Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, former journalists with The Guardian and Sunday Times are the authors of this edge-of-the-seat account of the terrorist attacks that hit Mumbai on 26 November 2008. Ten terrorists trained by the Lashkar-e-Toiba landed in Mumbai and sowed mayhem.166 people were killed and over 300 injured in the nightmare that lasted for nearly three days. It started at the Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus with the wave of bloodshed surging over the Leopold Cafe, Chabad House, Cama Hospital, Oberoi Trident hotel, The Taj, Rang Bhavan Lane, Metro Cinema, Mazagaon and Vile Parle. The attackers managed to create chaos over a very short period of time and the resultant confusion helped them to target more people. Their last stand was at the Taj Mahal hotel where they seemed to go crazy, massacring guests and employees, taking hostages and ultimately setting the place on fire. One sentence in the book sums it up succinctly “The sobering reality was that one man less than a cricket team had got an entire nation on the run.”
One of the most horrific dramas took place at the Taj hotel where four terrorists stormed the place and held a nation to ransom. The four gunmen created havoc in one of the most iconic locations in India’s business hub, unwittingly aided by a police force caught up in ego clashes and red tapism. I remember the scenes of a burning Taj on the television screen and one of the lasting images in my mind was that of a police constable aimlessly standing around, while in the background smoke was spewing from the burning building. Later the NSG landed and everything seemed to be under control and once more it was a victory of good over evil. Stories of heartbreaking sadness and remarkable courage emerged in the media. Karambir Kang, the General Manager of the Taj had to stand aside and witness flames eating up the sixth floor where his family resided. The employees of the Taj and the people of Mumbai were the true heroes of that day. Stray snippets of news popped up in the media of how the intelligence agencies had forewarned of such an attack happening. Still I gave the benefit of doubt to the govt. After all who would ignore such grave threats to a nation ?
The Siege answers those questions and much more. The govt apathy displayed is shocking. The authors have given a brilliant and detailed account of the events that unfolded that day with the focus remaining on the Taj. The narration moves between the happenings in Mumbai on November 22 and the exhaustive planning in Pakistan over a couple of years. Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott have talked to scores of people in India and Pakistan, conducted hundreds of interviews and sifted through complex and extensive testimonies. The result is a brilliant reconstruction of the chain of events from the first shooting at CST to the final storming of the Taj by the NSG. Even though a lot of background information has been provided no where does the narration see a lag and the fast pace is sustained through out.
The Siege has all the elements of a thriller with action, suspense and a taut narrative. The authors have followed the events at the Taj through the experiences of the guests and the employees and even the gunmen. The fear felt by the guests and the desperation of the gunmen have been portrayed very convincingly. It’s impossible to read this book without feeling frustration, fear and anguish. Frustration that the local police handled the situation so inefficiently and that there were no repercussions for those involved; fear and anguish for the victims and those close to them. I had to keep the book aside at some points because it was so deeply moving.
The Siege is a must read not only for the gripping narrative but also to see how an inept administration and lack of coordination between crucial law enforcing agencies can make a nation vulnerable. The authors have carefully sifted through the lies, half truths and denials to bring out a factual account of what is undeniably one of the darkest chapters in independent India. A massive tragedy which could have been avoided or at least contained if the concerned people, be it the police or the hotel which had received warnings regarding such an attack, had taken prompt action.
In an interview with Satish Padmanabhan for Outlook magazine, Levy said “….one thing is clear that a whole lot more of the threat was known than anyone let on. …….. In this case, the hotel, the upper echelons of police and the intelligence agencies fought each other and undermined the value of the early warnings they received.”
This book will leave its mark on you.