Thursday, November 27, 2008

India's 9/11 & the insult on the Institution called TAJ.

On an evening not long ago at the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel in Mumbai, a Bollywood star named Preity Zinta rushed up the stairs and into Wasabi, a Japanese restaurant. She joined long-waiting friends at their table and apologized for being late.

But before long, she had risen again. She had seen at a nearby table Adi and Parmeshwar Godrej, billionaires, socialites and fellow jet-setters. A good amount of air-kissing ensued. Then she was introduced to Imran Khan, the Pakistani cricketer-turned-politician, who just happened to be in town.

Before long, a bottle of imported red wine arrived and was poured into a silver-tipped glass decanter, as platters of miso-encrusted sea bass and rock-shrimp tempura floated through the restaurant on upraised hands.

When violent attackers besieged the Taj, as it is universally known, and embarked on a murderous rampage Wednesday night, they targeted one of the city's best known landmarks.

But they also went after something larger: a hulking, physical embodiment of India's deepening involvement with the world.

The Taj is where privileged Indians come when they want a world-class meal. It is where pinstriped foreign executives come when deciding whether to invest in India or outsource jobs here. It is where Mick Jagger, Liz Hurley, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt stay when they are in town.

And it is owned by a conglomerate, the Tata Group, that appears to buy another foreign company every few months in its quest to be a multinational: hotels in Sydney, New York and London; a truck producer in South Korea; the British steel maker Corus; the storied automotive brands Jaguar and Land Rover.

Overnight Wednesday, the Indian writer Suketu Mehta, who wrote a defining book on Mumbai called "Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found," said that an attack on the Taj was "as if terrorists had taken over the Four Seasons and the Waldorf-Astoria and then were running around shooting people in Times Square."

The Four Seasons and the Waldorf-Astoria, however, could never claim the pivotal role in New York life that the Taj could claim in Mumbai.

It is not another Hilton or Sheraton in another Asian city. Its cash cow may be foreign guests, but it is equally a fixture of local Mumbai life, the aorta through which anything glamorous, sentimental, confidential or profitable passes in the city.

The hotel stands across from the Gateway of India, in the historic Colaba quarter. Those who would not dream of paying $3 - a good daily wage here - for one of its fresh-lime sodas sit outside the hotel, leaning against the stone wall above the Arabian Sea. They take in the scene, admire the finely dressed people breezing in and out.

It may not be their time for the Taj right now; but should a fortune ever bless them, into the Taj they will saunter.

The Taj, like many productive endeavors, was born out of spite.

Legend has it that Jamsetji Tata, a 19th-century Indian industrialist of Persian descent, was turned away from a hotel in British-era Mumbai. His crime was being Indian. He decided, in an inventive vision of revenge, to build the best hotel in the country, outfitted with German elevators, French bathtubs and other refinements from around the world.

Those refinements come with a price: at least $300 a night for one of the hotel's simplest rooms, or much more for better accommodation or in times of peak demand. And yet to pay that price and stay in that room is to enter a world that in India is hard to match.

The honking, scorching chaos of Mumbai fades away. A certain quiet comes. You can breathe again. The rooms come with all the latest gadgets. But there are also those indelible aspects of colonial life that refuse to wash away: The turbaned bodyguards, the grown men in the restrooms who refuse to let you twist the tap or squeeze the soap yourself, insisting on doing it for you.

For wealthy visitors, as well as many of the city's elite, the hotel had become so etched into their routine that it was like a second home, taken almost for granted - until its placid calm was broken when terrorism entered its halls.

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