Mumbai has practically patented its ability to repress its own worst memories. It proves a wonderful ointment to heal outwardly scars but more often that not, the wounds that lie just beneath them remain pulsating in its freshness. The brutal terrorist attacks of November 26th, 2008 however, remain a true anomaly to this particular trait of this city. As one of the most terrifying terrorist attacks the world, let alone this city, had ever seen unfolded on its soil it quickly became apparent that this would become one of the only experiences we could not forget.
In truth, perhaps our only way of commemorating the spirit of the hundreds of souls who both lost and gave their lives on that day is by remembering. So when we came across Ritesh Uttamchandani’s deeply powerful photo essay (first published on Galli.in) that does just that, we wanted to feature it for its potentiality to paint far too honest a picture of the 72 hours we all wish we could rewrite somehow. Moreover, his matter-of-fact storytelling may provoke some but as a media publication ourselves, his dedication to such thorough journalism appealed to us even more.
Conclusively, this is the kind of story everyone needs to hear, process, and wash over them so without further ado, here’s Ritesh’s first person account of the terror act that changed our home forever, accompanied with photos of the same:
“On a mildly nippy night in November, during a meeting with photographer Dhaval Dhairyawan’s sister Vrushali I received a text message informing me of a gang-war that has broken out in colaba. We were seated at a Barista in Bandra and I requested the manager to switch to a news channel. Much to everyone’s discomfort, I caught a glimpse of my guru Srinivas walking around taking pictures of people helping a blood soaked man outside leopolds. I called Raju Shinde of Mumbai Mirror and he said, sab chod, VT aaja!
I zipped through the streets on my Avenger. Took the longer yet faster route via JJ flyover that would drop me right outside VT. Just as I landed down the slop I was blocked by a posse of cops, so I took the route behind xaviers college, past the backside of esplanade court, between jj school of arts and TOI, into a lane that leads to a bridge that drops you into VT station. I met KK choudhary, once a portrait photographer at Gateway, the ten rupees a print kind, whose fortunes turned when he survived the horrific gateway blasts in 2003. He made some horrific images of the blasts which were bought by newspapers and agencies and circulated worldwide. KK was absorbed by Afternoon Despatch and Courier and he later joined TOI and has been there since close to a decade now.
KK came towards me while I was trying to park my bike after I had armed myself with a telephoto and a flash whose batteries, for a change, were fully charged. Before we knew it a flash went off on the third or fourth floor of the side of the TOI building. Almost immediately, in the darkness from the bridge, I heard the first of many bullet sounds of the night. We ran, sprinkled across the tiny lane like a pack of ants on whom dropped a voluptuous drop of water. As I ran, leaving my bike and helmet with the key in ignition, a bullet whizzed past my right and went into a rotting Ambassador parked in the Azad Maidan Police station where I spent the next few minutes with KK and other cops. At the police station they had no jackets and only some old guns and a few bullets. In one room a lonely cop and a Hindustan Times reporter were watching the News. A senior cop lost his patience, picked up a small revolver and a constable armed with an ancient rifle and stepped outside. Watching them move, the reporter, KK, and I left the police station to cross the road to Press Club where we were joined by Kamlesh Pednekar of DNA and Bipin Kokate of MIDDAY. Together we walked gingerly with our hands raised like we were being arrested, following the bullet sounds which were now emanating from inside Cama hospital.
We reached the street adjoining Metro Cinema. Something was happening but I was too unsettled by the pace of the night to notice Karkare and others padding themselves up to counter the crazed gunmen. None of us had any idea of what was truly going on. We heard of something similar happening at the oberoi, so off we went. I had no way to reach my bike so I piggybacked with Mukesh Trivedi, then with DNA. Oberoi was like a fortress. Police vans choking Nariman Point. Bullets heard from all it’s sides. We decided to go to VT, instead ended up back at Metro, someone in our coterie must have heard something.
We reached Metro, and plonked ourselves on the road divider, the roar of bullets grew louder, reporters howled on their phones desperate to make themselves heard to their bosses and hungry audiences. I bent down to answer a phone call. From the corner of my left eye, I saw a police car headed our way, the nose of a gun popped out and the plainclothes policeman on my right received 3 bullets near his abdomen and two people away on my left a cameraman was left with a bloody left hand. The car belonged to an ambush team led by Karkare. It seemed odd that a police van would fire on us.
While we hurriedly made some pictures of the chaos, I begged the others to start their bikes, and follow the van. The madness had slowed our responses and Mukesh and I finally made our way searching for the van. On the way, from another bike, someone yelled about a bomb explosion near the airport. This didn’t seem like a gang-war anymore.
