Author: Ankur Chawla
Publisher: Rupa Publications
Four years since time stood still.
Four years since November 26, 2008, the day on which terror attacked Mumbai on multiple fronts and left death and destruction in its wake.
Four years since the terrorists sought to break the spirit of a whole nation by attacking carefully-selected targets across one of its prime cities and unleashing fear and death everywhere.
Those who lost their dear ones on that day sought closure recently when Ajmal Kasab, the lone terrorist captured alive, was executed by the Indian government.
Against this backdrop, we see the launch of 14 Hours: An Insider’s Account of the 26/11 Taj Attack by Ankur Chawla, a survivor of the attack. An operations management trainee at the hotel at the time of the terror attack, Chawla’s book seeks to capture the 14 hours that he was forced to spend in the Taj Mahal Palace and Hotel, hiding and in fear. The book, however, leaves a singularly insipid taste in the mouth.
The style of writing is banal, and it is really hard to believe that the author could actually have spent 14 nerve-wracking hours, fearing for his life. As a piece of reportage, it merely consists of Chawla recounting the events of that night, without giving us any understanding of his feelings as he lived through that horrific night. The fact that this wasn’t an ordinary game of hide-and-seek but one in which they were hiding from the raw fear of death hovering very close doesn't come across to the reader.
Outside the Hindi news channels were going berserk with their pronouncements of maut ka tandav (dance of death). The English news channels, only slightly restrained, drew our attention to the game of mayhem that was being played in the stately halls of the Taj. And yet, Chawla, caught in the cross hairs of that bloodbath, remains curiously unmoved. His narrative is devoid of emotion.
There is no deep sympathy expressed for Karambir Kang, the general manager of the hotel then, who lost his wife and two children (not three, as Chawla has noted) that day.
The Prologue smacked of self-promotion. Chawla started the book by launching off into a detailed description of how he came to do a course in hotel management and how he landed a job at the Taj, as if it were a piece of chick-lit he were attempting.
There are some instances which are funny in spite of the gravity of the situation and Chawla has done a good job of describing these. These incidents include the refusal of the casual hire to part with his phone even though the phone that Chawla is giving him is four times more expensive and the case of another casual hire who is able to fall fast asleep in the midst of the extreme threat.
The cover depicts an image of the iconic dome of the Taj on fire. It is an image that has seared our consciousness. Unfortunately, the narrative fails to live up to the expectations created by that image. Besides the casualness of the narrative, the book also suffers from many typographical and grammatical errors. Through the course of one telephone conversation, Chawla’s mother refers to him as betaji.
Instead of a lengthy prologue, the book would have been better served by an epilogue briefly describing the casualties at the Taj, and the attempts made by the Taj to help those in need of help.
Somewhere in the middle of it all, however, the pace did pick up. It is only then that the gravity of the danger they face seems to assail a lot of the people within. Until then no one is really sure of what has happened, and understandably so. We on the outside had recourse to the media which kept us informed, but for those on the inside, it must have been even more frightening considering the fact that for a long time they did not know what they were up against.
Chawla has also managed to bring out the details of the thousand and one things that are required to keep a 5-star hotel running well.
If only Chawla had avoided the chatty tone and sought to infuse more sensitivity into his account, this would have been a book that I would readily recommend to others.