BY RATI KUMAR
A 70-year-old man stripped of his clothing and used as a human shield. A pregnant woman shot in the stomach. Billionaires and busboys alike stampeding for life. An unsavory version of reality television blared through Indian households in America, on November 27, 2008, as Mumbai, the commercial capital of India was ravaged by a group of terrorists.
Rajita Kulkarni, 38, hidden under her husband, Ajay, prayed. The statistics become human, as Kulkarni, an active member of the Art of Living foundation, narrates this homegrown nightmare.
Before the evening of November 26 began, she felt an uneasy premonition. “I am not feeling good today”, she told her husband. Rarely one to frequent restaurants, Kulkarni and her husband, set out to meet a German friend who was staying in the Heritage wing at the Taj Mahal hotel. Ironically enough, she had instructed her cook to have a home cooked meal ready in case the restaurant food didn’t agree with her.
At about 9:15 p.m. the group reached the Masala Craft restaurant. Barely ten minutes into the meal, along with the Paneer appetizer wafted in the loud cracks of fireworks. A neighboring diner sauntering over to the entrance turned, white – faced, and declared, “There is this boy with a rifle who is shooting away.”
Mayhem ensued. Everyone present rushed into the restaurant kitchen – crouching, hiding, arming themselves with spoons and kadhais. Still clueless, the hostages started getting phone calls from friends and family, alerting them about the terrorist infiltration into the Taj Mahal, one of India’s heritage buildings. When phrases like ‘hostage situation’ and ‘terrorist attack’ started floating around, Kulkarni says, “Words like that felt so unreal to me at the time.” At the time, she confesses, “We had no idea of the magnitude of the danger we were in.”
Close to midnight, they were instructed by the hotel staff to walk to the chambers. Without any police or staff escort the group from the restaurant went into the chambers. In the milieu, she spotted colleagues, friends and business associates. While the hotel staff made everyone comfortable with food, drinks and blankets, Kulkarni recollects telling Hemant Oberoi, the head chef, “Don’t make us comfortable; make us alert and get us out.”
Finally at 2 a.m., the staff instructed the group that it was safe enough to evacuate. During evacuation, while going through a narrow passage, the terrorists fired straight at them. “It was a mad stampede”, Kulkarni narrates. People fell like dominoes with the weight of those shot and killed. They all scampered through the nearest open door, dragging along a gunshot victim whose intestines were spilling out over the floor. Leaving him in the care of a doctor, the rest of hostages attempted to barricade the room with paltry items like dupattas and table napkins.
Trapped in this room from about 2 a.m. till 9 a.m., when they were freed, they heard the blood curdling sound of fire being returned by the terrorists. The staccato sounds are still fresh in Kulkarni’s mind. “At one time, it was so close we thought we were gone”, she recalls.
Her most lucid moment came at about 4:45 a.m., when the terrorists sounded especially close. Her husband of twelve years, Ajay, made her lie face down on the ground, threw a sheet over her and covered her with his body in an attempt to hide her from the terrorists. “You have to live and teach the message of spirituality to the world,” he said. She remembers the feeling of gratitude most clearly despite the horrifying reality. “One does tend to take the depth of love for granted after so many years of marriage,” she admits. “If I had not had that experience, I might not have realized the depth of my husband’s love.”
Rajita Kulkarni and her husband Ajay Bagga, both very successful professionals, are also very spiritually aware individuals. They are deeply involved in the Art of Living foundation of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, having taught classes to Rapid Action Forces and also inmates of prisons. Being associated with ‘Guruji’, as Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is reverentially known, for over 14 years, they are both in the habit of early morning meditation. It was this meditation and prayer which helped them, and those around them, to stay relatively calm for the duration of the incident.
Despite her spirituality and support from the Art of Living family, “I was very hysterical for about three days, she recalls. “It was like we were living in a live war situation and I couldn’t shut my eyes. Even the sound of my razaai rustling was unnerving to me.”
Even so, when asked about the terrorists she says, “I really hope I meet some of them again one day. I want to make them meditate. I feel utmost compassion for them. I don’t feel any anger.” She observes that the people involved in such activities are generally unemployed and poor, and subsequently a target for religious brainwashing. “These are guys who are completely misguided.”
Kulkarnis biggest concern is in fact related to the media and the administration. She believes the true number of terrorists as well as the casualties was grossly underreported. Her hope for the future is that the truth is unveiled. As for the victims of the tragedy, the Art of Living foundation has organized a trauma relief program for the Oberoi hotel staff, which has already enlisted over 250 participants.
“I feel like the sorrow is so palpable in Bombay that I can cut it with a knife”, says Kulkarni.
“Don’t forget it,” is her advice to India and the world. “Instead, remember it, not from a place of anger but from a place of action.”