The first time I saw the hotel, it was from the Arabian sea. I was about eight years old. We were returning to India from Muscat by ship. The journey was long and tedious and after sailing for almost three days we were desperate to see some land.
My mother shook me awake at about 2 o'clock early morning. "We have reached Bombay. Come and see the lights." Standing on the deck, rubbing off sleep from my eyes, I stood watching the twinkling lights in the distance. "That's the Taj - the famous hotel in Bombay." My mother sounded proud - as if it was something that belonged exclusively to her.
The year was 1976. The Taj Tower, whose lights had warmed the hearts of my parents, was almost brand new. It was majestic and tall and stood proudly towering over all the other buildings of the city. Next morning fresh and completely awake, I saw for the first time the Taj Mahal hotel, clearly visible from the sea. Glorious and elegant, it completely overshadowed it's much taller and newer extension. It created a lasting impression on my young mind.
Years later, when I came to Bombay as a young bride, I would often go to the Apollo Bunder, where the Taj was located, with my husband. We would walk on the promenade and admire it's old style architecture and elegant facade.
The last time we went to the Taj, it was with our friend who came from New Jersey. We took her and her son to the Elephanta caves and stopped at the hotel to refresh ourselves. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt were staying there for the shooting of A Mighty Heart. The hotel and the surrounding lanes were full of curious onlookers. The polite staff never expressed any displeasure over any of this. They attended to us as if we were celebrities ourselves. I still remember the beautiful flowers in the lobby, the magnificent archways and the exquisite artwork on the walls. The sheer grandeur of the place was breathtaking..
On November 27, I sat glued to the television set, watching the the Taj again, this time on fire. Few young men, with evil on their minds, had set out to destroy this iconic structure. They mercilessly killed the guests spraying them with bullets. Innocent men, women and children caught completely unaware, lay there dying, spending the last day of their lives in fear and agony. Shards of glass, thick smoke bellowing over the domes, helpless guests frantically waving for rescue from their windows, the fire fighters working tirelessly and the marine commandos valiantly trying to save the people and the building from total destruction. The images were mind numbing. I was a mute spectator, along with the entire nation, feeling helpless and violated.
The elegant hallways of the Taj will no longer be the same. I will no longer be able to enter the hotel with a spring on my step and joy on my mind. I will hear the heart wrenching sobs of the victims every time I go there. Even after the renovation, when the hotel reclaims it's former glory, the image of it burning would always stay in my mind.
But go back I will. When this grand old beauty is ready to face the crowd once more, I will go back to the Taj defying fear and sorrow.
After all, I owe it to the people who needlessly lost their lives in this bloody carnage. I owe it those who valiantly tried to rescue the hostages, sometimes even at the cost of their own lives. I owe it to the people who saved this heritage structure from crumbling down. But mostly, I owe it to the hotel whose distant lights were once the symbol of a homeland for an eight year old.