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Hotel Taj: Icon of whose India? Gnani Sankaran

December 2, 2008

Gnani Sankaran is a noted Tamil writer who lives in Chennai.

Watching at least four English news channels surfing from one to another during the last 60 hours of terror strike made me feel a terror of another kind. The terror of assaulting one’s mind and sensitivity with cameras, sound bites and non-stop blabbers. All these channels have been trying to manufacture my consent for a big lie called – Hotel Taj the icon of India.

Read this scathing critique of the media here.

26 Comments leave one →
  1. oommen permalink
    December 2, 2008 1:03 PM

    “The same channels celebrated resilience when bombs went off in trains and markets killing and maiming the Aam Aadmis. The resilience of the
    ordinary worker suited the rich business class of Mumbai since work or manufacture or film shooting did not stop. When it came to them, the
    rich shamelessly exhibited their lack of nerves and refused to be resilient themselves. They cry for government intervention now to protect their private spas and swimming pools and bars and
    restaurants, similar to the way in which Citibank, General Motors and the ilk cry for government money when their coffers are emptied by
    their own ideologies.”

    well, somebody had to say it first.

  2. nil permalink
    December 2, 2008 3:01 PM

    the bangalore bunch of india inc has asked for armed security for their operations. if this gets through, we will have militarised private capital. if you get guns in city, in the name of security, you can also get guns for your operations in rurals. what next ? armed private citadels in the midst of destitution : sophisticated ranvir sena ?

  3. ash permalink
    December 2, 2008 8:57 PM

    As an NRI who followed the incidents and coverage, this blatant divide of classist indian society was quite shocking to me. The media circus that ensued and exploited the Elite hotspots that were affected, was quite ridiculous and pretentious and absolutely melodramatic media circus. Far from what I would consider objective journalism. Shyam Benegal even pointed it out to Barkha Dutt and drove in the point about the CST station and other street level deaths were totally ignored and she just mumbled some drivel and went on back to the Iconic Taj Hotel hype. Sad, crude and truly reflects Mumbai in the way it has been taken over by the pseudo-elite mafia and soap-box celebrities. Shame on the Indian Media and it’s lack on conscience. 60 years after Gandhiji sent the British Raj packing, it has now been replaced by our homegrown version of the British Raj. What a shame!!!

  4. Anuradha Singh permalink
    December 2, 2008 9:16 PM

    I agree with what nivedita has posted.. Taj is not the icon of India rather it is the icon of the rich, elite and wealthy class of India.. when it comes to the statistics there are about 70 percent people in India who cannot even ‘dream’ of entering the exquisite building… and even if they dare to do it they will be stopped at the very first gate.. afterall they neither have the “proper ” clothes nor do they get down from big swanky cars..but still Taj is the icon of India!! actually whose India? and the media and news channels keep reinforcing it..

  5. Sneha Banerjee permalink
    December 2, 2008 9:50 PM

    It is interesting to see the coverage now being given to those who are gathering outside the ‘iconic’ Taj and Oberoi in Mumbai. This is particularly so because most of those people are those who visibly cannot afford to enter these places, but have clearly bought the propaganda sold to them by the TV channels. I am waiting to see whether the signature campaign that is being carried out in front of the Oberoi (as shown in the 7pm bulletein on NDTV 24X7) will move to the CST after that…. My gut feeling says it will not!

  6. dr. d.sengupto permalink
    December 2, 2008 9:54 PM

    rmmbr Sepoy mutinee? Motivate d police/military 2 join peoples’ war, shoot da fukin’ politicians, mpower people wid guns,don’t shun violence,chanelyz d spontnous mass-anger 2 +ve revoluton,power tru’ barel of gun,parliament izz pigstye’…rememember comrade mao, u hipposretes,urban educated typs,hah! its not pyp-dream n e more if u join d noble cause… yes, we can over come ..wring is clear on da wall… finally the table is turning down, yea ,am talking about revolution,silly

  7. Aarti permalink*
    December 3, 2008 1:16 AM

    And here is Mr. Arvind Adiga, booker prize winner, on the Taj:

    Even if you live far away from downtown Mumbai, the city is defined by this part – by the old heart of Mumbai and institutions like the Victoria Terminus train station, VT, the Taj Mahal Hotel, the Gateway of India – which is next to the Taj Mahal – and the Oberoi hotel.

