“No Photos Please!” the hostess of the Shamiana smiled the warning in while a German couple tried to steal a click. For a brimming Chirstmas afternoon, South Mumbai’s most famous coffee shop for banoffe pie and Christmas struttle is eerily mute and empty. There are no carols and no magnanimous buffet spread either. A few visitors have taken place in meek corners, which have erupted post the restoration, of the Taj Mahal Palace and Hotel’s most prestigious eatery. The cream, silken tent is missing and the hollowed roof structure that was completely destroyed in the spate of the terror-attacks has been restored. But the golden gleam of the Shamiana Chandelier has dulled. This is my first lunch at the just-restored and barely-recovered Taj. The Hotel by the bay, that had its own TV show on a popular channel, came under siege when armed terrorists stormed the Hotel – destroying, killing, stomping, torturing and uprooting the faith of a fearless city. Hundreds lost their lives and the Taj burned in a Magnesium filled air. Pellets of bullets burned holes into the walls of the aging building marking our lives, visions and hearts with fear.
But just shy of a month from when the terrorists first set foot in the Taj, a part of the hotel is now taking orders and reservations. Constant music is filling the gaps of the constant hotel murmur that previously filled the space. Few talk, silent whispers resound and the lobby leading to the Shamiana, is eerily dark even under bright halogen glow. For a newly restored Taj, the place is far from being crowded. 268 rooms have been booked in the Tower, while the Heritage section is still under construction. The opening ceremony was grand, but post that the doors to the Taj have been again closed. The Apollo Bunder, sea-face side and the Bombay Electric entrances have been barricaded again and to get a mere glimpse of the activity around the Hotel, one has to walk through and peer through the fence again. The Taj, it seems, hasn’t recovered from the siege and as the restoration process is still underway, the doors are open for select few. The guests at Taj include fewer foreigners than ever before. “There have been cancellations understandably. And all the new bookings have been fresh as earlier we were booked till January end when we have a lot of people coming in from Germany and UK who spend winters in Mumbai and Goa. Because of the terror attacks, all bookings were nullified. We only opened for the same a week ago. But we do have a couple from Germany staying in the hotel,” Vinifer, the spokesperson for the Hotel described.
But the Taj has recovered. Much of the drapes, carpets and linen in the 268 rooms have been replaced, and new sets of crockery and glassware adorn the tables. Any signs of the havoc that was unleashed on the walls, ceilings and flooring have been painstakingly eased out.
The only reminder of attack is at the base of The Tree of Life, where an inscription carries the names of 31 people who were killed here. The artwork itself bears no trace of having survived the grenades and gunfire on the sixth floor of the heritage wing. In the rest of the hotel, too, it is business as usual a few days after it was opened for guests.
“Nothing seems to have changed except, maybe, for the fact that the food tastes a bit different,” said Ogilvy and Mather Vice President, Production Vikram Bangera, sitting with his mother in the Shamiana eating fish and chips and a slice of strawberry struddle. “I stay at Matunga but come to eat at the Taj at least twice a week. After what happened I will come more often now if possible,” Bangera’s spirit is undeterred, echoing the thoughts of the 178 staff members of Taj, at work in the hotel right now and the 300 some guests being catered to in the various restaurants.
While the staff is warm and welcoming, they are wary of talking and disclosing too much. “Lets not relive the past and wonder too much about the future. For now lets just celebrate the season,” said a Taj employee, insisting on not being named, while shrugging questions of when the full hotel will be functional and whether he witnessed the terror unfold. An intrigue filled curious reporter seeks questions. And a gore loving sadist would love graphic details as another regular on a table nearby prodded a smiling waiter what all he saw and how he got over it. The man, standing with a jug of water, is shaking his head and smiling – eyes focusing on the jug.
Maybe that’s what one should do. Appluad in the recovery of the Taj a month after and pray for normalcy, with a hotel that is still scared to open all its doors. The food for the day is on the house. Eat all you can. A tribute or welcome? One is still unsure. “This is Shamiana’s first holiday celebration. We had limited reservations, so we decided not to charge out guests for the food. This is our Christmas cheer,” the waiter on duty smiled when the cheque was called for. Surely not the last meal.