Philip Yancey: Escaping the Bullets
As my wife and I were leaving India last week, gunfire broke out in the New Delhi airport. Luckily, by that time, we were 40,000 feet in the air.
Janet and I were on a speaking tour in India when the terrorist attacks hit Mumbai where life virtually ground to a halt, just as it did in the United States after September 11, 2001. Most terror events hit suddenly and end just as suddenly in India; this last one in Mumbai dragged on for 60 hours.
Every other night, we stayed in a tourist-style hotel, the very kind targeted by terrorists in Mumbai (formerly Bombay). But when we arrived in Mumbai, we stayed with a local doctor who runs a large hospital for the poor and an AIDS hospital.
Every day, the Indian papers recounted stories of the ongoing drama. A well-known female journalist text-messaged a half-page article about being held hostage in her hotel room, describing the gunshots and grenade blasts from battles fought in hotel corridors, and the smoke licking under the doors. Her last message was, "Terrorist is in the bathroom, I'm under the bed. …" Commandos found her body there hours later.
A Muslim couple heard a noise that sounded like firecrackers. They went to the window overlooking a popular café and were killed in a hail of bullets as their young son watched.
Rumors spread like weeds of scores of bodies floating in the hotel swimming pool, of explosives set to destroy entire buildings.
Just as in 9/11, tales of luck and heroism also surfaced. The manager of the Taj Mahal Palace and Hotel was helping hide guests in a basement food locker even as his wife and two children burned to death in their executive suite several floors above. The Indian nanny caring for the two-year-old son of a rabbi smuggled him out of the Jewish center, saving him from the torture and death that awaited his parents. (Israel has named her a "righteous Gentile" and offered her citizenship.)
As for the Taj Hotel, one Indian told me, "You cannot imagine what the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel means to the Indian people. It's a great source of national pride, an icon, like the Statue of Liberty is to you." No doubt you have seen photos of the magnificent building, constructed in 1903 by a wealthy Indian who had been refused entrance to a "whites-only" British hotel.
We were scheduled to hold a meeting that night in an auditorium not far away from the action, but of course that was canceled. I felt bad for the organizers who had worked for months planning a program, designing banners, and stocking books. Instead, we held an impromptu meeting in Thane, a city 20 miles away. With only a few hours notice, more than 200 people showed up.
I began by telling them what happened in the emergency room the day I broke my neck in an automobile accident. The doctor poked me with a straight pin here and there, asking, "Does this hurt?" Each time I responded, "Yes!" and he smiled and said, "Good!" A physical body is only healthy when it feels pain from all its parts. The barrage of e-mails I had received during that day in New Delhi showed that people all over the world were deeply concerned about what was transpiring in India, sharing in its pain.
A first-time visitor to India is usually shocked by the seeming chaos of a billion people, many of whom live in poverty unimaginable to the West. Yet under the surface, you find many signs of compassion, and come away amazed by India's endurance, graciousness, and boundless hospitality.
During our trip, we visited a remarkable hospital founded by Stephen Alfred, an Indian doctor who gave up his lucrative practice in England to return to serve poor people who have no access to medical care. The old, 80-bed hospital will be used by the HIV/AIDS branch, now operating out of a small clinic.