    These are the central civic institutions that define the city for everyone who lives everywhere. One of the differences between India and other countries is that a lot of our civic space is contained within the five-star hotels.

    They have a different function here for us, they are places where marriages happen, where people of all economic backgrounds go for a coffee. For the Taj Mahal to be attacked is somewhat like the town hall being attacked in some other place, it is really something that is quite extraordinary.

    I have to agree with Mr. Adiga. It is truly extraordinary. This is the first time that I have ever heard of a five star hotel being described as ‘civic space’, nor that the Taj is a place where “people of all economic backgrounds go for a coffee.’!

    Take a look at the rest of Mr. Adiga’s befuddling conclusions on the relationship between five star hotels and city space.

  8. Siddharth permalink
    December 3, 2008 1:50 PM

    I think Gnani Sankaran is just “manufacturing” a class division here. Both the CST and the Taj are icons. The Taj was built by Tata, to show the British that we don’t need them. One point he conveniently misses is that, while the CST episode was over, the Taj, Oberoi and the Nariman House incidents were still going on, and so, deserved all the coverage that the news channels gave them. The CST episode got full coverage on the night the terrorist attack started. I think people like Gnani Sankaran are as dangerous and divisive as some other leaders who divide the country based on religion and caste. Its time we focussed all our energies on trying to avoid such incidents.
    He compares this attack with previous bomb blasts. Again he misses an important point. This was not like a bomb blasts which is over in a split second. This was a sustained and co-ordinated gun battle, which makes people more fearful and paranoid. It is clear that terrorists are moving from just bomb blasts to unexploded bombs/mines to gun battle in streets, to maximise the fear in the public.

    It is strange that the terrorists did not differentiate based on caste, religion, class or anything, they attacked everywhere with impunity. And yet we manage to divide ourselves, and to see a division where there is none.

    I agree that it looks ugly when News channels say words like “exclusive”. But the reporters of these news channels braved bullets and bombs to do their job. I do not know where Gnani Sankaran was.

    But yes, Gnani is right when he says that we need to focus on poverty, unemployement and illiteracy to avoid the birth of future terrorists.

  9. Pavithra permalink
    December 3, 2008 2:45 PM

    Thank you Siddharth for echoing my reaction. I want to add that Sankaran also ignores the employees of the Taj and Oberoi. A number of them stayed in the hotel to direct guests to safety and lost their lives in the process. They are not Page 3 material but this sort of cynical and superficial class based analysis purposefully loses the nuances of who inhabits or does not inhabit our hotels. Those hotels belong spatially as much to their owners/customers as they do to their employees such as waiters, chefs, drivers, concierge, receptionists, cashiers, cleaners, security guards, retail employees of the hotel shops…you get the point.

    There was a young student from Haryana at the Taj Mr Sankaran who was serving his internship at the hotel. He comes from a lower-middle class family and probably walked through VT station on his way to the Taj in the hopes of a better life. He is dead now

    Do we at this point need to be arguing about what is the “true symbol” of India? I could go on and on here about why the Taj is as much a symbol of Mumbai as VT Station or Dharavi or the Best Bus or Shivaji Park, because Mumbai is all of that and more. But I think that would be lost on Mr Sankaran who is determined to see a single causal explanation for both the media’s coverage of the incident and for our collective sympathies and outrage- CLASS! (in bold with exclamations) SIGH! is all I can say.

  10. Hetal permalink
    December 3, 2008 2:59 PM

    1.

    Dear Mr Gnani Sankaran,
    I too felt the same anger about only Taj n Oberoi being in focus. Till the operations were going on, it could still have been justified by saying that people would want to know about the live action, but it continued even after that.

    I too called the media, and even wrote to them.
    I told them that the common man wants to know what happened when, and how it happened.

    What about the people who were injured or killed at VT/CST? What about stories about bravery of strangers helping, comforting or helping reach a hospital? What about the losses the ones who are left behind faced? What about the location, the method, the path that the terrorists took before and after the firing spree?

    What about the Mumbai Police who, without fear though armed with simple arms, did a wonderful job of of killing one terrorist, and even more important caught one alive? Is not that one living terrorist caught by the Mumbai Police, the most important source of leads? Why is the importance of their quick action, presence of mind, fearlessness being downplayed, when it should have been rewarded by at least recognising these policemen?

