Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2009 Coming Up!

It is the 31st of Dec, 2008. The last day of this year. Tomorrow will be a new day, a new year. And as always, the feelings are mixed - How will the new year be? Will it bring any better luck or fortunes? Why will it be any different? What is changing...the morning of Jan 1, 2009 will be the same as all other what is the big deal?

I think the idea behind this frenzy of a New Year is hope and loads of it! Everybody hopes that somehow the next year will be better. A new beginning will be possible only if the old is laid to rest. It is a closure and therefore a beginning too. It is a cycle as is every other thing in this world. And though we may not realise it, it is this circle that gives us a sense of comfort.

What goes around comes around...
From beginning to the end, from end to the beginning
Life, Time, Seasons - all move around in a circle

Though we talk about vicious circles and wanting to break away from the circle, we also find real comfort and peace only when in a circle. It is a circle when we say good follows evil, evil follows good, good follows evil, light follows dark, winter follows summer, old age follows youth, rain becomes the sea...everything is a circle. And if, things don't follow this circular pattern, we feel disoriented.

Circles are smooth, round, closed, complete
Squares are sharp, triangles sharper still, Rectangle is but a square broadened
Circles are smooth, round, closed, complete

As this year closes, another one waits in the wings...last minute make up done, just ruffling its feathers a bit.

Each year teaches us something only to be forgotten in the other year, to make way for new learning and new beginnings. Beginnings are always never begin something again.

I had liked the sound of the word 'two thousand eight'. And now, am trying to say 'two thousand nine' or 'two oh oh nine' or 'two zero zero nine'...hmm...this feels like nine. But i always liked 8...and i will always remember 2008 as an year in which there were lots of waves, volcanoes, whirlpools...endings, beginnings as always ...just like a circle.

2009 coming up...and bringing hope with it as did 2008 and as will 2010.

Friday, December 05, 2008

More on Mumbai 26/11 - Heroes of the Taj: Michael Pollock

This was sent across as a forwarded e-mail by a few friends. This story is worth a read...

Heroes At The Taj
Michael Pollack 12.01.08, 7:40 PM ET

My story begins innocuously, with a dinner reservation in a world-class hotel. It ends 12 hours later after the Indian army freed us.

My point is not to sensationalize events. It is to express my gratitude and pay tribute to the staff of the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai, who sacrificed their lives so that we could survive. They, along with the Indian army, are the true heroes that emerged from this tragedy.

My wife, Anjali, and I were married in the Taj's Crystal Ballroom. Her parents were married there, too, and so were Shiv and Reshma, the couple with whom we had dinner plans. In fact, my wife and Reshma, both Bombay girls, grew up hanging out and partying the night away there and at the Oberoi Hotel, another terrorist target.

The four of us arrived at the Taj around 9:30 p.m. for dinner at the Golden Dragon, one of the better Chinese restaurants in Mumbai. We were a little early, and our table wasn't ready. So we walked next door to the Harbor Bar and had barely begun to enjoy our beers when the host told us our table was ready. We decided to stay and finish our drinks.

Thirty seconds later, we heard what sounded like a heavy tray smashing to the ground. This was followed by 20 or 30 similar sounds and then absolute silence. We crouched behind a table just feet away from what we now knew were gunmen. Terrorists had stormed the lobby and were firing indiscriminately.

We tried to break the glass window in front of us with a chair, but it wouldn't budge. The Harbour Bar's hostess, who had remained at her post, motioned to us that it was safe to make a run for the stairwell. She mentioned, in passing, that there was a dead body right outside in the corridor. We believe this courageous woman was murdered after we ran away.

(We later learned that minutes after we climbed the stairs, terrorists came into the Harbour Bar, shot everyone who was there and executed those next door at the Golden Dragon. The staff there was equally brave, locking their patrons into a basement wine cellar to protect them. But the terrorists managed to break through and lob in grenades that killed everyone in the basement.)

We took refuge in the small office of the kitchen of another restaurant, Wasabi, on the second floor. Its chef and staff served the four of us food and drink and even apologized for the inconvenience we were suffering.

Through text messaging, e-mail on BlackBerrys and a small TV in the office, we realized the full extent of the terrorist attack on Mumbai. We figured we were in a secure place for the moment. There was also no way out.

At around 11:30 p.m., the kitchen went silent. We took a massive wooden table and pushed it up against the door, turned off all the lights and hid. All of the kitchen workers remained outside; not one staff member had run.

The terrorists repeatedly slammed against our door. We heard them ask the chef in Hindi if anyone was inside the office. He responded calmly: "No one is in there. It's empty." That is the second time the Taj staff saved our lives.

After about 20 minutes, other staff members escorted us down a corridor to an area called The Chambers, a members-only area of the hotel. There were about 250 people in six rooms. Inside, the staff was serving sandwiches and alcohol. People were nervous, but cautiously optimistic. We were told The Chambers was the safest place we could be because the army was now guarding its two entrances and the streets were still dangerous. There had been attacks at a major railway station and a hospital.

