For my non-fiction Tuesday review, I'm reviewing Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy's The Siege: 68 Hours Inside the Taj Hotel.
This is a definitive account of the events of November 26th, 2008, when a ten-man militant team attacked the city of Mumbai. - T
Hardcover, 352 pages
Expected publication: October 29th 2013 by Penguin Books
Synopsis via Goodreads:
Mumbai, 2008. On the night of November 26, Lashkar-e-Toiba terrorists attacked targets throughout the city, including the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, one of the world’s most exclusive luxury hotels. For sixty-eight hours, hundreds were held hostage as shots rang out and an enormous fire raged. When the smoke cleared, thirty-one people were dead and many more had been injured. Only the courageous actions of staff and guests—including Mallika Jagad, Bob Nichols, and Taj general manager Binny Kang—prevented a much higher death toll.
With a deep understanding of the region and its politics and a narrative flair reminiscent of Midnight in Peking, journalists Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy vividly unfold the tragic events in a real-life thriller filled with suspense, tragedy, history, and heroism.
So when I heard that Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy were collaborating for an inside look at the attack, I knew that this was a book I wanted read. They had individually impressed me with with their previous journalism work, and I figured that if anyone could do the attack justice, it would be them.
Fortunately for me, Penguin kindly sent me a finished copy to review, and I was blown away. This is a book with the truest portrait of the human condition laid bare in any book of terrorism ever written. Politics and bureaucracy do not weigh down the narrative here (though they are wisely explored). This is a tale of humanity, explored with all its warts and all its greatness.
Things that worked:
The use of interviews and first-person narratives here was a smart and astute decision by Scott-Clark and Levy. Initially, I wasn’t convinced when I began this book that it was the wisest course of action. However, as the story unfolds, the reader is sucked into the lives of those who are forever changed by the Mumbai attacks.
By using this first-person narrative and those interviews, Scott-Clark and Levy effectively explore everyone involved: the victims, the hostages, the gunmen and the security service. They’re able to do justice to the narrative, exploring delicately the intertwined fates of those who will live and who will die.
* David Headley
One of the biggest challenges (and most notable aspects) of The Siege, is Scott-Clark and Levy’s decision to explore the life and background of David Headley, the American LeT operative who conducted surveillance in preparation of the attacks of Mumbai.
They delve into his life, family, failings and actions in a fair and impartial light, detailing how the great contradictions of his beliefs eventually led him to LeT.
His life, his family, his failings, and his actions are all portrayed in a fair and impartial light, thus reinforcing Scott-Clark and Levy’s reputation as astute journalists. The unique angle that Scott-Clark and Levy have taken will
* Ajmal Kasab
Scott-Clark and Levy balance out David Headley with the tale of Ajmal Kasab. This troubled youth had seemed destined for a life of crime, until a chance encounter led him to a new path.
Scott-Clark and Levy artfully recount how Kasab was absorbed and molded by Lashkar into a form of their design, Ajmal was seemingly desperate to escape. Like many young men of ill repute, he found himself a part of an organization that would ultimately destroy him.
Ajmal’s capture would be the greatest intelligence coup for India and the West throughout the entire Mumbai crisis. He was able to provide the Indian intelligence service (RAW) with the name and information needed that proved the link between the attackers and the Pakistani ISI. Indeed, he helped flesh out the entire LeT plot, from beginning to end.
His story is tragic, for it is clear that Ajmal was hardly that of a true believer from the outset, but a poor soul co-opted to do the dirt work of a major international terrorist network.
I think that academics would be interested in Scott-Clark and Levy’s examination of his story, and might be interested in using it as a case study.
Things that didn't work/Things to consider:
One the best things about this book is its strict focus on the Taj. Certainly, it includes brief mentions of the attacks on the Leopold Café and the Mumbai train station, as well as the ends of the hostage takings at the Trident-Oberoi and the Chabad House. But, these are ultimately very thin retellings of the attacks that claimed the lion’s share of the victims of 11/26.
While I absolutely agree that the Taj was the most high-profile operation staged that night – with four of the ten gunmen holed up at the hotel – I believe that the book would have ultimately been richer, had there been more information about other sites like the Terminus and Trident-Oberoi.
However, this is just my opinion, and I still absolutely believe that academics and general readers would benefit from the strong focus on the Taj.
* Political Context
The larger political context of the Indian-Pakistani conflict wasn’t entirely explored here, nor were the four wars that have punctuated the period since independence.
* Previous LeT Attacks.
One area that would have improved the context of the events in Mumbai, would be the LeT-linked attacks on New Dehli in late 2001 and on Mumbai in 2006.
Both previous operations led to a heightening of military tensions between the nuclear-armed states of India and Pakistan, and almost caused open war. Even as the politics of Mumbai 2008 were explored, the wider stakes unleashed in this attack could have been covered. It was a lost opportunity, in my personal opinion.
I strongly recommend this book for academics who are interested in an in-depth look at the event, but also for the general reader who are interested in exploring terrorism.
Disclaimer: I received a finished copy from the publisher for the purposes of reviewing it.
About the authors:
They won the One World Media award for foreign reporting in 2005 and were selected as One World Media Journalists of the Year in 2009. They have presented and produced documentary programs for Channel 4, The History Channel and BBC TV and Radio. Adrian Levy began his journalism career at the Burton Daily Mail and Bolton Evening News. He was deputy editor of The Sunday Times' Insights investigative unit before becoming a foreign correspondent, specializing in foreign reportage.