November 2008 was a dull month as far as news was concerned. The week starting 24th seemed especially so. I was down with a bleeding infection in my leg, so finally on the 26th I decided to take the day off. It was such a lean day that another colleague also took an off and it didn't seem to matter.
I was sleeping under the influence of medicines when a source alerted about some firing in Colaba. Oh another mafia thing this must be, I thought as I forwarded the information to office and went back to sleep.
A few minutes later another source frantically called about some blast near Mazgaon. His voice was cracking with fear. As I scrambled to get more details, I felt a fear that this was going to be something ominous. Being from a small city, till now blasts and other mishaps were things I had only seen on TV. But suddenly it seemed that I was going to be out in the middle of something like that.
I feared that this could be more ominous. I called up office, though I didn't know what assistance I could provide as I was barely able to walk. I was asked to report the next day at the crack of dawn. A feeling of desperation that I couldn't get to work because of an ailment and also some fear as to what exactly was going on, kept me awake most of the night.
There had been firing all over. Two blasts. But it wasn't until the hotels were under attack that it was clear that this was something really big.
It was the storm after the lull.
The first thing I remember about the morning of the 27th was waking up to the news of Hemant Karkare's death. It was 4 in the morning and it seemed unreal. Just a few days ago while following another story I had joked about how Karkare seemed to be cagey now and didn't answer phone calls. And he was at that time the most talked-about officer. I rushed to office and my first assignment was to gauge the mood on the streets. Were people scared or were they going about their daily business?
Mumbai seemed virtually deserted that day. Never were the major roads so empty. And I remember being the only person from Churchgate to Mahalaxmi in the ladies compartment. It was eerily empty.
For the first time, the famed resilience seemed to have crumbled. People were not just scared but completely confused about what was happening. TV sets were blaring everywhere and people glued to them like they are glued when there is an Indo-Pak match.
The same night I was sent to Nariman House. South Mumbai residential areas are generally deserted on normal nights, but this day it was scary. As I tried to locate Nariman House several locals asked me to take detours through various lanes as the bullets were flying about. The area where Nariman House is, is a maze of narrow lanes and only someone who knows the area well could have found that place out. Even residents nearby didn't know that it was an Israeli centre. Finally I took position right across the house, near a bank whose windows had been shattered in the firing. We were very close and every time I turned to the camera, I would get this irrational fear 'What if a bullet finds its way close to us?' after all we had our camera lights on. But people of the area seemed to be unmindful of such fears.
At any point in the night there were around 100-200 people who were standing close to the spot, curious onlookers that the police had to fight off. There were atleast 50 of us media professionals too, from various countries scrambling for details, ducking bullets and ricochets and dodging off overly curious people. But there were also the locals who were coming at frequent intervals with tea and biscuits for the forces and media professionals.
Suddenly in the morning the police seemed to be acting strictly against anyone coming close to Nariman House. Barricades were being put up and drunk onlookers were being lathi-charged to clear them off the way. We wondered if some senior official or politician was coming to visit.
And then there was a whirring sound. After a night of scattered firing, the forces had decided on a final assault. A chopper started hovering over the building and there was deafening cross fire. We were going live with most of it though we were cautious about keeping the camera frame tight and moving constantly so that the exact location of the cops on ground would not be revealed. We tried not to give out numbers or directions. The onlookers cheered.
Standing there and witnessing the assault, one couldn't help but feel proud of our men in uniform. It was the most dramatic visual of the entire tragedy.
Yes the media was criticised a lot for airing it too. But I still don't have the answer to whether it should have been shown or not. TV is mostly about the here and now so one could say it could be shown, but there were other decisions, too, that could not be made in the 20-odd minutes while the helicopter air-dropped commandos. Those 20 minutes will stay with me forever, they were the first signs of hope that Mumbai though scarred, will overcome this too.
It took another day for all the operations to end and the hostages to be liberated. And it has taken us forever to try and forget the horror of what we saw then. But life moves on in Mumbai even as court trials and diplomacy take their own time to come to conclusions. A fragile fast-paced life, with no guarantees of what awaits you in the next moment - a lesson 26/11 taught me.