Defiant Mumbai vows: 'The Taj will rise again'
AFP - Sunday, November 30
MUMBAI (AFP) - - "Good afternoon. Taj Mahal Palace and Tower. How can I help you?" Just hours after a deadly siege ended, staff at Mumbai's landmark hotel were back at work, giving the impression of business as usual.
Defiance is a common trait in India's financial capital. Mumbaikars may have been temporarily cowed by the wave of coordinated attacks in the city that left nearly 200 dead, but nothing can stop them working -- and making money.
Just as the hotel sought to get up and running again, albeit with the phones to reception diverted to another location, nearby businesses reopened. Locals, too, flocked to the iconic red-domed hotel, hoping it would bounce back soon.
"The Taj is an institution in itself. It may belong to Ratan Tata but it belongs to the people of Mumbai and the people of India," the director of tourism for the government of Maharashtra state, Kiran Kurundkar, told AFP.
"The Taj is a symbol of Mumbai's cosmopolitan culture. It's a melting pot, just like the city. It will definitely rise again."
Built in 1903, the Taj Mahal was the vision of a Parsi industrialist called Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata. He commissioned the building after being refused entry to the Apollo Hotel, which had a strict Europeans-only policy.
It quickly developed into the city's best hotel, seeing off the Apollo, which later closed, and became the place to stay and be seen for everyone from visiting monarchs and heads of state to rock stars and millionaire business people.
Among the dignitaries who have stayed are Queen Elizabeth II, former Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser and the legendary Beatle John Lennon.
As emergency service workers in gloves and facemasks began the grim task of sifting through the charred building for bodies Saturday, hundreds of locals were curious about what had happened to the city's most famous building.
"It is a treasure of our nation and a pride of Bombay," said shopkeeper Ahmed Yusuf Kazi, 53, among those surveying the damage from the British colonial era Gateway of India monument opposite.
"I feel bad. (Ratan) Tata said he will fix it. That should be done. We hope that it should be just the same as it was before."
Aradhana Singh gazed at the curtains fluttering in the light sea breeze through the smashed windows in the oldest section of the hotel, and the blackened interiors of its luxury ground floor shops and top end restaurants.
Many of the hotel's 565 sumptuous rooms, which cost between 365 and 425 dollars a night, were gutted by the fierce fires during the bloody, three-night battle between the military and the extremists .
"I wanted to see how it is," she said, casting an eye towards a black VIP car peppered with bullet holes. "When people come to Bombay they come to see the Taj. If they haven't been to the Taj Mahal they have at least seen it.
"I don't think it's something that people will forget for a long time when people see the Taj."
Brigitte Fernandes, an Indian-origin French national who lives in the city, described the Taj as "our landmark." "You just associate Bombay with the Taj. It's been there for ages," she added.
"It's related to finance, to money, to the rich and the famous. It's so grand. Millionaires and tycoons... they are all there.
"The French national day is always held in the Taj. It was the grandest ball in Mumbai," she reminisced. "People used to fight to get tickets. It was by invitation only."
But she marvelled at how well the grand old building had held up under the relentless barrage from army grenade attacks and automatic weapons.
"It still doesn't look like such a big battle has taken place inside. It still looks intact," she added.
Lakshmi Rajukare, however, knows that the Taj, whatever people say, is not strictly for everyone.
"I can't go in. We don't have entry because we are poor," she said.
Still, she wants the hotel to get back up and running as soon as possible.
For the past 30 years, the 45-year-old has slept in a park next to the Gateway of India and tried to sell toys and small gifts to the wealthy guests who emerged from its cordon bleu restaurants or fresh from the pool or spa.
"Those who come from outside they would give 50 or 100 rupees (1-2 dollars). Some would pay school fees. Now nobody is staying at the Taj we won't be able to make any money," she told AFP.
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