Basalt resident barely misses terror in Mumbai
December 12, 2008
BASALT ” Just three days after Basalt resident Janie Bennett left the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai, she watched, on television, as flames raged from the very room she had occupied.
“I felt sick to the core,” wrote Bennett in an e-mail sent from India, where she’s still traveling. “Watching Mumbai under attack felt horribly real and shocking to me. I felt devastated for the ‘Mumbaikers’ who suffered such tragedy.”
She was still in India on Nov. 26, in a hotel room in Visakhapatnam, on the Bay of Bengal, as terrorists stormed in to the Taj hotel and other popular tourist site. After 60 hours, the final death toll approached 200.
By then, she had been joined by her husband and former Aspen mayor, John Bennett. The two met up in Visakhapatnam to visit their daughter Eleanor, who is spending the fall semester of her junior year of high school in a School Year Abroad program.
In Visakhapatnam, said John Bennett, everywhere they went ” people’s homes, or restaurants ” the television was on and people were watching the news.
“It certainly gripped the country in the same way 9-11 gripped this country in 2001,” John said, speculating that the advent of 24-hour news just before this attack may have changed the way Indians experienced this terror attack in much the same way that CNN changed the way Americans experienced the first Iraq War.
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As Janie watched the events of the attack unfold on television, she worried about the various staff members she’d befriended during her stay, hoping they were okay, her husband said.
When Janie Bennett first pulled up to the Taj Mahal hotel, she was traveling in a dented street taxi driven by a Sikh driver.
Although she was in the only non-chauffeur driven car at that moment, she was greeted “like a special old friend” by hotel staff, she said.
“I have never felt so touched by the personal caring of hotel staff,” she wrote. “I felt as though I was a family guest arriving at one of the splendid historic homes in India.”
She described her memory of the hotel as a combination of a radiant ambience, architecture and art, the texture of the surfaces, fabric, flowers, music, the aroma of Indian spices coming from the restaurant, and sunset light spilling off the Arabian Sea.
“Despite its opulence, I stayed there because a friend who has traveled extensively in India said, ‘You must stay at the Taj, it is an icon of India,'” she wrote.
She remembers entering the hotel and handing over her valuables, including her passport and cash, to the security deskman. Then a beautiful Mumbai woman escorted her into an old study, where she was welcomed again, and given a freshly-squeezed sweet lime and ginger juice.
A man she described as “sweet” and “robust” welcomed her into a room in the central tower where light streamed through the Indian batiste curtains.
“I still hold the image of that beautiful smile,” she wrote, “wondering if he survived the attack.”
She was in India to visit her daughter ” but she was in Mumbai because she had long had a yearning to visit, she wrote.
“There are several Mumbai photographs that I have admired over the years,” she explained, “including the compelling black and white image of Franz Berko’s taken on Chowpatty Beach, Mumbai.”
“Mumbai,” wrote Janie, “is a place where you can be offered a role in a Bollywood movie, a supply of hash and a young Indian man as you are heading for your first latte of the day.”
She described Mumbaikers as having a deep pride and passion ” as well as hate ” for their city, and for life, and called them gutsy and full of grace and determination.
“As a Western woman traveling alone,” she wrote, “I never felt threatened on the streets.”
John mainly remembers the sadness on the part of everyone ” Indians and visitors ” over the attack.
“Sadness,” he said, “but also anger … the trouble is, who do you vent the anger on?”
The tendency in India right now is to blame Pakistan, he said, since the attackers appear to have been Pakistani.
“The view of a lot of Indians ” to summarize ” is that the Pakistani secret service know full well who these people are, and that Pakistani agencies even have connections to these terrorist groups, and they have found these connections useful because India and Pakistan have fought in several wars,” he explained.
And while he acknowledged that like any parent, he worries, he said his daughter will be finishing her semester in India. He compared being in Visakhapatnam now to being in Colorado during 9-11.
“It was certainly tragic,” he said, “but there was no sense of immediate danger here in Colorado.”
There are no particular ethnic relations problems in Visakhapatnam, he said. And there haven’t been any terrorist attacks.
“We feel confident that it’s a safe place to be,” he said.
And in fact, he encourages all Americans to travel to India right now. He said he was struck by a recent CNN interview with a Vancouver resident who escaped from the Hotel Taj during the attacks.
“He said..this was not an attack just on a hotel or a particular ethnic group ” it was an attack on civilization,” said John. “Anyone who cares about the future of civilized society should be buying a ticket to Mumbai right now to show support for the vast majority of Indians who have no tolerance for terrorism or violence.”
On Friday, Janie returned to Mumbai, to stay in a hotel five blocks from the Taj. She and her two friends were the only Westerners on the flight from Jaipur to Mumbai, despite the fact that November and December comprise peak tourist season in India. She has not seen another American in India since the attacks.
“Indians have treated us with compassion and generosity,” she wrote. “On more than one occasion we have been told, ‘Very, very brave Madames ” very, very good you stay in our lovely country.’ This has touched us and as we spent one of the most entertaining afternoons in a local Rajasthani beauty parlor yesterday (foot and head massages among various other treatments) we wondered how and where ‘brave’ fits in!
Meanwhile, she said, the Times of India featured this Friday headline: “Mumbai attack unites India.” Thursday’s Parliment session was reportedly a rare act of governmental solidarity, in which all factions came together to unanimously adopt a resolution to combat terrorism.
Last night, Janie saw the Taj Hotel for the first time since the attacks, from the backseat of a taxi. Outside the hotel, large crowds were gathering in the streets, hanging out in the warmth of the evening.