Targeting 'the hotel by the bay'

Wednesday's attacks seemed orchestrated to tarnish Mumbai's image as India's showpiece to the Western world.

Gunmen target a symbol of affluence in a city of glaring income disparities

Vancouver photographer Daniel Gautreau, who is on holiday in Mumbai, India, watched violence unfold Wednesday. The building with the flames is the Taj Mahal hotel. ((Submitted by Daniel Gautreau))

Fifteen years ago, when 13 bombs exploded over a period of two hours across Mumbai, the targets were the city's stock exchange, the Air India building, hotels, city bazaars, even a cinema. The bloodbath left more than 250 people dead and about 1,100 injured.

The blasts and gunfire that ripped through Mumbai Wednesday night, wreaking havoc in this bustling hub of 18 million, left more than 100 dead and at least 300 injured. The attacks were just as methodically executed but seemed to have a narrower target.

That could be seen in the unexpected attacks on one of the city's largest and most luxurious hotels as well as on a popular restaurant that at that hour would have been filled primarily with tourists. The point, it seems, was to tarnish Mumbai's image as India's showpiece to the Western world.

"This time, it looks like they are after the tourists," said Mahiyar Panthaki, an Indo-Canadian living in Mississauga, Ont., whose wife and two young sons flew to Mumbai last Saturday. "[They are] telling them to leave, [sending the message] that Mumbai is not safe even if you are living or dining in the most expensive hotel in the land."

Sharda Janardhan Chitikar, left, is consoled by a relative as she grieves the death of her two children in the attacks on Mumbai, Wednesday night. ((Gurinder Osan/Associated Press))

They were also taking on one of Hindu India's more celebrated accomplishments: the Taj Mahal hotel — the "Hotel by the Bay" — is not only a five-star attraction. It was built by a renowned Parsi businessman in 1904 after he had been refused service in another establishment because he was not European.

When expats return

Panthaki's wife, Rashne, plans to remain in Mumbai for seven weeks. Speaking to CBC News by phone Wednesday night, she was quite calm about what happened.

"I have come to Mumbai to initiate my boys into priesthood," she said. "They are currently staying in the temple and will be there for the next few weeks, so no matter what happens, I cannot leave."

Winter is when most expatriates and non-resident Indians (known as NRIs) return to India. Arnavaz Dhabar, a transit driver based in Mississauga, Ont., is one such traveller – and he said the attacks wouldn't deter him from his visit.

"I have plans to go to Mumbai next month," he said. "My parents are frail, and just because of a handful of terrorists, I am not going to disappoint my old parents by telling them I am not coming because of what happened."

A resilient lot

Mumbaikars, as residents of Mumbai are called, have become resilient after living through a number of large-scale attacks over the years.

Of these, the 1993 bombings were the most deadly. They were seen as retaliation against Hindus for earlier anti-Muslim riots that left nearly 1,000 dead.

Before Wednesday, the most most serious incident occurred in the summer of 2006, when a series of bombs ripped apart commuter trains during morning rush hour, killing nearly 190 people and inuring more than 700.

"We were there when the serial attacks of 1993 took place, so this, to me, is nothing new," said Dhun Daraius, another Mumbaikar who lives in the Toronto area. "I have to visit my aging in-laws in December. My tickets are booked, and we are going. Life has to go on."

But for Meherzad Demehri, the latest assaults were a little too close for comfort. His family owns the Leopold restaurant that was one of the locations targeted by the gunmen.

Demehri, who lives with his sisters and parents in Richmond Hill, Ont., was visiting his father's brothers, who own the restaurant.

"My brother had just left the restaurant a little before 10 p.m. Wednesday when gunmen opened fire," Demehri's sister Mojgan told CBC News. "He ran home, which is a short distance from the restaurant, only to find that a lane beside his apartment building was also fired upon."

The first thing Demehri did was call his parents in Canada to let them know that although he was shaken, he was safe.

The Taj

The neighbourhood of Colaba in south Mumbai where most of the attacks took place is a trendy, fun-loving tourist hub where regal places like the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower hotel cohabit alongside seedy alleyways and red-light joints. It is a microcosm of what Mumbai is all about.

"It is not surprising that the alleged terrorists chose this slice of Mumbai as their target," says Framroze Nariman Balsara, 90, an ex-Mumbaikar and retired professor of law at York University in Toronto.

"The attacks indicate that the city is vulnerable and sends home the message that dining or staying in a luxury hotel may not be as safe as expected."

Security overwhelmed

The Gateway of India monument, near the Taj Mahal hotel, was one of the first places where violence broke out on Wednesday night. It wasn't the first time that the monument has been the site of attacks: a car bomb exploded there in 2003 that, along with another bombing elsewhere in Mumbai, left about 60 dead.

New Delhi TV said security around the Gateway of India would never be enough because of the sheer number of people who visit the landmark, the foundation of which was laid by the British to commemorate the 1911 visit to India by King George V and Queen Mary.

The 1993 blasts were seen as revenge for the planned demolition of the 14th-century Babri Masjid in northern India a year earlier. The 2003 bombings were blamed on the Kashmiri Islamist group Lashkar-e-Taiba. Mumbai police attributed the 2006 train bombings to Islamic militants fighting Indian rule in Kashmir.

"Wonder what we have done this time to deserve this?" said my father, Purvez Patel, 68, a retired banker and lifelong resident of Mumbai, when I called to check on him Wednesday night.

He had just finished watching a documentary on the Taj Mahal hotel called The Hotel by the Bay and hadn't yet heard about the attack — or seen the images of that same glorious hotel partly engulfed in flames.