India: Revenge - Best served luxuriously

By Graham Reid

Graham Reid find Mumbai's good life has bloomed in the wake of terrorism.

The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai. Photo / Supplied
The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai. Photo / Supplied

In many places, Mumbai is a city on lazy high alert - notably around high-end hotels and attractions popular with foreign tourists.

The apparent languor and good humour of security guards and police doesn't change the fact that most are armed with seriously powerful weapons.

They stand before impassable barricades and usher people through scanners for an X-ray of bags and laptops. The mirror searches under cars and checks beneath bonnets may appear perfunctory, but they remind you that this city of about 20 million people - still widely known as Bombay to locals despite the name change almost two decades ago - has been in the sight-lines of terrorism.

November 26 marks five years since Mumbai exploded on to world headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Terrorists from Pakistan hit more than half a dozen locations around the city including the iconic central railway station, popular Leopold Cafe on busy Colaba Causeway Rd, the Oberoi Trident Hotel and the Metro Cinema.

The abiding image on the nightly news and front-page stories was of the smouldering dome of the stately and luxurious Taj Mahal Palace, a swanky hotel opposite the famous Gateway of India monument.

The Taj was hit by six explosions, one in the spacious lobby. The stand-off lasted three days until Indian security forces stormed the place, killed the remaining attackers and rescued the hostages. The sole surviving terrorist - one of the gunmen at the railway station - was executed a year ago and co-conspirators have been on trial in Pakistan and the United States.

It might seem ghoulish to visit a place where the names of those killed are engraved on a wall beside the waterfall fountain outside the far end of the lobby, but because the owner of the Taj, Ratan Tata, vowed afterwards to rebuild it even better, you are allowed to be curious.

Of course, you can't exactly amble through the suites designed by the likes of Piero Lissoni or sun yourself poolside unless you are a paying guest - and room rates start near the top of the dome and go up into the stratosphere.

But you can enjoy the broad, low lobby which oozes opulence with its muted gold, glass-top tables and an ambience of assured money. This is the smart-casual world, and sometimes even just casual-casual because if you're staying here you've got it, and don't have to flaunt it. Although some do, of course.

You could slip in for a drink in the Harbour Bar, which is open to the public and from where you can view the ferries on the Arabian Sea. Across the road is the impressive Gateway of India, completed in 1924 and through which the last British troops left India. It was also where the four gunmen who invaded the Taj arrived from Pakistan by boat.

Sit here and choose from the extensive list of beverages. A bottle of beer costs about 400 rupees, which is a very reasonable $8 given your surroundings and the generous amount of peanuts and nibbles which come with it.

Just briefly you can pretend that, given other choices in life, you'd be one of those guests like the Bollywood and Hollywood stars, presidents and monarchs, writers such as V. S. Naipaul, the rather uncomfortable-looking John and Yoko, the late Ravi Shankar, the last Shah of Iran and others whose photos appear in cabinets in the corridor.

I'm guessing a main at one of the restaurants - like the renovated Wasabi on the first floor which was destroyed in the 2008 attack - would cost more than my room at the YMCA ($48) in a quiet tree-lined street a four-minute walk away. But that's not the point.

The Taj Mahal Palace, which opened its doors to the powerful and privileged 110 years ago, is about the good life. And - given that the Oberoi, railway station, Leopold and other places are as busy as ever after those horrific attacks - it's perhaps further proof that living well is the best revenge.

So when you walk past those guards, don't feel guilty for just being there to look around. Others, five years ago, went to the Taj Mahal Palace with a more sinister purpose.

- NZ Herald

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