But then, a member of parliament phoned into a live newscast and let the world know that hundreds of people--including CEOs, foreigners and members of parliament--were "secure and safe in The Chambers together." Adding to the escalating tension and chaos was the fact that, via text and cellphone, we knew that the dome of the Taj was on fire and that it could move downward.

At around 2 a.m., the staff attempted an evacuation. We all lined up to head down a dark fire escape exit. But after five minutes, grenade blasts and automatic weapon fire pierced the air. A mad stampede ensued to get out of the stairwell and take cover back inside The Chambers.

After that near-miss, my wife and I decided we should hide in different rooms. While we hoped to be together at the end, our primary obligation was to our children. We wanted to keep one parent alive. Because I am American and my wife is Indian, and news reports said the terrorists were targeting U.S. and U.K. nationals, I believed I would further endanger her life if we were together in a hostage situation.

So when we ran back to The Chambers I hid in a toilet stall with a floor-to-ceiling door and my wife stayed with our friends, who fled to a large room across the hall.

For the next seven hours, I lay in the fetal position, keeping in touch with Anjali via BlackBerry. I was joined in the stall by Joe, a Nigerian national with a U.S. green card. I managed to get in touch with the FBI, and several agents gave me status updates throughout the night.

I cannot even begin to explain the level of adrenaline running through my system at this point. It was this hyper-aware state where every sound, every smell, every piece of information was ultra-acute, analyzed and processed so that we could make the best decisions and maximize the odds of survival.

Was the fire above us life-threatening? What floor was it on? Were the commandos near us, or were they terrorists? Why is it so quiet? Did the commandos survive? If the terrorists come into the bathroom and to the door, when they fire in, how can I make my body as small as possible? If Joe gets killed before me in this situation, how can I throw his body on mine to barricade the door? If the Indian commandos liberate the rest in the other room, how will they know where I am? Do the terrorists have suicide vests? Will the roof stand? How can I make sure the FBI knows where Anjali and I are? When is it safe to stand up and attempt to urinate?

Meanwhile, Anjali and the others were across the corridor in a mass of people lying on the floor and clinging to each other. People barely moved for seven hours, and for the last three hours they felt it was too unsafe to even text. While I was tucked behind a couple walls of marble and granite in my toilet stall, she was feet from bullets flying back and forth. After our failed evacuation, most of the people in the fire escape stairwell and many staff members who attempted to protect the guests were shot and killed.

The 10 minutes around 2:30 a.m. were the most frightening. Rather than the back-and-forth of gunfire, we just heard single, punctuated shots. We later learned that the terrorists went along a different corridor of The Chambers, room by room, and systematically executed everyone: women, elderly, Muslims, Hindus, foreigners. A group huddled next to Anjali was devout Bori Muslims who would have been slaughtered just like everyone else, had the terrorists gone into their room. Everyone was in deep prayer and most, Anjali included, had accepted that their lives were likely over. It was terrorism in its purest form. No one was spared.

The next five hours were filled with the sounds of an intense grenade/gun battle between the Indian commandos and the terrorists. It was fought in darkness; each side was trying to outflank the other.

By the time dawn broke, the commandos had successfully secured our corridor. A young commando led out the people packed into Anjali's room. When one woman asked whether it was safe to leave, the commando replied: "Don't worry, you have nothing to fear. The first bullets have to go through me."

The corridor was laced with broken glass and bullet casings. Every table was turned over or destroyed. The ceilings and walls were littered with hundreds of bullet holes. Blood stains were everywhere, though, fortunately, there were no dead bodies to be seen.

A few minutes after Anjali had vacated, Joe and I peeked out of our stall. We saw multiple commandos and smiled widely. I had lost my right shoe while sprinting to the toilet so I grabbed a sheet from the floor, wrapped it around my foot and proceeded to walk over the debris to the hotel lobby.

Anjali and I embraced for the first time in seven hours in the Taj's ground floor entrance. I didn't know whether she was dead or injured because we hadn't been able to text for the past three hours.

I wanted to take a picture of us on my BlackBerry, but Anjali wanted us to get out of there before doing anything.

She was right--our ordeal wasn't completely over. A large bus pulled up in front of the Taj to collect us and, just about as it was fully loaded, gunfire erupted again. The terrorists were still alive and firing automatic weapons at the bus. Anjali was the last to get on the bus, and she eventually escaped in our friend's car. I ducked under some concrete barriers for cover and wound up the subject of photos that were later splashed across the media. Shortly thereafter, an ambulance came and drove a few of us to safety. An hour later, Anjali and I were again reunited at her parents' home. Our Thanksgiving had just gained a lot more meaning.

Some may say our survival was due to random luck, others might credit divine intervention. But 72 hours removed from these events, I can assure you only one thing: Far fewer people would have survived if it weren't for the extreme selflessness shown by the Taj staff, who organized us, catered to us and then, in the end, literally died for us.