Phone communication was beginning to crack too. All of us had informed our homes that it might be a longish night. How long? They asked.
Near Mantralaya, we saw that the hijacked police van abandoned, with a flat tyre. A few kilometers ahead, near Girgaun Chowpatty, a beach that is home to lord Ganpati’s departure, surrounded by barricades and skidmarks lay a Skoda. The gunmen had bullied a man at gunpoint to let go of his car. They were intercepted by the policemen, and one of the gunmen was captured alive by an unarmed policeman name Tukaram Ombale.
I made my way to the Taj with Manoj Patil, my former colleague from HT. We loitered near the back exit of the Taj. Frail policemen with their rusted guns, watching silently for a target, praying they wouldnt turn into one. I got hungry, so I picked up a few packets of biscuits from an abandoned Pan shop and tucked away a 100 rupee note under the owner’s vacant chair cushion. We shared the biscuits with the cops and the BSF unit that had just come in. Meanwhile, security guards of the Taj smuggled themslves in from the back gate and a few minutes later evacuated over 150 guests who were present for a corporate event.
Crouched near hotel Diplomat, a photographer told me two things - that TOI has exclusive images of two of the gunmen, it’s up on their site. None of our phones were smart enough to access any websites back then. And Vasant Prabhu, a former darkroom assistant and now the photo editor at the indian express mumbai, had made his way into the taj with the first batch of policemen. Prabhu, in his fifties, could pass off for a government employee to most. having worked with him, I am minutely aware of his bravado at such times.
Much like a big budget Hollywood action thriller, the scenes behind the Taj were surreal. Guests flashing their phone lights behind locked windows, choking under the smoke of grenade explosions, waiting to be rescued. Elderly waiters, carried in the arms of the hotel’s younger security guards. Firemen with their ladders, extinguishing the fires and evacuating guests. A policeman shot in the back of his head was yelling Har Har Mahadev, tumbling away, off balance, headed in my direction when his colleagues seized his gun and took him to a hospital in an ambulance parked nearby. I was scared he might go on a shooting spree and that might just end up being the last photo I ever make.
I asked a woman standing nearby for a sip of water from the bottle she had in her hands. I had no idea who she was. She was as much out of breath as I was and I took her to be a journalist too. She got angry and threw the water on my face and called me an asshole. I figured she was one of the people who might have been rescued a few minutes ago. I turned around to wipe my face and saw a man looking towards the firemen, standing on an Atlas cycle, the one that milkmen use. Out on bail and living close by, it was none other than Duncan Grant, one of the accused in the Anchorage case.
We were getting tired now, all of us. Every working news photographer was out on the road, hopping between VT, Nariman House, The Taj and Trident. Mostly on foot, or their bikes. Dawn brought in the first glimpse of the Taj dome, engulfed in flames. Pigeons who sat on the dome every morning to bask in the morning light flew past it several times, confused and helpless, much like the policemen watching from behind dumpsters. The gateway of india, empty like an abandoned parking slot. One corner of it, forcefully occupied by OB vans. Dawn opened our eyes to an image by Santosh Bane, Abu Ismail and Amir Ajmal Kasab, photographed on the tip of their toes, like athletes in the middle of a run, passing through the unmanned metal detectors at VT station. Dawn also brought to light the exploits of Raju Shinde, Satish Malvade, and Saby, (Sebastian D’souza) all Mumbai Mirror photographers.
As the day progressed, photographers were coming in from all parts of the country to offer back up to their drained colleagues and to get their dose of the adrenalin too. The terror strike attracted a sizable contingent of the foreign press too. Compared to us wire chaps were all armed to their teeth with not just equipment but bullet proof jackets and helmets. It took a while to swallow the irony that most of us had no such protection and barely functional minimal camera gear. Television anchors though seemed hell bent on having a stroke during their Live updates. Big names like Sardesai and Dutt were probably the most appalling in the way they went about seeking subjects to be interviewed. Of all their questions, Aapko kaisa lag raha hai, or it’s English equivalent seemed to be the most insipid question one could ask. I got pulled by a crew to say something and I refused. I had not even had the time to process the events of the night and am sure neither of the survivors were able to fully comprehend what they had just escaped. At this stage, to feed the 24 hour beast, they were hard pressed to get hold of anyone saying anything as long as they can boast about getting it first.
Terror tourism, is the best way one can describe the rest of the day. Politician after politician, with their posse of sycophants and security guards, disturbing a fragile situation. It went on till late in the night, when finally, people’s patience ran out. They chased away a prominent MLA, of the NCP, the one with a face like a hungry goldfish.
