The Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai used to be a place filled with happy memories for Anil Thakkar and his family. Not anymore.
The coordinated attacks on India’s commercial capital from Nov. 26 to Nov. 29, which left at least 174 people dead and more than 239 injured, took the life of a young woman whom the family knew, when she was shot three times inside the hotel by a terrorist.
Thakkar, who owns the clothing boutique Sari Palace in West Berkeley, was born and raised in Mumbai, a city he left for the United States when he was 28 years old but where he still maintains close ties.
Like thousands of Indian expatriates all over the United States, Thakkar and his family were shocked by the three-day carnage and its bloody aftermath, which threatened the safety of family, friends and ordinary citizens and took away innocent lives, including those of at least 18 foreigners.
“We learned about it right away,” he said Tuesday, sitting inside his store on University and San Pablo avenues Tuesday morning. “We watch Indian TV channels all the time and we heard it on Aaj Tak at 10 a.m. last Wednesday. We couldn’t understand what was going on at first so we started calling everyone we knew.”
Exactly three years ago, Thakkar said, his daughter was married amid much pomp and festivities at the Taj, and the guests at her wedding had been put up at the Oberoi Hotel, the second hotel seized by terrorists last week.
“It’s a big shock to us,” he said. “I still have a lot of family in Mumbai. We always visit Café Leopold near the Taj when we go there. The hotel is a grand place, it’s my favorite place in the city. I guess they attacked Mumbai because, although it’s not the capital, it’s the main city in India ... Everything starts from Mumbai.”
Thakkar said the woman who was killed after being shot in the neck and then in the head was related to his niece’s fiancé’s best friend.
“She was a manager at the Taj spa, so she was there when the terrorists entered the hotel and started shooting people,” he said. “She was only 22 years old. It’s unbelievable, I can’t even bring myself to talk to her family on the phone.”
For some Indian merchants on San Pablo Avenue, the attack, although shocking, was not much different from the dozens of terrorist attacks India has witnessed over the years.
“It’s another one of those attacks which shouldn’t have happened,” said Maulin Chokshi of Bombay Jewelry Company on University Avenue, whose mother was visiting Mumbai when the attacks happened, but is safe. “It’s pretty sad. Innocent people are the ones that end up dying. That fact that it was an ongoing thing was scary because no one knew what was going to happen next. The terrorists got what they wanted, that is, to create a big headline. The more you see it, the more you feel scared. Right now, if you are going to be a tourist in Mumbai, you will think twice. That basically stops the commerce ... It’s a new form of war, one where you don’t need tanks, just a person.”
Although many have called the Mumbai attacks India’s 9/11, Chokshi said that the series of seven bomb blasts that took place over a period of 11 minutes on July 11, 2006, in the city’s suburban railway network, killing at least 200 people and injuring 700, was larger in scale.
“The difference is that this time they targeted upscale locations, such as hotels, and the attacks lasted for three days,” he said. “The train bombing was instantaneous death, but in this you saw your death coming. They were doing it to terrorize people. Also, this was aimed at tourists and the tourists that died happened to be foreigners. So a lot more people became aware of the attacks.”
Both Chokshi and his cousin Nirav Shah—a native of Mumbai—believe that Mumbai will immediately bounce back to being the bustling vibrant city it is famous as.
“If you live in Mumbai, you see something like this a lot,” Shah said. “Shootings, riots, murders—the citizens are immune to it. Mumbai is a target because it is large. If you want to kill 1,000 people you can do it easily. People are shocked for a couple of days, but then they get back to work”
Thakkar echoed their thoughts.
“It’s going to go back to being normal,” he said. “I am supposed to be in Mumbai on Dec. 18, and if Café Leopold is open I will go there. I am not frightened.”
All three men said that the Indian government needs to beef up counterterrorism intelligence and national security.
“Any rumor they get, they should act on securing areas that are threatened,” said Chokshi. “They need to increase security threefold, if not tenfold. The policymakers are to blame. They have the power to do something but don’t.”
At UC Berkeley, Indus, the largest South Asian organization on campus, is hosting a week of remembrance for the victims of the terror attacks by selling orange ribbons on Sproul Plaza, holding a candlelight vigil, and organizing a panel discussion titled “The Mumbai Tragedy and Implications for International Security” on Thursday.
“A lot of students are definitely interested in the politics behind the attack,” said Darshan Prasad, a member of Indus and a UC Berkeley sophomore who was selling ribbons in Lower Sproul Tuesday. “They want to know why Mumbai, why those hotels—the reason we are selling the ribbons is because orange is one of the Indian national colors, and we want more and more students wearing them to raise awareness about the situation.”
At the next table, the Chabad Jewish Student Center at UC Berkeley was carrying out a campaign in memory of the six victims who died when terrorists attacked the Jewish outreach center Nariman House in Mumbai last week, including Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, 29 and his wife, Rivkah, 28, who had held dual American and Israeli citizenship and had served as emissaries in India for the past five years.
“The traditional Jewish reaction to violence is to bring in goodness into the world,” said Bracha Leeds, who said she was part of the Hasidic Chabad-Lubavitch movement that had sent the Holtzbergs to Mumbai. “Rabbi Holtzberg and his wife gave up the comforts of the western world to go live there to help businessmen, backpackers—almost anyone in need of a hot kosher meal—and that’s what all chabad members do.”
Leeds’ husband, Rabbi Gil Leeds, said that he had been asked to pray for the Holtzbergs late last Tuesday night after Rabbi Holtzberg called the Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters in Brooklyn, New York and alerted them about his situation.
“His last words were ‘the situation does not look good,’ and then the line was cut,” he said. “Next morning there was the miraculous rescue of their son Moshe by his nanny, who heard him crying and risked her own life by hiding in a closet from the terrorists. It’s frightening, we have a child the same age.”
Rabbi Leeds said that Moshe and his nanny Sandra Samuel were both in Israel now and that the chabad on campus was raising money to start a fund to help the Holtzberg’s orphaned two-year-old and rebuild the Nariman House, which is in ruins after the attack.
“It’s important that we commemorate this tragedy by emulating the example of the couple who brought light and goodness to every corner of this world,” he said. “We obviously feel the tragic loss but also look to the future.”
Indus, along with the Jewish Students Union, will host a panel discussion on the Mumbai attacks on Thursday, 6:30 p.m., on campus, consisting of UC Berkeley professors Darren Zook, Ron Hassner, and Vasudha Dalmia and the Indian Consul on Political Affairs Soumen Bagchi and Israeli Consul Ismail Khaldi. For more information visit www.ucberkeleyindus.com
The Chabad on campus will hold a service for the Holtzbergs at the Chabad House, 2715 Channing Way on Friday. For more information visit www.fridaylight.org or www.mitzvotformumbai.org.