Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Book review: "The Siege: 68 Hours Inside the Taj Hotel"

When terrorists burst into the Taj Hotel in Mumbai in 2008 and started killing people in a spray of bullets, guests and workers scattered.

Some made it safely outside, but many hundreds were trapped in the huge luxury hotel. Some locked the doors of ballrooms and restaurants and hid in large groups, while others, alone and in pairs, took cover inside their rooms, in bathroom stalls or under desks. There, they waited for rescue.

It would be a long wait. Many would die before help arrived.

The attack on the Taj was part of a wider assault by Pakistani terrorists on Mumbai, India's financial capital. In all, 166 people were killed, including 33 at the Taj. 

In "The Siege," authors Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy tell the story of the assault on the Taj in meticulous detail. Having interviewed hundreds of people, the authors describe the assault from the perspectives of guests, workers, police and even the terrorists themselves.

Sadly, the biggest takeaway from this amazing story is how many people died and were injured while waiting 12 hours for rescue. As Scott-Clark and Levy illustrate, the response from Indian police and military to the assault was simply pathetic.

Too few officers were sent to the scene initially, and those that did arrive were afraid to go near the hotel not surprising, considering they were armed only with outdated weapons and a handful of bullets. Reinforcements were slow to arrive. Bureaucratic squabbling paralyzed rapid response of anti-terrorism units. 

The police response was so pitiful that they that failed to take advantage of even the most obvious opportunities. One brave officer, Vishwas Patil, snuck into the hotel (he was the first to exchange fire with the terrorists) and found his way to the internal closed-circuit TV system. There, he was able to watch on TV as all four terrorists assembled in a single room.

This was the perfect moment, Patil realized, to trap the terrorists and get everyone else out of the hotel safely. He radioed to police outside the hotel and urged them to send in forces immediately. But the police dithered and the opportunity vanished.

The book also makes it clear that, even when their lives are immediate danger, people can do dumb things. In darkened ballrooms where most people tried to remain quiet so as not to expose their hiding place, some people persisted in talking loudly on cell phones or not covering up their a glowing screen. Some people revealed their hiding places to outside journalists in calls or texts, facts that were soon broadcast to TV viewers and quickly passed to the terrorists by their handlers.

The authors' thorough research helps to create a vivid picture with amazing detail. But such detail can also be an impediment to the reader, as it can be hard to keep all the names and relationships straight.

To assist the reader, the book does something brilliant. At the start is a list of many of the key characters, along with photos and short descriptions. This helps immensely; I repeatedly referred to this "cheat sheet" as I read the book.

Also, the book has a not just a map of Mumbai showing key locations, including the Taj, but also has two diagrams showing the internal layout of the labyrinthine hotel. Again, this is extremely helpful.

If you're reading "The Siege," I suggest not getting bogged down in details. Even if you read carefully, it will be impossible to keep all the names straight. "The Siege" works better if you keep the action moving. This may be the kind of book worth a second read just so you can make sense out of the chaos.

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