By night I was joined by two of my colleagues. Our editor Sandipan Deb had decided to put together our first dummy issue. Our cover story was to be a package of stories and photographs of whats was now being termed as 26/11. We didn’t have a name yet. We were still tossing between Talk and Open. Our bureau chief in Mumbai, Manu Joseph, allowed me to crash at his place for the night, just two lanes away from Nariman House.
Just like his newborn daughter Kavya, I woke up early morning to the sound of explosions. The rattling sound of bullets, sounded like a riff of an unforgettable song by American thrash metal band Megadeth. Holy Wars, the opening track of their seminal album Rust In Peace, whose industrial riffs and mid eastern solos, crafted on their screeching Jackson guitars by Marty Friedman and frontman Dave Mustaine is about the Northern Ireland Confict. The video however, filmed during the Gulf War in 1990, depicts news footage of various armed conflicts, mainly from the Middle East. Mustaine’s words from the second stanza stayed with me for the next few days - Fools Like Me, Who Cross The Sea, And Come To Foreign Lands. Ask the Sheep, For Their Beliefs, Do you kill on God’s Command?
That evening, with the NSG having taken charge earlier in the day, my sisters and father paid me a visit. I was in the same clothes as last night like most of my fraternity and being the only photographer for the as yet unnamed magazine, I couldn’t leave the front. They gave me my laptop, a fresh pair of clothes, and most importantly, Bausch and Lomb’s lens solution for my fully dried eye-lenses.
There wasn’t much to shoot or do during the rest of the night. Two of my photographer colleagues had joined me from Delhi. We were constantly being told to stop using our flash but every few minutes a new photographer would come by, break the rule, and get shushed by the cops and us. The NSG wanted to tire the men holed inside Nariman House completely before taking over. At least that’s what it seemed like. Waiting for something to happen, I walked around, looking at the deserted tungsten drenched streets. Near Colaba market, I met Satish Bhate, an HT photographer. We were both rather exhausted and sat on the pavement, resting our backs on the closed shutter of a jewellery shop. We only realized we had fallen asleep when a truck full of BSF jawans rolled by, followed, of course, by the TV crews.
Hunger came knocking again. I noticed that in the race to not be left behind, laid out on the bonnet of their car of a TV crew, sat unopened boxes of food. Shamelessly, I stole a box of yoghurt, pulao, some greasy gravy and two paper plates.
The next day seemed like things were coming to a close. Commandos were airdropped into Nariman house. My body had given up from last night’s vigil and I had gone off for a nap to Mr.Joseph’s place and missed the shots but one of my colleagues was present. In the midst of all the chaos, I remembered that I had photographed Rabbi Gavriel and his wife in early 2004 for a listings magazine when the two had newly arrived in Bombay and were staying in a hotel in Colaba. It was one of my first batch of assignments, though sadly, I never did get paid for it since the magazine shut shop soon.
While non journalists may find this morbid, I was now looking to photograph or interview the relatives of someone who had fallen to the bullets of the loony gunmen. It’s harsh and heartless, but it is one of those angles to a story that can’t be avoided. It’s truly an act of insensitivity on many levels, but we do it only in the hope that it evokes some amount of sensitivity in the reader. And many a times, it does. Positive things have happened for the relatives of the deceased. Strangers have come forward to help, moved by our images - which also happens to be one of the major reasons why a lot of us take up this profession.
I came to know of Thomas Varghese, through one of his relatives who happened to be a journalist. Moments after he realized the hotel was under attack, Varghese, the senior waiter at Wasabi, immediately instructed his 50-odd guests to crouch under tables, and he directed employees to form a human cordon around them. Four hours later, security men asked Varghese if he could get the guests out of the hotel. He decided to use a spiral staircase near the restaurant to evacuate the customers first and then the hotel staff. The 30-year Taj veteran insisted that he would be the last man to leave, but he never did get out. The terrorists gunned him down as he reached the bottom of the staircase.
I reached the church an hour before the service and removed my camera from it’s bag only a few moments before the service. Seven helpless pairs of hands rested on the railing of the spiral staircase of the church, watching, as relatives brought his body for final prayers. Dressed in white, his wife consoled his mother before the brave man was laid to rest. Almost 12 hours after a relieved NSG commando stepped out of Nariman House, waving his gun in the air.”
Images & Words: Ritesh Uttamchandani
[Ritesh Uttamchandani is a photojournalist with OPEN Magazine and all of his work has been used with permission. You can view more of his work here.]