Five years ago 10 young terrorists took one of the world’s best-known cities – Mumbai – hostage. For three days they set off bombs, shot dead innocent people and confounded the security services.
In The Siege, Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark focus on The Taj Mahal Palace hotel, one of the buildings targeted by the terrorists. Using the stories of a number of guests and staff trapped inside the Taj during the attacks, as well as of police officers and the terrorists themselves, Levy and Scott-Clark have created an intimate, intricate, powerful look at an event that stunned the world.
I remember when the attack on Mumbai happened – 24-hour news channels broadcast footage constantly from the city, and I even remember hearing interviews with people trapped inside the Taj, some of whom feature in this book. But the coverage given on television skims just the surface of what Levy and Scott-Clark uncover.
Taking the reader from the planning of the attack, the recruitment of the terrorists and the involvement of American-born Pakistani David Headley, who worked for both Lashkar-e-Toiba, the group behind the attack, and the American intelligence community, through to the moment the attackers were killed, the book reads like fiction. Knowing that it’s true only makes it more compelling, and more harrowing.
There is a focus on Ajmal Kasab, the only one of the 10 attackers caught alive. Levy and Scott-Clark burrow into his background and show how he was trained before being sent to Mumbai. Pictures of Kasab and the other attackers show what look like a group of children wielding weapons, while their grown-up handlers in Pakistan control the action and tell them who to kill and where to plant bombs.
Other pictures in the book are heartbreaking, like one of hotel guests Mike and Anjali Pollack on the steps of the Taj after they escaped – Mike has a huge smile on his face, but Anjali looks fearful and is caught mid-sob. They, like many guests, spent hours and hours fearing they were going to be killed at any moment.
What really struck me from reading The Siege was just how impotent the Indian security services were. The Black Cats, India’s elite group of Commandos, were only officially called into action hours after the attack (although they were prepared to respond within the hour), and even then it took them half a day to get to the scene. The police were largely stifled in what they could do, partly by their own leaders, partly by the lack of equipment – the gunmen had far more powerful arms than the security services.
At one moment in the book, police officers Vishwas Patil and Rajvardhan Sinha, two of the only ones to head into the Taj, see on CCTV that all four of the hotel’s attackers are in one room. Patil and Sinha believe it’s the perfect time to nip the attack in the bud, before more damage is done. But despite their calls for help, no one responds and the attackers soon leave the hotel room with their hostages, intent on causing more damage. That the attack on the Taj could have ended hours after it started if not for the incompetence of higher-ups angered me.
On the other hand, the true heroes in the book, in my opinion, are the Taj staffers. From kitchen workers to the Black Suits (the Taj’s security) to the hotel’s manager Karambir Kang to Grand Executive Chef Hemant Oberoi, these were the people who put their lives on the line to save as many guests as possible. Kang’s wife and two young children died inside the Taj, but he stayed at the scene to help try and control the situation, while Oberoi and others led guests out of danger, and at times put their bodies between those of the gunmen and guests during attacks.
It is these stories, the ones of human endeavour (and there are many in the book) and, in some cases, sacrifice, that make The Siege such powerful reading. I found myself going back over parts of the book again and again, trying to understand why certain things happened. As the fifth anniversary of the attack approaches, The Siege is essential reading for anyone wanting to find out more about the days Mumbai was brought to its knees.
How I got this book: Review copy from the publisher Penguin
•The Siege is book seven in my challenge to read 12 non-fiction books in 2013.