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Friday, December 19, 2008

Don't Shoot the Pianist

Fifty-year old Schubert Vaz, pianist at the Oberoi-Trident, Bombay narrates his nightmarish night of November 26 when terrorists seized the hotel.

I was playing the piano as usual as I have for 27 years at the sea-facing lobby of the Oberoi, when I heard gun shots. As soon as I realized that gunmen had entered the lobby and shooting people, I ran into the Opium Den bar. They had already killed two bell boys. Other bodies were on the floor but the terrorists were going into restaurants and firing.

Along with some Oberoi staffers and guests, we next ran into the computer room. We felt that was also not safe. We next headed for the back-up systems room which had batteries and so on. I could continually hear gunshots. I called up my brother in law over the cell phone and spoke softly to tell him that terrorists had taken over the Oberoi, but not to tell my wife. If I was delayed, I asked him to tell her that a guest had invited me to play in his house after my duty hours at the Oberoi. If I did not come home by morning, it meant I was in serious trouble.

We were hiding in the back-up systems room when one of the terrorists entered. He started firing from his machine gun. He shot a 20-year old Oberoi management trainee Jasmine, She died. He killed some guests at point blank range. I thought my time had come to die. I could see the image of my family flash before my eyes. At that time I prayed, "Lord, save me."

The terrorist stopped firing. We were very lucky as for some reason he did not spray the room with bullets as he could have done with a machine gun. He just fired single shots. I could not see him, but could see the muzzle of the gun from where I was hiding.

If he had sprayed bullets all of us in the room would have died. The terrorist did not say a word while he was killing people. He was not angrily shouting, but appeared calm and methodical as he was shooting at us. That made him scarier.

The terrorist left the room. I asked others in the room, including some foreign guests, to put their mobile phones in silent mode. We waited, after about 30 minutes; we began to think of how to leave the hotel. We decided to leave for the Regal Room, and there we found our senior managers who were wonderfully helpful. They asked us to keep calm, and told us security forces will rescue us. We were then taken in groups out of Oberoi, to the nearby INOX theater where we waited until morning. At about 5.30 am, I took a local train to my home in the suburbs.

I have been through the Bombay bomb blasts also in 1993. Bombay suffers from two kind of terrorists: the terrorists who come from outside the country, and our political terrorists within the country who take advantage of our tragedies. Our politicians have destroyed the country with their divisive politics. Our divisive problems started with the Rath Yatra (conducted by Lal Krishna Advani) and destruction of Babri Masjid. We don't need any political yatras. We have the Jazz Yatra, and that is good enough!

We are Indians; it does not matter whether we are Hindus, Christians, Muslims or Sikhs. I know I am alive now only because the terrorist did not spray bullets as he could have done. Yesterday, I attended the funeral of an Oberoi colleague John even though I did not personally know him. I know it could have easily been my funeral. Bombay is not afraid. I am determined to get back to work at the Oberoi that is my second home for the past 27 years, to playing the piano that is my second wife.

The first song that I will play is Anne's Song by John Denver. It was the favorite of the 20-year old Oberoi management girl Jasmine, who died in front of my eyes. She was such a sweet, wonderful human being and killed for no reason by madmen