December 5th, 2008
08:11 PM ET

I survived the Mumbai attacks – an American's experience

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/12/05/mumbai.memorial.jpg caption="People sign messages of condolence on a banner in memory of those killed in the recent terror attacks in Mumbai."]
Alexandra Sage Mehta
American living in Mumbai

Had a night of terrified boredom—what a weird combination. Is that what ongoing fear becomes. Boring? Went to dinner at Indigo Delhi, behind the Taj hotel with two friends. It's an "ex-pat" spot, little sibling of Bombay's fanciest restaurant, Indigo, serving continental kids' food: pizza, waffles, burgers, and tollhouse-tasting cookies you can order in advance. Right before dessert we heard the first shootings down the road. An American friend called to tell me to sit tight–I casually said we had ice cream and could bide our time, a heinous thing to say. Then the area was closed off, and we were essentially in hiding. The iron curtains came down over the big glass windows, the lights were turned off and a policeman was stationed outside the door. We moved to the back of the restaurant and hunkered down to sleeplessness and second-hand news–there was no TV or radio in the restaurant.

We were a mixed group - a German couple, two French, an Indian family whose papers were in their suite at the Taj. Our bills had been brought and alcohol cut off - but the waiters continued to serve throughout the night - water, tea, coffee and then in the early morning, cakes. I had toast and an apple pie - starved from nerves. Two Indian women used table clothes as blankets, some waiters slept on chairs or benches. Through the uncovered tops of of the windows, we could see ambulances and fire engines passing and, finally, we saw day break. It was somehow relieving. The night was over. Eggs were served and we were told we could go soon, and about 7am they let us out. Being let out into the thin morning light of Thanksgiving Day, was wonderful. The relief of fresh air now seems obscene next to the awful news. The city was quiet - is it over? We thought so, and couldn't have known then that the seige wouldn't end for many more hours.

I returned to a family friend's home and finally saw a television. After being isolated all night, I stood transfixed. The words and images flying around were terrible. Not just the news, but in the next room my usually unflappable, practical, maternal and scolding guardian here saying that she feels so unsafe she doesn't want to move. And then a text message from another friend stuck at a restaurant two blocks down, "Was stuck at indigo all nite. But my step bro got shot dead." The finality of saying that in a text. A girl from work more delicately said that her friend's uncle passed away last night, but is that the same as being shot dead? I still don't know.

There is a particularly Indian way of keeping in touch: text messages from almost strangers ("c u," from my banker!), and an expectation that you will always pick up your phone because everyone needing to know exactly where you are at all moments of time. As an essentially independent person I find the sense of dependence difficult, at the very least annoying and a favorite word, unnecessary. It's attended by a social "sit." Come over, stay, sit—all afternoon! No conversation!

But at times of crisis it becomes so important, all you want to do is sit, not talk and be accounted for. The feeling of many strings pulling at your consciousness is not longer distracting to a sense of self, and pulls one up like a Macy's Thanksgiving parade balloon! I realize all those little, "where are you/who are you withs" are not unnecessary, but the opposite. Completely necessary in a country where crisis is much more constant. Health is an obvious example, people are constantly getting really sick and other people express real concern—"take care" means more when it comes at the end of a doctor's text message checking on your stomach! But a terrorist attack draws on the same systems.

For a small section of Bombay, the big Western hotels are an escape from those cares, and also the center of fun social life. Here they are synonymous with safe. The Taj and the Oberoi define South Bombay—loosely comparable to Upper East Side. The Taj water is "safe" to drink, you can eat anything there, meet for sushi or just enjoy the comfort of the sea room. They represent the first world (five stars! First class first!) in the midst of poverty and the co-existence proves something. Not quite sure what, that the daily discomfort can be avoided—that this hectic country can function.

But I've always felt that even the rich can't completely insulate themselves in this country. There is too much back and forth, keeping servants, buying vegetables, getting sick, servants getting sick and the heat and dirt and noise. I always found a certain humanity in this co-existence. It's even starker today, when this attack is first for those who are literate. And you must read/watch/talk about the news. When we left the restaurant Bombay was eerily quiet. Birdsongs, no horns, roads seemed wide suddenly, and a few seemingly crazy people were walking around as if nothing was going on. But many poor people don't know exactly what happened.

The fear and comfort are I guess both more local. I was annoyed that the taxi driver who dropped me home was driving so slowly because me, myself and I felt this sense of urgency and fear. But then when I paid him, he did a puja—a small prayer, touching the money to his head and to a little shrine where a NY taxi might hang dice–I must have been the first customer for the day. I thought he didn't speak English but he idiomatically pulled out "Thanks a lot," and opened the door from the inside. My anxiety was calmed. Dealing with my natural impatience has been the hardest thing about living here, especially on a night in a restaurant, a day at home, a slow cab ride and a mandatory curfew…I read once that India kicks the restlessness out of you.

Filed under: India Attacked • Terrorism
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