The manager of the Taj Mahal Palace hotel in Mumbai, Karambir Singh Kang, had no idea that a fraught conversation with his wife Niti in the early hours of November 27 last year would be the couple’s last.
Niti was barricaded with their sons Uday, 14, and Samar, 5, in the bathroom of the family’s sixth-floor suite at the hotel in Mumbai as terrorists rampaged through its corridors with guns and grenades.
Kang was pinned down under heavy fire in the ornate ground floor lobby as he tried to evacuate panic-stricken guests and keep in touch with his family by phone.
“I asked them to stay in the room as it was the safest place for them. Had they stepped out, they would have been shot at. We didn’t know that [the terrorists] would set the rooms on fire deliberately,” he said.
Kang still finds it hard to talk about their final call. “It was around 3am when I last spoke to my wife,” he said. “When she told me that there was smoke coming from the doors, I asked her to use wet towels to block it and said I would come to get her.
“I could not reach them due to smoke, fire, gunshots and grenade explosions all around and the commandos had not arrived by then. The fire brigade didn’t have their orders to come in and the terrorists were firing at them.”
As he realised that there was nobody to help rescue his family, Kang was unable even to say a few words of comfort to his young sons.
“They were too terrified,” he said, but he recalls that his wife was “remarkably calm, very brave until the very end, not scared although she knew what was coming. She was an extraordinary woman”.
He added: “I was sure they would survive. When I called again after five minutes, her phone just rang. I knew something was wrong, yet I was hoping against hope she would have been able to get out. But it was not to be.”
He telephoned his mother, Kamaljit Kaur, in Bahrain, whose advice was simple. “Go save the others,” she said. It gave him the courage to carry on. “I had to stay as long as I could to save as many guests as possible.”
Kang remained at his post until the final gunman was killed by commandos more than 50 hours later.
The actions of Kang, his staff and the security forces saved about 700 lives, but his own life would be changed for ever.
Three days after the siege began, the bodies of Niti, Uday and Samar were recovered from their gutted room. Niti was found cradling one son with the other nestled beside her.
The family had been due to move to a new home in January. Instead, Kang buried his wife and sons and returned to his parents’ farmhouse in Punjab to grieve.
He did not linger long. Duty called and he returned within days to start restoring the 105-year-old building.
Renovating the hotel helped him to start rebuilding his own life. “I needed direction and purpose and right now that’s to rebuild the Taj and make it the finest hotel in the world,” he said.
Since it officially reopened in December, Kang has led his team of 542 revamping the hotel. It will be fully reopened next summer. “I decided to stay on and rebuild the hotel and it is important to see that work through,” he said. “They call this hotel the Grand Dame and she is getting a makeover. This is a signal that no matter what happens, we will emerge stronger than before.”
Kang’s decision to stay has bolstered morale. Not one member of staff resigned after the attack, despite mourning their colleagues among the 31 guests and staff who perished inside the hotel.
Following the assault, staff were praised for their coolness under fire and their willingness to put guests’ lives before their own. Warren Siqueira, a duty manager, saved more than 200 by barricading guests into a banquet room. For nine hours Siqueira and his colleagues served refreshments as gunfire and bombs shook the room.
In one attempt to escape, he narrowly avoided being killed when the terrorists opened fire. A maintenance man fell wounded at his feet and Siqueira helped to stem the blood as the man’s life ebbed away.
Despite the trauma, Siqueira said he had not hesitated for a moment about returning to work. “It was a wonderful feeling to come back,” he said.
Kang said the events had brought his staff together. In a city used to natural catastrophes, desperate poverty and terrorist attacks, there is a resilience that leaves little room for self-pity.
At the Leopold cafe, where the terrorists launched their brutal assault, regular customers sit again at tables where a year ago many received horrific injuries. Two waiters died that night, but the surviving eight returned to work between pock-marked walls that have been left as a reminder that 10 people died there.
The Taj hotel’s owners, the Tata family, set up a trust to help all the victims, from their own staff to the families of 52 people killed at the main railway station, many of whom came from the city’s slums. Financial support, education and jobs have been offered to the injured and to families that lost their main breadwinners.
As the trial of Ajmal Kasab, the lone surviving terrorist, draws to a close, many of Mumbai’s inhabitants share Kang’s view that “what has been done cannot be undone”, choosing to look to the future rather than dwell on three nights of terror.
In the Taj’s newly renovated palm lounge, Kang, 41, recalled how he had fallen in love with Niti when they met in Delhi more than 15 years ago as hotel management trainees.
“She was vivacious, full of life, friendly and an amazing mother and wife,” he said, before his voice faded and he looked away. After a short pause he ventured: “Life is in your hands, how you want to cope with it, whether you spiral down or keep going.
“Had I wanted to turn and run when the firing and grenades started, then I could have done that. But it’s like being the captain of the ship and the captain is always the last one to leave.”