For Apurva Parikh, it all began a few weeks before 26/11 with a whiff from an incense stick, the flicker of a lamp and a statue of Shiva, a snake coiled around his neck. “To light an agarbatti and do a quick aarti before leaving for work is a childhood habit,” he recalls. “A few weeks before 26/11, I noticed a new figurine of Shivji in my pooja room. I complained silently when I saw it. What was the need for one more idol?” I asked.
“And over the next few weeks, on a couple of occasions, I experienced this strange sensation – a vision of Shivji’s cobra wrapping itself around my neck and choking me, its flared hood by my face. I think it was happening because I was disrespecting the idol.”
The sensation, fleeting as it was, stayed etched so deep in his mind that even as he stared at death on the night of 26 November 2008, the image returned. “When we were lined up along a staircase and the terrorists began shooting at us, I turned to my side, bracing for the bullet. Just as I fell against the wall, Shivji’s snake came back coiling itself around my neck. This was it, I thought. That’s when the snake’s face appeared next to mine, making me move my face a few inches. And just then, the bullet whizzed past my face, ever so slightly grazing my neck.”
Apurva, sixty-seven, is visibly disturbed as he recalls the incident for the first time in nine years. But this memory is what he has armed himself with, this curious blend of faith and belief, of the physical and the metaphysical, to live life after a near-death experience on 26/11.
As one of only four men who survived an execution in a line-up of hostages inside the Hotel Oberoi on the night of 26 November 2008, his account of the night might have been one of indisputable grit and nerve.
But while every anniversary of the attacks is an acknowledgement of the second chance life gifted him, the day also comes as a reminder that he survived while two of his closest friends didn’t. “I felt guilty,” he says of the most overpowering emotion he felt in the days immediately after his rescue. Over time and having laboured hard to find a deeper balance, Apurva has overcome much of the darkness he felt through December 2008. But he still can’t face the wife of one friend who died, and the passage of time could not reverse the souring of ties. “Friends and family don’t say it, but I can feel it,” he says of the burden he still carries. It hurts less now, but the pain is a lasting one.
Ten years later, there is only one detail about his ordeal that’s fuzzy in his memory: He doesn’t know exactly why, or how, he ducked when a fusillade of bullets from two AK-47 machine guns claimed about fifteen others who’d been made to stand in a row with him, including his two best friends.
Everything else, even all these years later, is a crystal-clear recollection.
It was not just another weeknight meet-up with friends. Apurva had invited his two closest friends to discuss a deeply personal matter – his will. They’d picked Kandahar, the Indian restaurant on the first floor of the Oberoi Hotel, barely a kilometre down the road from his home on Marine Drive. His friends lived farther away and they picked him up.
As they drove past the Marine Plaza, another star hotel on Marine Drive with lavish views of the Arabian Sea and Mumbai’s famed Queen’s Necklace, Apurva wondered for the briefest moments if pizza at Geoffrey’s there might not be a better option. He didn’t voice the thought, however, for they had a reservation at the Kandahar, and soon they were being ushered to their table. Around 10 pm, they had not even placed their order when gunshots rang out downstairs. “We knew immediately that something was seriously wrong.”
The staff at the Kandahar could see from the mezzanine the mayhem wreaked within minutes at the ground floor restaurant The Tiffin, and tried to herd the diners out quickly into the kitchen and out from a back exit.
The heavy kitchen door was bolted shut even as one gunman came rushing up. Bursts of machine gunfire close behind them, Apurva and his friends joined a small crowd of diners stumbling down a stairway leading out from the kitchen’s fire exit when a second terrorist emerged from below. They were trapped.
It appeared that the two terrorists had sketchy instructions to take hostages. The trapped diners, shaking and crying, were huddled together when somebody’s phone rang. One gunman barked at them to throw their cell phones away. Eventually, about twenty of them, of various nationalities, were marched up the service stairway to the eighteenth floor. Apurva remembers a foreign Muslim couple saying prayers in Arabic – they were allowed to go. He also saw a couple of others slip out from the doors on the landings – he tried too, but found one locked and later the opportunity to slip out unnoticed didn’t present itself.
Meanwhile, smoke from grenades and a fire from a lower floor began to fill the stairwell. Coughing, breathless and some of them crying, they made it to the landing of the eighteenth floor where the hostages were lined up against the wall. One gunman was speaking on a cellphone, apparently to a handler. Execute the hostages, was the instruction. The gunmen took their positions on the upper and lower landings of the flight of stairs, and opened fire simultaneously.
“I was sure then that it was all over,” Apurva says. It is evident that even a decade later, the memory torments him. He recounts the events of the night slowly, in a voice so low it is almost inaudible at times. Describing the massacre on the stairwell, there are long, silent pauses as he battles waves of emotion, but each time he gathers himself and continues softly.
He was near the centre, his friends were on either side of him. He ducked and turned his face almost 180 degrees, his neck at a full stretch. He felt the bullet graze his neck – had he not turned that far back, it would have hit him in the throat.
He fell, bodies around and on top of him. One more spray of bullets was aimed at the heap of bodies. Once again a bullet hit him, this time in the back, but passed through causing only superficial damage. Two AK-47s, high muzzle-velocity guns, had shot them from close range. Blood was gushing out from his fellow hostages’ injuries, slicking down his face and hands.
As the gunmen left the area, he lost track of time, it could have been minutes or much longer before he gathered the courage to move in the crush of bodies. There were three other survivors, at least one seemed to have a serious injury. They dared not emerge from the pile of corpses, moving only their fingers to check the others. His friends were both dead.
He lay still for a long time, choked with emotion but also frozen in fear as the rattle of machine gunfire continued from various parts of the hotel below them. The stairway was also still filled with smoke. At one point, the gunmen returned, and appeared to film the bodies at the bloodied site of the slaughter. The four survivors held their breath, playing dead. When the gunmen left this time, Apurva and the three others decided it was too dangerous to stay there.
Communicating only by gesticulating, the terrorists not far below them, they decided to walk up the stairway to the very top. There, they found themselves facing what appeared to be a room housing the heating and air-conditioning systems of the hotel.
The four of them would spend the next two nights hiding in the room, relieving themselves in a corner and surviving on sips of filthy water from the air-conditioning unit until the attack at the Oberoi wound down and an NSG team evacuated them on Friday morning.
“Over time, I made my peace with what happened. The memories remain, they will never go away, but as time passes they trouble me less,” Apurva says.
Excerpted with permission from “Surviving An Execution”, by Kavitha Iyer, from 26/11: Stories Of Strength, edited by Kavitha Iyer, Penguin Books.