Why The Location Of The Mumbai Attacks Matters

Madhulika Sikka

hide captionMadhulika Sikka is the deputy executive producer for NPR's Morning Edition.

Stephen Voss
Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai, India i i

hide captionFlames gush out of the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai, India, on Nov. 27. The hotel was one of two five-star hotels targeted by militant gunmen.

Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images
Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai, India

Flames gush out of the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai, India, on Nov. 27. The hotel was one of two five-star hotels targeted by militant gunmen.

Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images

In India, a five-star hotel is different.

You frequent a five-star hotel because you have made it. It is a symbol of economic status like nothing else is. It's not just the movie stars and the business leaders, and especially not just the foreigners who populate these hotels. You are most likely to see India's new nouveaux riche at a five-star hotel.

It wasn't something I really appreciated until I started going to India myself. On a reporting trip there in the '90s, my mom and dad, who lived in London, wanted to know if I was staying in a five-star hotel. What did it matter? (In fact I was, but mostly because, in those days, they weren't the price of a New York or London hotel, and for working reporters, good communications was our most important concern and these hotels had phones that worked and reliable electricity.)

Well, it mattered because it conferred status on me, in the eyes of my relatives in India. I've been back a couple of times in recent years, and the stature of these hotels has gone up (as have the prices). Now, they are New York and London prices, but still, they are more popular than ever.

If you want to go to a really good restaurant in India, chances are you'll find it in a five-star hotel. Looking for the city's best spas and salons? In a five-star hotel. Clubs, coffee shops, places to see and be seen? That would be a five-star hotel in India. You don't have to be a guest at the hotel. You can peruse the bookstores or gift shops in the hotels. You can meet a friend in the lobby for coffee. You can have lunch in one of the myriad restaurants. You can just hang out in the lobby or use the glistening, gleaming restrooms. You just have to act like you belong and look like you are well-off enough to be comfortable in these surroundings, and in India today, lots of people are.

You will be pampered and spoiled and be the recipient of extraordinary service — a service that apparently extended to those trapped in the hotels for hours, sometimes days, as the terrorists laid siege last week. The stories that have emerged about individual heroism include the many employees of these hotels who shepherded their guests to safe locations and fed them and kept them calm until escape was possible.

So when these terrorists went on a rampage across India's commercial capital, why were we so focused on the hotels? After all, some estimates said that about 50 people were killed at Mumbai's busiest train station. There were attacks on hospitals and even a movie theater, but the hotels struck a chord.

Perhaps that's because the message seemed to be that the terrorists were attacking the very symbols of India's economic arrival. To enter these hotels, according to Morning Edition commentator Sandip Roy, is to enter privilege. As Newsweek International Editor Fareed Zakaria has pointed out, the Taj and the Oberoi are Indian-owned hotel chains.

There were lots of five-star hotels to choose from, including plenty of foreign-owned chains. Unlike the multiple bombings (Mumbai 1993), the bombings in some bazaars and other public places (Delhi 2008) or even the commuter train bombings (Mumbai 2006), these particular targets including the Taj and Oberoi hotels said something about the new India: an India that hundreds of millions can't share in, but yet is something they all aspire to. Mumbai is mythologized as the city of dreams, and by attacking these symbols of a million dreamers, they unleashed a nightmare.

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