November 12 - 18, 2023: Issue 605


A Journey in India part 3 
by Robyn McWilliam

Airport security in 2019 at Kochi is high. Departing for a two-hour flight north to Mumbai, we walk past gun turrets and armed soldiers. A woman in uniform leads me into a screened enclosure, passes a wand over my body and pats me down.

On arrival a coach takes us into the city. At the outskirts we pass a bay and I see a hotch-potch of canvas and corrugated iron, the slums made famous by the movie Slumdog Millionaire.

There is some system to the way of living for the poorest in this locality. Katherine Boo, a staff writer for The New Yorker, has spent twenty years reporting from within poor communities. Her book Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a nonfiction narrative that reveals life within Annawadi, a makeshift settlement in the shadow of luxury hotels near Mumbai airport.

Amidst the melee of traffic, we stop at a building for a private Bollywood dance lesson. Our instructor endeavours to get our bodies into fluid moves to match the music. It’s great fun after sitting in planes and coaches most of the day. Dancing is such an integral part of life in India

At dusk we arrive at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. It is one of the most ornate buildings I’ve seen. Built in 1903 during the period of colonial grandeur, its grey stone and white arches impress. Balconies and bay windows adorn all six stories, atop a pink dome and several cupolas. A modern tower was added in 1973.

Taj Mahal Palace Hotel

Displayed in tall white vases on a table in the foyer is a mass of blooms: pink, white, lemon and indigo. After settling into our rooms, we have dinner comprised of spring rolls, chicken tikka, lentils and fish curry with naan bread. A delicious array accompanied by a bottle of red wine. For dessert a brownie and ice cream tops off our day of travel.

Then we make time to wander this amazing hotel. One highlight is a grand-carpeted staircase with filigreed metal railings and shiny banisters. Level after level rise up till, we see inside the sky-blue painted dome. How privileged we are to be staying where the wealthy chose to. Apparently, the hotel’s façade was the first visible landmark from deck on Peninsular and Oriental liners approaching Mumbai.

Its balconies and arched windows

Foyer flowers

The grand staircase

The sky-blue dome

A few of us go across the road to see the colourfully-lit Gateway of India, a huge stone entrance facing the Arabian Sea. This arch-monument completed in 1924 commemorated George V, the first British monarch to visit India. Next day we realise the stone square behind it is a meeting place for the populace.

The Gateway of India

As we return to our hotel a tall Sikh is greeting guests. I admire his precisely woven turban. Chatting to him, we learn he’d been working here at the time of the terrorist attack on 26 November 2008. That night began a 68-hour siege. Hundreds were held hostage, gun shots railed and fire raged in this exclusive hotel. Thirty-one people were killed at this site and hundreds injured in other attacks around the city.

Only after I get home do I discover this detail from Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy’s book, The Siege: 68 Hours Inside the Taj Hotel. This account tells the stories behind the victims. Why and how the guests were there, heroic acts by staff to save lives as well as the terrorists training and motives for this horrendous assault on India. The attack has also been depicted in a distressing movie, Mumbai Hotel.