Archive for November, 2008

In the line of duty

Sunday, November 30th, 2008

Nov 30, 2008

I am writing this as I watch the funeral processions of ATS chief Hemant Karkare and Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan. Minutes ago, I watched the heartrending last moments that Major Unnikrishnan’s mother spent with his body, an inconsolable yet proud mother whose images will stay with me for the rest of my life. Yet, many other heroes of the last few days will not have funeral processions, their names will not be known, the grief of their parents and relatives and friends will never be known. I talk about the staff members of the Taj Mahal Hotel.

Many of them died in the terrorist attack, many have survived through the siege, but all eyewitness accounts vouch for their commitment and courage. There was a news report in The Indian Express about how, after the attack began, a steward, identified only as Rajan, was escorting a group of guests to safety when a terrorist appeared in front of them. He stepped forward and shielded the guests and took the bullets on his body. Through the night the guests whose lives he had saved tended to him. It is not known whether he is alive.

As soon as I heard of the attacks on the Taj, I called up a senior executive of the group who is a close friend of mine, as much of a younger brother as I will ever have. He was calm. “We have very laid-down processes to deal with a terrorist attack,” he said. “Every employee of the Taj knows what to do. But we are worried about the Oberoi. They may not have such institutionalised procedures.”

Guests at a wedding reception at the Taj were herded into a conference room as soon as the terrorists began shooting, the doors were barricaded, the lights were switched off, and everyone was told to turn their cellphones to silent mode and lie on the floor. They were provided napkins and towels. Then came hastily made sandwiches. In the dead of night, the hotel staff appeared with fresh juice and other delicacies, including smoked salmon. Only when they realised that the kitchen had been taken over did the flow of snacks stop.

This sort of service was unnecessary, but it was provided by people whose friends and colleagues were lying dead within yards of where they were, and whose own lives were hanging by a thread. Each of us—and nearly each of us knows someone or knows of someone who survived the terrorist attack or died in it—should say a silent thank you to these young men and women. The Taj is my hotel of choice when I go to Mumbai. I may have met many of them. I remember not one of their faces, I never looked at their name tags. Now I shall.

This is not only about procedures. As a friend told me, it is about pride in your job, it about pride in the organisation that you serve, that come what may, you will perform your duty, even when it is neither demanded nor expected, the duty that the organisation prides itself in was created to perform. These are exceptional men and women, and the only conclusion one can reach is that this is an exceptional organisation that has managed to inculcate such sturdy values in its people. They are not trained policemen or soldiers, they never anticipated that one day they would be in the middle of such horrific butchery and be called on to save lives. Indeed, they are trained to provide the meekest of services: deliver an ice bucket, endure rude guests shouting at them for no reason. The primary undercurrents of most of the interactions their clients have with them are indifference and condescension. They are non-persons. Now we know they are heroes.

Just before I began writing, I thought I would get some more information about how the hotel staff worked during the crisis. So I called up my Taj friend. He was on another line. “Find out when I can enter the hotel, when they are giving us back possession of the premises,” he was saying. “I need to get there ASAP, I need to first look at the heritage rooms and assess what the damage is and plan the way forward.” He was calm and in control. This was the moment his entire career, perhaps his entire life, had been leading up to. “Sandipan-da,” he said. “Can I call you back a bit later?” “No,” I said, “You finish your work.”

The loss of humanity

Sunday, November 16th, 2008

Nov 16, 2008

At 11:35 a.m. on August 3 last year, 17-month-old Baby P was brought to a hospital in Haringey in north-west London and was declared dead on arrival. His ribcage was broken, as was his back, paralysing him from the waist down. His body, from head to toe, was bruised badly. He had literally been battered to death by his mother, her boyfriend and another male friend. The three have been convicted and are awaiting a sentence on December 11. The maximum punishment they face is 14 years in prison.

The first time the mother took Baby P to a doctor for bruising was when he was five months old. She said the baby bruised easily and she feared that she might be accused of child abuse. From then on, visits to a doctor or a hospital for bruising and other injuries were regular and frequent. Each time the explanation was either that Baby P had fallen off the sofa, or down the stairs, or had hit his head on the wall. Social workers visited Baby P’s home 60 times. Twice, the mother was arrested for assault on the baby but was let off on bail. The baby was sent off to live with his aunt, but was returned after a few weeks. Two days before his death, he was brought to hospital with, what is now clear, a broken ribcage and back, but the doctor did not carry out a full examination because the baby was “miserable and cranky”.

But while Britain needs to examine this total systemic failure to assist and save this most helpless and innocent of its citizens, Baby P’s short life should make each of us examine what we are, what humanity is. The word “humanity” has broadly two meanings: “the human race”, and “the quality of being humane; kindness, benevolence”. Baby P tells us that the second meaning should now be unceremoniously scrapped.

This poor little baby shows us once more that there is no limit to how much evil man is capable of, and proves, if any proof was necessary, the non-existence of any higher power (devout Hindus would of course cite re-incarnation as the cause for P’s heartrending little journey, that he must have been a truly evil man in his earlier life, a concentration camp chief, or Pol Pot, but re-incarnation could also be seen as the cleverest possible placebo to keep people sane and non-suicidal while encountering the injustice, pain and horror served up by life every day). Why would you hit a baby that can’t do anything on its own, and is utterly dependent on your love and care? What sort of sick mind would hit and brutalise her own infant? One can understand—even as we condemn—the psychology of a pederast or a parent or a teacher whipping a “naughty” child. But this? No advances in science will ever be able to explain this

After reading about Baby P, I look at my 13-year-old daughter and my mind fills up with memories from her infancy. Lying on her back, pedalling her legs in the air, the first attempt at language she made (“Ingay!”), the way she chortled in joy when she saw me coming towards her with a hot towel to give her a scrub-down, the way she crawled without bending her legs at the knees, the first time she fell off the bed. And I try to keep my imagination from creating visions of her being beaten up, flung down the stairs, kicked. But it’s difficult to keep these images at bay. And then I look at my completely useless and lazy girl’s sweet, pretty, happy face, and I feel grateful.

Yet, the guilt stays. And each and every one of us should feel guilty. And ashamed. Little cursed Baby P must, and needs to, haunt a lot of people for a long time. But in his death, he will also be constantly reminding us of how lucky we are to have wonderful children, each and every one of them special and unique and trusting of us.

Meanwhile, news reports claim that Baby P’s mother shows no regret for what she has done, and was found casually discussing with other inmates how she watched porn while her boyfriend beat up the infant: “She said she loved him so would just let him get on with whatever he wanted to do.” She has had a baby while in prison and has started the legal process to obtain visitation rights for her new child.