale staircase and Persian carpets, all vie for attention with modern art. The main dome, made from the same Romanian steel used in the Eiffel Tower, forms a glorious centrepiece and – contrary to footage in which it seemed to be on fire – was not damaged in the 2008 attack.

Tata was bent on setting standards. From its inception it became one of the grandest hotels in the world. It was the first hotel in India to have electricity, the first to have air conditioning, the first to have a 15-tonne ice-making plant, and its bar was the first in the city to have a licence.

The Taj was an instant hit on Mumbai’s social scene. Anything important took place within its sanctuary. Maharajas considered it a second home because it offered a change of scenery from their own palaces but the sybaritic standard of living to which they were accustomed.

At first, Tata intended to sell the Taj to a hotelier as he had no experience of running a hotel. But there were few takers, not least because the kitchen had mistakenly been built on the top floor (it was moved down in the 1930s). And, having sunk a lot of his money into the venture – some HK$250 million by today’s reckoning – he decided to keep it.

By 2008, his great-grandson Ratan Tata, chairman of the Tata Group, which owns the Taj, was in control. He had only two briefs for Kang as the general manager contemplated the restoration. The first was: “Spare no expense to make it even better than before.”

The job of restoring the destroyed sections took two years, cost US$50 million and involved armies of consultants from Milan, London, Singapore, America and India. Kang and his team renovated the rooms, suites and three restaurants in the Heritage Wing (an addition to the original hotel), created two new suites on the top floor and restored the damaged collection of 4,000 paintings.

“Upcoming artists used to stay here and paint, leaving a painting as payment,” says Parveen Chander, deputy general manager. (In Taj folklore, it is said that the flamboyant and aristocratic mother of artist Jehangir Sabavala once rode a horse up the staircase to the ballroom.) Fortuitously, in 2003 the management placed glass over each of the paintings to minimise the effects of humidity – a move that saved many.

A team of experts from Delhi stacked the works and other objets d’art on the banquet tables of the mammoth Crystal Room. Their first task was to separate those which could be restored from those where the cost of restoration would be greater than the value. The team camped in the hotel for the year it took to restore the artworks.

Meanwhile, in terms of staying true to the hotel’s original design, its fame turned out to be a blessing. Not only did the archives (kept in Pune) contain the original drawings, there were also hundreds of photographs, prints and paintings of the interior that ensured an estimated 90 per cent of the original details could be restored. “There was a watercolour of the ballroom done by an Austrian painter that showed in detail the gold leaf, the Corinthian columns and the alabaster ceiling, which the team used,” says Chander.

The biggest challenge posed by the restoration, however, was not technical. Nor was it the length of time taken – work was carried out in phases, with parts of the hotel re-opening while others were still being finished. Nor was it the budget, or finding experts to assist.

Rather, the biggest challenge was striking a balance between what the restoration team felt needed to be done and the public’s expectations – demands, even. To the people of Mumbai, the Taj is not just any old hotel: it is etched in collective family memories as “their” hotel. Writer Reshma Jain, who has lived in the city all her life, says many Mumbai residents felt possessive about the restoration because it has been the backdrop for all the important occasions in their lives.

“People got married at the Taj, had their honeymoon there, celebrated birthdays and anniversaries or closed important deals there. Some of us have known every bit of the hotel since we were kids. It’s like a second home. Some people were horrified at the idea of the wall colour being changed or any familiar detail being altered,” she says.

Regular visitors complained bitterly when they realised the colour of the Sea Lounge walls might change. One protested when he discovered that the big antique chess set displayed near the central staircase, which he had seen during every visit since childhood, had been moved. And another wanted the walls of the verandah area, overlooking the pool, to be the same as they were when he had proposed to his fiancée.

“In some places we felt we needed a change but every time we had to think of how our regular guests would react,” says Pokhariyal. “It was a fine balancing act. In the newer parts of the hotel, we had more scope for changes because people were less possessive about them.”

EVEN FOR THE POOR OF Mumbai who may never get to enter the hotel, the Taj is a landmark. Ask any rickshaw wallah in the area for directions and the Taj will be the starting point.

Mumbai is home to India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani. He lives in the world’s most expensive house, with its 27 storeys and 600 staff.

Yet more than 60 per cent of the city’s population live in slums. The juxtaposition of poverty and wealth can be seen around the Taj, too.

Five minutes’ walk from the hotel, the stench of urine hits you.

First thing in the morning, the pavement dwellers who live in the shadow of the Taj’s splendour wake up to the intoxicating aroma of freshly baked bread wafting out of the hotel’s bakery. One grey-haired woman who lives on the street, her worldly goods contained in two plastic bags, says: “The problem for me is that it gives me an appetite.”

Parked beside her is a brand new armoured vehicle – part of the hotel’s security detail. And there are other signs of a new vigilance: traffic on the road outside the Taj is now one-way; where there were five entrances, now there is only one; an ambulance and police vans full of personnel, some armed, clutter the forecourt. The facade is barricaded.

One of the two new suites established during the restoration is the Ravi Shankar Suite – named for the great sitarist, who taught George Harrison to play the instrument in the hotel. (Harrison’s fellow Beatle John Lennon, and Yoko Ono, once locked themselves away in the Rajput Suite and asked not to be disturbed – for five days). A Taj loyalist, Shankar donated a cherished sitar – one of only three he has played in his career – for display in the suite.

The other, the “presidential” Tata Suite, is 5,000 square feet of unstinting opulence. Its marble flooring alone is a work of art, and at US$18,500 per night, it comes with 13 dedicated staff and a private spa.

American President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, stayed in the Tata Suite during their November 2010 visit, when they pointedly chose the Taj to cock a snook at terrorists. Other international luminaries who have stayed in the hotel include Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Jacques Chirac, the king and queen of Norway and Mick Jagger.

The restoration was completed and the hotel re-opened in August 2010. Ratan Tata presided over an emotional ceremony: as he stood on the staircase, the cheering staff – gathered on the upper levels – showered him with rose petals. Choking with emotion, he described the hotel as “a venerable old lady” who was reopening with the splendour for which she had been renowned for more than a century.

Tata’s second proviso for the renovation had been that there must be a memorial for the 31 people who died in the attack. The restoration team agonised over the size and scale of it: anything oversized or immediately visible might cast too melancholy an air; anything too small might fail to pay sufficient homage to the innocent lives lost.

They eventually opted for a discreet but moving tribute at the back of the lobby. Here, the victims’ names are engraved in gold on an expanse of marble next to a waterfall. There is also a bench, a small, wroughtiron tree of life and a bowl of white flowers.

Instead of 31 names, though, there are 32 – the last is that of Lucy, the hotel’s sniffer dog, who was shot alongside her handler, security guard Ravindra Kuwar. A married father of two, he had just landed a job with a private security firm guarding the hotel. When he was killed at his post, he hadn’t even received his first pay cheque.




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In the line of fire

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