A wounded city turns from tears to anger

My first assignment as a journalist in Bombay was in 2003, when I visited the home of a man accused of planting a bomb that had killed several people a few days earlier at the Gateway of India, the city's most famous landmark. The suspected terrorist lived in a typical Bombay slum, congested, with packed houses that shared walls and windows, and I spent the day quizzing the neighbours, who said they had heard and seen nothing suspicious, even though the police were sure that the man had assembled the bomb at home.

I couldn't help thinking: If the police were right, and this man had built a bomb right here, with all these people noticing nothing, how safe was anyone in the city?

That evening I went back to the Gateway - a large stone arch built near the ocean - and walked into the famous Taj Mahal Palace hotel, which stands right next door. I ordered tea at the Sea Lounge, a restaurant inside the hotel, and watched the Gateway through the glass windows. The mood inside was tranquil, relaxing; a man in a suit played Gershwin on a piano.

The anxiety generated by the day's reporting left me. Through the windows, I could see that the crowds had returned to the Gateway - taking photos, watching the ocean, lining up for boat rides. When I put my cup of tea down, a waiter quietly filled it up. Life will go on in Bombay, he seemed to be saying. After all, people in Bombay were tough. An average of ten people (or more) die here every day on the train tracks in this city: falling off the overcrowded compartments or being hit by speeding locomotives while searching for food or water. Nothing could traumatise the residents of Bombay for long.

On Thursday, I was watching the Taj Mahal hotel from the archway of a building behind it, trying to find the Sea Lounge restaurant, when a commando of the Indian army shouted at me: “You could get shot any moment.” The windows of the hotel had become death traps from where bullets or shrapnel or grenades could come flying down.

The terrorists who had stormed the Taj the previous night were wandering from room to room, perhaps taking hostages along with them. They had set fire to large parts of the hotel, but I was still hoping that the lounge with the piano made to play Gershwin had been spared.

Just then there was an explosion; a plume of smoke come out of the side of the Taj, and then another from the roof. It was hopeless to pray for that piano. Though I have lived through many terror attacks in Bombay and in Delhi, it was at that moment - when the smoke began to billow out of the hotel - that I thought of another city where I lived once: I thought of the platform in Brooklyn where I stood, on my way to work in Manhattan on September 11, 2001, trying to see what had become of the World Trade Centre. It's happened again, I thought, and wanted to cry.

Though loss of life in these attacks in Bombay does not approach the levels of life lost in New York, this will almost certainly be remembered as Bombay's 9/11: the terror attack that is different from all previous terror attacks, the one that forces the city, and the nation, to change the way it lives. The nature of these attacks have forced even jaded, toughened-out Mumbaikars to take notice of what is happening: these are not the planted bombs of the city's previous encounters with terror.

This time, men with guns and grenades have invaded the city, shooting at us at will and taking many of us hostage; this is an invasion, and all of us know that though we live in India's richest and grandest city, we are entirely vulnerable. The sweep of the attacks has shocked us; at least ten places in the city were attacked with bombs or guns, including a hospital and a train station. But what has really made this particular attack personal, even for those of us who have not lost family or friends to the terrorists, is what has happened to this hotel.

When other Indians say “Taj”, they mean the world-famous marble monument in Agra; when people in Bombay speak of the Taj, they mean India's grandest hotel, the Taj Mahal hotel at the Gateway of India. The middle-class can afford to have tea; richer people can dine here; and only the super-rich, or visitors from abroad, can stay in this hotel. And yet all residents of Bombay regard this hotel with an intensity of pride and affection. We love the Taj because it is, frankly speaking, better than anything else in this city.

Life in Bombay is profoundly unjust; more than half the residents live on the pavement or in the slums. Naturally we admire the fact that the Taj was founded in a fit of egalitarianism and fair play. In the 19th century, the legend goes, an Indian tycoon was refused admission into a whites-only hotel; he decided to start an hotel where a man would never be judged by the colour of his skin. In a young city where so much is transient the Taj has endured for more than a hundred years; it has the aura of antiquity in Bombay that Caesar's Forum has in Rome. In a badly planned metropolis, where so much is a disaster - the traffic, the water supply, the general infrastructure - the Taj sets a standard of excellence. Thanks to its exquisite service, rooms and food it is regarded as one of the world's great hotels; indeed, foreign visitors to Bombay seem to love the Taj at least as much as the natives do.

In a class-obsessed city, the Taj is exclusive - but never snobbish. (The other hotel that was attacked, the Trident, probably charges less for its rooms and food, but has the distinct reputation of being a rich man's hotel.) Many working-class Mumbaikars save for weeks to have a coffee at the Taj; and then they save their receipts so they can show their relatives and friends.

The hotel's interior may be reserved for the rich, but the famous exterior can be enjoyed by everyone. The palatial façade is a whimsical blend of Renaissance, Mughal and Gothic styles, and the net result is a celebration of all that's hybrid, improbable and incongruous in this world, making the Taj a perfect emblem for Bombay - the city that was dredged out of swamp and sea and populated with migrants from across the world.

In this city of dreams and cinema, this hotel creates the best-loved civic space - the plaza around Gateway of India, where you might go with your family for a Sunday promenade, or to watch the ocean, or purchase some peanuts for a quick snack. In many ways, the Taj is more like a town hall than an hotel. And to see it burning and wounded and charred and vandalised like this is like seeing St Paul's attacked during the Blitz.

The terrorists will not destroy the Taj. People in Bombay are already wondering if it will take six months or a year for the hotel to reopen: it is only a question of when, not if. That is the Bombay spirit, indomitable, and the city will bounce back.

But to forget what has been done to the Taj will be to do it a disservice. Before it is returned to its glory, this ravaged and violated building, which has fed, entertained and hosted residents of Bombay for more than a hundred years, has one last duty to perform for this city.

The failure of the rulers of Bombay and India to anticipate or prevent this terror attack has been complete. We should applaud the bravery of the police, firefighters and soldiers who have fought the terrorists so valiantly - but we should hold their bosses, the politicians, to account. The city of Bombay is run by the Shiv Sena, a group of xenophobic Hindu nationalists who have let the city's infrastructure go to seed, while deepening the divisions between its various religious communities. The Government in Delhi has given the impression, for over four years now, of being clueless on how to tackle the growing problem of terrorism within India. The main opposition party, the Hindu nationalists, look determined to make matters worse if they seize power in the next elections.

This system is not working for Bombay or India. This attack was not inevitable, it was not unpreventable. Every blackened scar, every charred roof, every smashed window in the façade of the Taj Mahal Palace screams to the onlookers of Bombay: “You must find better men and women to lead this city: to lead this country. You must not let this happen to me again.”

Aravind Adiga. The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga won the Man Booker Prize 2008