A decade after he negotiated with the terrorists holed up inside Nariman House, Professor P.V. Viswanath is reminded of the ‘surreal’ events of the fateful day every November. The trigger is often Thanksgiving, celebrated in the U.S. on the fourth Thursday of November. That night, on the eve of Thanksgiving, the professor who teaches finance at the Lubin School of Business, Pace University, New York, had an unusual conversation with a person he had never met or seen before, but was holding his precious friend, Mumbai’s Chabad Rabbi and emissary Gavriel Holtzberg and family, hostage.
‘Can never forget’
“This was an experience unlike any I have ever had. As somebody who grew up in Mumbai, I can never forget the day of the attack on [Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus] and Nariman House. Had it not been for the time I had spent and the conversations I had with Rabbi Holtzberg and his wife, Rivka, just that spring, the conversation conducted by phone with an individual I had never seen (and would never see) would have remained unreal in my memory until now,” the professor said, remembering his frantic attempts to reach out to the Mumbai Chabad Centre from its New York headquarters during the terror strikes.
The professor, who describes himself as an Orthodox Jew, was contacted by Rabbi Shemtov, an associate of Rabbi Holtzberg. After several attempts, Holtzberg’s cell phone was answered by a person who identified himself as Imran, one of the two gunmen holed up inside Nariman House.
Prof. Viswanath, who acted as an interpreter rather than the primary interlocutor with the Urdu-speaking gunmen, was keen to find out what had happened to Holtzberg and his family, having seen live coverage of the terror strikes. During his three to four conversations with Imran, the terrorists insisted the family was fine and nothing had happened. “Ek thappad bhi nahi maara hai (We haven’t even slapped them once), is the phrase I remember [Imran] used. Of course, that was not true, but that’s what he said,” Prof. Viswanath told The Hindu from New York.
Imran kept insisting he be put in touch with the Indian government, and would let the hostages free only if certain demands were met. After a few calls, the conversation ended as further calls did not go through. Following the siege, six hostages, including Rabbi Holtzberg, were found dead.
During the conversations with Imran, the professor was reminded of the historic interfaith meeting between Jewish, Hindu and Muslim religious leaders he had attended at New Delhi in 2007. Last year, he again spoke at a conference at the Buddhist Namdroling monastery in Bylakuppe, Karnataka, where representatives of the Christian, Jewish and Buddhist backgrounds discussed how reason and faith could be reconciled to ease religious tensions.
Prof. Viswanath says while the world has become more polarised since, he hopes greater interfaith understanding will make it a better place. “People of goodwill realise it is not possible to be silent, that it’s important to speak up and speak out. The same people understand the social ramifications of religious beliefs. Hence, even if the situation looks bad today, I think in the long run, there will be greater interfaith understanding. That is why, I think, ultimately the Upanishadic vision of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam will prevail.”
The professor is now more appreciative of the security measures put in place to prevent a recurrence of the attacks. “I visit India every year and while I cannot say security measures will definitely prevent a recurrence, the need for vigilance is everywhere. In Mumbai at least, there is a nice balance between going on with your business and the implementation of security measures.”