Book review: ‘The Siege: 68 Hours Inside the Taj Hotel’

New York TimesNovember 9, 2013 

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    Nonfiction The Siege: 68 Hours Inside the Taj Hotel Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy

    Penguin, 318 pages

On Nov. 26, 2008, as heavily armed Pakistani terrorists raced to infiltrate the five-star Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and other tourist sites in Mumbai, India, the hotel’s executive chef, Hemant Oberoi, feared he was falling behind.

The Taj was filled with the wealthy and renowned. But there was also a wedding that night, three banquets and a birthday party. And the country’s most imperious food critic, Sabina Sehgal Saikia, was staying on the sixth floor.

Saikia rumbled unhappily. “After three days of eating and drinking,” Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy write in “The Siege: 68 Hours Inside the Taj Hotel,” “her body had revolted, and when her butler had come over to help, she had vomited on his shoe.”

The chef and the critic – one will die, the other will become a hero – are among the dozens of individuals whose stories the authors track in “The Siege,” a well-reported book that offers the fullest account we have had of the attack on the Taj, in which 33 people were killed, scores were injured, and the hotel set ablaze. Throughout Mumbai, more than 160 people were to die in the two-day assault, and more than 300 were injured.

Foreign correspondents Scott-Clark and Levy are not the most gifted writers you will ever come across. I spent the first 50 pages of “The Siege” tallying clichés, dangling modifiers and awkward phrases. These very quickly stopped – or stopped mattering. The story they present is a tragedy and a thriller with concussive human and political resonance. I read it in what felt like three blinks.

Google Earth and a Garmin GPS were used to plan the strikes. Inside the Taj, the frightened guests called, texted and tweeted throughout the attack, often providing their assailants with deadly real-time information. In one remarkable scene, a hostage is taken, and the attackers report his name back to their controllers, who Google him and do an image search.

Here is the authors’ account: “‘OK, listen, is he wearing glasses?’ He was. ‘He is balding at the front?’ Umer shouted at Ram: ‘Hold your head straight.’ Umer replied: ‘Yes, yes, he is bald. He’s got a face like a dog.’ Qahafa had found Ram’s online résumé. A top-class hostage. He was pleased.”

This story of the taking of the Taj hotel, based on hundreds of interviews, spreads out. As the terrorists run freely though the hotel, we witness what the authors describe as “a spinning zoetrope of dreadful scenes.” These include many point-blank murders, and guests leaping to their deaths from windows to escape fire.

A question that lingers over this attack, and over this book, is why it took so long for the authorities to respond. For the first 28 hours of the siege, the Taj gunmen were almost completely unhindered. It took 58 hours to kill them.

Only four gunmen were in the hotel. Only 10 terrorists took part in the attacks. “The sobering reality was that one man less than a cricket team,” the authors write, “had got an entire nation on the run.”

The atrocities in “The Siege” will stick with you. The heroism displayed by many sticks with you as well. One chef was saved by the pair of chopsticks he kept in his chest pocket. “A bullet heading for his heart had glanced off them. On his chest was a tender, fist-shaped bruise.”

The observation that hangs over this book is one made by one of the attack’s ringleaders back in Pakistan. By telephone he told two of the young terrorists, who were killing people in a Jewish center, to speak a warning: “This is just a trailer. The real film is yet to come.”

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