I woke up, excited and happy on the morning of November 26, 2008. I was going to Mumbai later that evening on a Jet Airways flight, flying with BB & GG alone for the first time since they were born. They were 5 years old and were equally excited to be seeing their grandparents that evening.
Everything changed around 7 am when I got a message from my sister, who was in the States at that point, asking me if I was still going to Mumbai. I had no clue what was happening in Mumbai. I waited impatiently till a decent time to call my parents to find out more, and in the meantime rushed to work as I was supposed to be working half day that day. I went online and was shocked by what I read. Twitter, which was around two years old then had exploded with tweets on the situation!
What had happened was that 10 Pakistani members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, an Islamic militant organisation, carried out a series of 12 coordinated shooting and bombing attacks lasting four days across Mumbai. The attacks, which drew widespread global condemnation, began on Wednesday, 26 November and lasted until Saturday, 29 November 2008, killing 164 people and wounding at least 308.
Eight of the attacks occurred in South Mumbai: at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (VT train station), the Oberoi Trident, the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower, (one of the worst places of the killings), Leopold Cafe, Cama Hospital, the Nariman House Jewish community centre, the Metro Cinema, and in a lane behind the Times of India building and St. Xavier’s College. There was also an explosion at Mazagaon, in Mumbai’s port area, and in a taxi at Vile Parle (close to the domestic airport). By the early morning of 28 November, all sites except for the Taj hotel had been secured by Mumbai Police and security forces. On 29 November, India’s National Security Guards (NSG) conducted ‘Operation Black Tornado’ to flush out the remaining attackers; it resulted in the deaths of the last remaining attackers at the Taj hotel and ending all fighting in the attacks.
Ajmal Kasab, the only attacker who was captured alive, later confessed upon interrogation that the attacks were conducted with the support of the Pakistan government’s intelligence agency, the ISI. Kasab was tried and later hanged in Yerwada jail in 2012.
S was on leave that day as he gets more leave than me. I quickly called him and spoke to him. My inlaws were scared of us travelling that evening and asked me to cancel the trip. I was torn – on one hand I didn’t want to risk the trip, on the other hand, I so desperately wanted to go home and meet my parents (I think at that point, it was a year since I had met them). I called the airline office in Singapore and was met with indifference. They seemed not to have any idea of what was happening in their head office city and told me they didn’t have directive from Mumbai (the head quarters of the airline). The flight will take off as scheduled was what I was told. My mother-in-law didn’t want me to travel, but I didn’t listen to her, saying since the flight was scheduled, we’ll go to the airport and decide then. I spent the whole day glued to the internet for any scraps of news that I could get. I told my parents that we are making the trip and to come to the airport to pick us up. Now that was a new problem – due to the trouble, the city was on curfew and there was no one willing to drive them to the airport. Finally around the time we left for the airport, my dad messaged me that they had finally found someone brave enough to drive his taxi to the airport and pick us up. One problem solved, loads more to go…
Praying to the entire pantheon of Gods in Indian Mythology, we left for the airport. We were one of the first ones to check-in. The mood was quite somber. There was a Channel News Asia crew near the check-in counter interviewing passengers brave (or mad) enough to fly to Mumbai. They were looking for Singaporeans against Indians and approached me to ask if I was willing to be interviewed. I did mention that I am not a local, but was told that I spoke like one, so could pass off as one! I was asked if I was scared of going to Mumbai while the shootings were going on and I remember replying that this was very far from the airport, and so the airport area should be safeish (is this even a word?)!
We flew into Mumbai and the airport was very somber and dull! Everyone working the shift was glued to the television screens which were showing live the places where the terrorists had held the hostages. None of the customs officers were really interested in looking at our luggage and we were out in record time. I was so relived to meet my parents and we quickly got into the taxi and drove home. At that point in time (this was before the new flyover which has dramatically shortened travel time from the airport to my home), the normal travel time between the airport to home was 45 – 60 mins. That day, we did the journey in 20 minutes! Once home, I heaved a big sigh of relief and then spent the next few days glued to the television….
This was the most unforgettable day in my life and a flight to remember…..