Photo Credit: Kiran Rai
I fell in love with India when I was very young. My parents were both born in Bombay, and we went back to India frequently. I still travel there regularly since the manufacturing facilities for my clothing company are located there. Every time I get off the plane and I inhale the air, I feel like I’m just enveloped by warmth and goodness.
I always stay at the same hotel, the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower. It’s my favorite place, and I’ve been there so often the staff recognizes me and always tries to make me feel at home. I was staying there on November 26, 2008. It was a really busy day for me. I had a ton of meetings and then a dinner that evening with clients. I was running late, so when it was time for me and my staff to go to the Hotel Oberoi for dinner, I even forget my constant companion, my Blackberry. The Oberoi is a great complex that has sweeping views of the city. A few minutes after we were seated for dinner, I heard an incredibly loud noise and the room shook. I thought it was an earthquake. It wasn’t. It was a coordinated terrorist attack. I didn’t know that at the time. And I didn’t know that our entire complex was being overrun by terrorists.
There were six of us at the table. I was seated facing a bank of elevators and I saw two young men with guns exit one elevator. I just remember telling everyone at the table we had to run.
The details that follow are sometimes blurry, and at other times, heinous in their clarity. Terrorists, by their very name, incite a level of panic and chaos that leaves their victims terrified at the prospect of losing their lives. There are gaps of time that are missing, and then things I can recall like they just happened minutes ago. It was a very confusing time, too. The attacks happened over three days. So just when you thought it was over, something else happened.
I remember our restaurant hostess, who could not have weighed more than 100 pounds, throwing herself at the restaurant doors and sealing them shut so the gunmen couldn’t get in to kill us. Maybe because of her these two men never entered the restaurant, but they started firing shots down a stairwell. Gunshots are so loud. They make a very scary sound--nothing like what you hear on television. I don’t think anything in life prepares you for the loudness of a bullet being fired.
I remember the wait staff directing all of us diners through the kitchen area. It was mayhem. We were all crushed up against each other. My two colleagues and I held hands. I don’t know how long it took us to reach a safer area called “Ballroom B.” Maybe it was only minutes, but it felt like a longer time because we were all scared.
There were about 100 of us, all strangers, huddling in the dark in that ballroom and wondering if these would be our final moments. I remember an Italian woman with a Blackberry, who let us email our loved ones and tell them that we were still alive. After hours in the darkness, a man who had been huddled with us told us we should call our families, “just in case.” We were probably only in there about two hours, but it seemed like a lifetime.
The hotel staff came up with a plan. They offered to act as our human shields. We were able to run across the street in groups of five to ten people. Women and children were escorted first. There was no police presence at this point; the hotel staff served as our bodyguards from the gunmen that had taken control of the streets.
It was mayhem in the streets, with everyone screaming and crying and crushing each other trying to get to safety. We almost got trampled twice trying to get to the cinema across the street. Eventually, we ended up in a car park, where we waited, while we watched the buildings around us burn.
None of us will ever forget the sounds and sights from that day: the sound of bullets, of people crying and screaming, the images of people jumping out of windows to escape the burning hotels in which they were being held hostage. How do you reconcile such bloodshed when it’s set against the backdrop of a place that is “home” to every fiber of your being?
A wonderful man who hid with us through the night in that car park risked his life to drive all of us to my aunt’s house since he thought we might be safer there. We huddled on my aunt’s patio, shaking and exhausted. And then we saw more hatred. The synagogue across the street from where she lived was bombed. Six people died.
It’s been more than a year now since the attacks happened, but my colleagues and I still talk about it every day. People ask me how I deal with the memories. I say you have to move forward. But sometimes I still have dreams--not of the attack itself and what we went through but “what if?” dreams. What if we had been a few minutes late for dinner? What if I hadn't seen the gunmen? While I never saw the gunmen again in person after that initial encounter, I recently saw their faces on an HBO special about the attacks. I didn’t want to watch.
Surviving that attack, though, also gave me a new lease on life. I make more time for family and friends now, and I’m less caught up in work.
I had to travel back to Mumbai soon after the attacks for another set of meetings. When I walked into the “Taj,” which also came under attack during those horrible days, I saw the man who cuts and styles my hair every time I stay there. When he saw me, he fell to his knees and burst into tears. I cried too. The tiny hostess who threw her body against the restaurant’s doors survived, too. But many other people who worked at that hotel died. Together, we cried tears of happiness and many of despair.
I may have seen the worst of what people do to each other, but I also witnessed the very best. People risked their lives to help others. In the end, the terrorists didn’t weaken India or me. They only made us stronger.
Rai is the creative director of India-inspired clothing brands Sir Alistair Rai, which she founded and is based in Phoenix, Ariz., and Satya Rai, which is based in New York City.