A fictional account of army men preparing to defend Mumbai against terror attacks

No Margin for Error
A Tale of Bravery and Brotherhood Set in the Indian Army
Book Excerpt 

0130 hours

The IL-76 glided to a halt on the tarmac. Two hundred men in black, our moods matching the uniform, clambered silently into the aircraft. Not a word was spoken. At the moment, the weight of our thoughts was heavier than the guns we carried. A tight smile, a nod, a wink and a salute were all that we exchanged. Conversation was impossible with the din the huge aircraft was making. I wondered if it was nervousness that kept us silent.

The Big Boss arrived soon after, his face conveying the grimness of the situation. He was not an emotional man but there were times when he almost made a concession and this seemed to be one of them. From experience, we had learnt to interpret his body language. Right now it conveyed a high degree of anxiety. His radio set buzzed constantly as the police control room and MARCOS (Marine Commandos) personnel at Mumbai relayed fresh information.

‘There is news of fresh violence in various parts of south Mumbai...

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‘The bastards have created mayhem at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus...

‘The terrorists had killed fourteen cops including three top brass of the Anti-Terror-Squad. The ATS chief, assistant commissioner of police, Ashok Kamte and an encounter specialist have been killed by the terrorists....’

Bad news continued to foul our mood.

‘With so much happening there, what are we doing at the air strip? Why isn’t the aircraft taking off?’ whispered a colleague.

The air inside the aircraft had begun smelling of sweat and anxiety.

Further information filtered in and a larger picture began to emerge. The terror attacks on Mumbai had paralysed the city. It was a city under siege, with the police and MARCOS posted at different parts in the south Mumbai area. The sounds of bullets and grenade blasts were reverberating in the two important hotels of the city – the Triumph and the Grand Palace Hotel. Nearby, Kersi House was simmering.

Sam nodded at me. His tightening facial muscles expressed suppressed anger.

He was raring to go, as was everyone else.

My mobile, on silent mode, began vibrating. I stole a look. Ananya was trying to reach me.

‘Have you reached Mumbai?’ she asked breaking all codes we had set for ourselves. She was never to contact me while I was on a mission.

‘Not yet,’ I replied, guardedly.

‘I know we decided that I wouldn’t call you till the mission was over but I just wanted to update you on the latest situation.’

As usual she had read my thoughts. I thawed. She was updating me on what I needed to know.

‘This is from the latest news reports,’ her voice sounded alarmed. ‘Carnage struck Mumbai roughly at about 9.30 pm yesterday when armed men stormed into the Grand Palace & Tower Hotel in south Mumbai. At around the same time, a few gunmen walked into the Triumph and opened fire in the lobby. The Leonard Café has also been attacked.’

‘Thank you, Ananya,’ I smiled into my mobile. I knew she would hear the smile. ‘We are taking off now. Go to sleep and don’t worry about anything. Things will be alright by the time you wake up.’

‘Ok, Sir,’ came her mocking voice. ‘I will have your breakfast ready. Good luck to you and Sam.’

Ten minutes later we took off for the beleaguered metropolis.

‘This is not the work of amateurs,’ muttered Sam, echoing my thoughts. ‘We’ll get those bastards,’ he smiled, sticking his thumb up.

As the aircraft knifed the air, we checked our equipment and made tuning calls on our radio sets. It was going to be a tough assignment, all of us knew. It could also be a long one.

0430 hours

Dawn was breaking as the Gajraj made a smooth landing on the tarmac of Mumbai Airport. Darkness was dissipating with the sky taking on the hues of dawn. I smelled the fear that hung in the air of a city that was famed for its bravery. This was the city that had experienced repeated attempts of insane elements bent upon breaking its fortitude, for it symbolized the heart of the country. If Mumbai panicked, India would tremble!

An eerie feeling assailed me. I sensed that Mumbaikars were wide awake, following the happenings in their city, watching each move of the terrorists and the security forces, with televisions beaming the details into their bedrooms.

Silent and determined, we filed into the vehicles waiting for us. Sam lit up his umpteenth cigarette, the only visible sign of tension. I borrowed one from him, ignoring the promise made to Ananya. This was the first time I had broken the promise. The significance didn’t escape Sam, who smiled mischievously and nodded.

‘It is alright,’ he murmured. ‘We are humans, after all. We also experience the same fears and apprehensions everyone else does. Ananya will understand.’

The one thing that was driven through us repeatedly during our training was not to lose our mind. To remain calm and composed through all ordeals was our catchphrase and we were trying hard to follow it.

The drive through the empty streets of the city took no time for us to reach south Mumbai. We were paying a heavy price for the fumbled planning of the local and central authorities. Priceless hours had been lost already.

All we knew at that moment was that we had been detailed for a mission at the Grand Palace Hotel. Information was scanty and the updates infrequent. Confusion and mayhem was aplenty.

I sent a quick prayer for the success of our mission to the Almighty above as we took off for the hotel in BEST buses. The buses fanned out in different directions, ferrying the commandos towards the venues under attack. Through strangely quiet roads they sped with their load of quiet phantoms in black garb.

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