They complemented the extreme bravery and courage of the Indian commandos, who, in a pitch-black setting and unfamiliar, tightly packed terrain, valiantly held the terrorists at bay.

It is also amazing that, out of our entire group, not one person screamed or panicked. There was an eerie but quiet calm that pervaded--one more thing that got us all out alive. Even people in adjacent rooms, who were being executed, kept silent.

It is much easier to destroy than to build, yet somehow humanity has managed to build far more than it has ever destroyed. Likewise, in a period of crisis, it is much easier to find faults and failings rather than to celebrate the good deeds. It is now time to commemorate our heroes.

Michael Pollack is a general partner of Glenhill Capital, a firm he co-founded in 2001.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Mumbai, meri jaan...

I should have remembered Nov 26 as just another time that my age clock comes a full circle and I subtract another year from my life. Yet, what happened on Nov 26 this year has shaken me completely as it has a lot of others...Mumbai was under attack ...Mumbai, desh ki dhadkan was under attack once again and with what audacity where we questioned and made to come down on our knees. Who were these people who made it possible? Young 20-25 year olds, apparently-misplaced youth...20-25!!!!! For God's sake...their God and my God and everybody else's God...20-25 is the time when one lived and thought of life ahead. What is it that makes these young people move towards such means? What justifies this macabre killing of so many people? Money - how much money is good enough for committing such an act!!! 10, 000, 50, 000, 1 lakh, 1 much is good? Who are these terrorists - dressed like you and me, looking like you and me, walking the same streets, watching the same movies, eating the same roti...who are they? What made them what they are? Is it poverty that has pushed them to such a level?

The terrorists who brought the whole country to its knees were the young ones...what was shocking was the sheer gall of these men. There were some of them who actually sneaked upon a police jeep and went on a merry shooting spree...such audacity, such fearlessness...why? How? What kind of training does this to people?

And then there were all those soldiers - police, NSG commandos, Army men, firefighters...all of them. The heroes this time were the Commandos for of sheer grit and bravery who without the aid of advanced weapons or tracking tools managed to salvage the city, save the people, and help India get over a war...A war it was and nothing less and let nobody question that. It was the NSG who did a brilliant job of saving and rescuing as many as they could and with what little support they could. Now that the real war is over, will begin the debates on how they did the wrong thing and how they should have used some other they should have just blown up the whole place or how they should have shown more restraint (as suggested Israel, per a TV channel)...Its important to know that they did what they could do best without. Sure, more lives could have been saved maybe...had more not been wasted but that was not the situation at the time you and i were watching all this unfold on live TV. They were in the situation and they did the best!!!

Let's now look at the politicians..this was Mumbai...the playing ground of the Lion - Bal Thackeray...anybody seen him yet? And what about Raj Thackeray...where is his Maharastrianism now? Mr. Modi made an appearance but unfortunately, it is being seen as a step taken a bit too fast...why is the temptation to be in the spotlight and point the finger at the ruling government such an affliction with our "leaders"? Did you catch the words of dear Mr. Patil, not the one who left Home, but the one who is Deputy to Ritesh Deshmukh's dad. He said - " aisa to hota rehta..aisi chhoti chhoti ghatnayen to hoti rehti hain". Oh yeah!!! How chhota was this, Mr. Patil? What would be big enough for you? When grenades would blow up right in front of you? Would that be big enough? The mayhem was on...i waited for our soft spoken PM to make an appearance or even the first woman president to make an appearance and send a message to their people...but i was asking for too much...The PM did speak but it would have been better if he hadn't...this is not a speech which is going to be a part of his best talks ever. Sure, he was under pressure. Sure, he was worried but he is the PRIME MINISTER of this country. He is supposed to handle pressure and have the answers and the solutions. If nothing, even a pretence of it would have been good for the morale of the people...But, NO. The President, I'm still to hear about her or from her. Remind me again, do we have one in this country? The Supreme Commander of all the armed forces...

One thing is for sure...we cannot rely on our leaders. We need not wait for them to wake up and take steps...they have not, they will not. We need to awaken and not let such things become a habit with us...(psst...even if we deny it, it has become a habit for us...we are not bothered about it more sleepless nights about terrorists, about bomb blasts, about innocent people being killed...nothing shakes us anymore...)

I don't know what is it that we can do...all i know is that we should not become indifferent to such is with our indifference that these terrorists have managed to terrorize us for so long...i have no solutions, no answers. None that will stand up to such tests. But I do have a wish-list and want to work towards it:
  • I want us to be rid of the temptation of taking the easy way out by paying 20 rupees more to jump a red light or paying 5000 for a fake licence
  • I want us to be rid of the irresponsibility of blaming it on the police or the politicians...we made them what they are today, we can undo it, we need to make that choice
  • I want us to feel - feel for the pain of others and not sit in our plush new-age IT companies and get on with end of day deliverable when the world is collapsing around us
  • I want us to wake up is already too late...