Thursday, November 19, 2009

Sixty Hours of Terror

I. Ten Gunmen, Ten Minutes

Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) hummed with the foot traffic of late commuters. Under hulking steel rafters, held over from the British colonial era, the PA announcer issued final calls for departing suburban trains as they lurched away one after the next, packed with passengers.

Long-distance travelers, mostly the poor North Indian migrants who flock to the city by the tens of thousands, took up benches and spots on the concrete floor, resting on sheets of newsprint with their piles of luggage.

Fongen Fernandes, the spry fifty-three-year-old manager of the upper level of the Re-Fresh snack bar with its tall glass panels overlooking the platforms, was talking to a graphic designer.

Fernandes stood admiring the designer’s digital handiwork on a laptop open at a table in the far corner of the restaurant, when he felt sand-like debris sprinkle the top of his head. “What’s this?” he said to himself. He wiped his smooth pate a couple times and continued talking, unaware that below two young men had emerged from a bathroom abutting Platform 13 and begun spraying the crowd with gunfire, unaware that a high-velocity bullet shot from less than thirty yards away had missed him by inches and lodged in the wall over his shoulder.

He bid the designer farewell and was halfway down the stairs when another series of rounds cracked against the wall and showered sparks into the air. A grenade exploded on the platform.

Rattled by the sudden chaos, Fernandes scrambled back upstairs, cut the lights, and ducked behind some advertising placards that were pasted to the base of the snack bar windows. He instructed everyone to slide belly-down and hide behind a bank of metal food warmers.

One woman started to scream. He motioned for her to shut up. When she wouldn’t, Fernandes threw his handkerchief to a waiter who held it to her mouth. “Don’t let go of her,” he said.

Fernandes stole a look at the scene below. Bodies lay scattered on the station floor, slicked in blood. The gunmen scanned and swiveled. They shot from the hip, in steady bursts. The shorter, stocky one, Mohammed Ajmal Amir Kasab, wore beige cargo pants and a blue t-shirt with VERSACE printed in white on the chest; the other, Ismail Khan, was slimmer and wore all black.

Both carried rucksacks. On any other day, Fernandes would have taken them for college boys on their way home. These were no students, though. The ease with which they wielded their weapons amid the panic betrayed a professional’s mien.

Two more volleys lashed into the snack bar. One hit Mukesh Aggarwal, a co-worker in charge of the ground level, in the stomach. Fernandes, a devout Catholic, started to pray in the dark. “St. Anthony, please deliver us . . .”

9:40 P.M. Leopold Café.

Two young men—one named Abu Shoaib, the other known simply as Nazir—got out of a yellow and black city cab across the street from the Leopold Café. Open since 1871 in the heart of the Colaba district, the multi-level dive was packed with more than a hundred people enjoying western food and cheap pints of Kingfisher beer to the din of rock music that spilled onto the sidewalk, where hawkers plied t-shirts and offered hash to foreign backpackers.

Co-owner Farhang Jehani stepped out to take a phone call. He watched the pair of young men pay the cab fare and wait by the curb, bags slung over their shoulders. Driver Fulchand Bhind was grateful for the extravagant tip the young men had given.

Unbeknownst to him, the two men had slipped a bomb, set to go off in one hour, under his seat. As Bhind pulled away, the bomb clicked silently toward detonation. How could he have known? These young men certainly didn’t look like terrorists. Jehani, across the street, assumed they were students waiting for friends.

When his call was finished, he went inside and around to the back staircase that leads to the mezzanine-level bar to watch the cricket match. India was playing England, and they were winning. Jehani’s family is part of Mumbai’s long-established Parsi community, émigrés from Iran who practice the Zoroastrian faith, but like any lifelong Indian, he is passionate about cricket.

Read it all at VQR Online

H/T: David F.

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