    After I wrote to them, they have started showing the VT and the Girgaum chowpatty encounter.

    I would urge others who share this grief and anger, to call / message / write to the media. The media is as irresponsible as the politicians in doing their own job.

  11. December 3, 2008 3:06 PM

    I think it can scarcely be argued that the Taj Hotel is an egalitarian space, and unlike Adiga, that’s not what the TV channels said anyway. If I am allowed to play the devil’s advocate, the Taj Hotel of Mumbai being called an icon of India is linked more to its architecture, its history and legend, than its five star rates and service. Does anyone call the Oberoi-Trident an icon of India? Is anyone saying that the CST is not an icon of India?

    That leaves us with the question: why was nobody focusing on the what happened at CST, or the bodies and victims in the hospital? Is that because of class? I don’t think so. At best it can be argued that the Taj provided better visuals – but more importantly, it held the promise of great visuals unfolding because unlike CST, the stand-off at Taj continued for long. The event was still unfolding, and so the cameras were there.

    You can argue about TRPs, and that market device does have to do with class in a circuitous way, but I do think Sankaran is stretching it…

  12. anuradha singh permalink
    December 3, 2008 3:20 PM

    siddharth, i agree that the terrorists did not distinguish between anyone and they sprayed bullets indiscriminately at one and all. i also agree that we should not divide ourselves at this moment of crisis. but i still hold on to the view that the kind of media coverage that was done was not the signs of a matured and responsible media. Its not about braving the bullets and bombs but it is the competetion among the TV news channels to score a few brownie points.This kind of ” extra heavy reporting” is actually disturbing. When the operations age taking place, media reports that two commandos are going inside. Do they even realise how irresponsible was it?? The terrorists were in live contact with their masters, who were telling them what the channels were reporting. There has to be some restrain… do they need to give minute by minute coverage?? Media was an enabling instrument but today it has become a dienabling instrument. It is because of the media ‘s ” famous shot ” during the Kargil War that led to the destruction of an ultra powerful artillery gun of the Indian Army.. This is definetly not the signs of a responsible media.. Free media is no doubt important in any true Democracy but ultra free media ia a disastor. some restrain somewhere is indispensible….

  13. Sanjeev Bikhchandani permalink
    December 3, 2008 3:38 PM

    I guess we will know soon enough in the elections how the aam aadmi will vote on terror.

    I would like to remind you however of the perils of writing off the terror attacks on the two hotels in Mumbai as relevant to the elite and the chattering classes only.

    I remember that in 1988 and 1989 Mani Shankar Aiyer would repeatedly dismiss the Bofors issue as only relevant for people in the cocktail parties of South Delhi. No relevance to the masses to the villagers. Well, we saw what happened.

    The reason why the channels were focused on the two hotels was because there was a siege there that lasted three days. CST was a hit and run. You cover it once and you are done. A siege is an ongoing drama where events unfold over three days and makes compelling television. If Taj and Oberoi had been hit and runs and CST was a siege I am sure that would have got more coverage. Nariman house was a lot less glamorous location as compared to the Taj and the Oberoi yet it got equal billing. Why – because there was a siege that made equally compelling television as the two hotels.

    The unequal emphasis we saw in the coverage of the various terrorist strike locations has more to do with the nature of the strike (hit and run vs. siege) and less to do with the fact that the Taj and the Oberoi are rich people’s watering holes.

    I am afraid Mr. Gnani Sankaran has got the wrong end of the stick

    Sanjeev

  14. oommen permalink
    December 3, 2008 3:40 PM

    “but I do think Sankaran is stretching it…”

    Do you think the same about “enough is enough” too? just curious.

  15. Siddharth permalink
    December 3, 2008 4:55 PM

    Anuradha,

    well yes, the new channels need to decide what their ethics and morals are.. jut as you and I have to. Free is free, there is no such thing as “ultra free”. If there is selective reporting, it is no longer free.

    The news channels might have screwed up when they gave away details about the commando movements.. but even a complete black out of the operation does not help. If the media does not report on the situation, people tend to spread rumours. And the media did a great job in controlling rumours. And I also noticed that they were learning from their mistakes, when they soon stopped showing live visuals.

    Anyway, we should not use one mistake to call the media a villain.

  16. dr. d.sengupto permalink
    December 3, 2008 5:22 PM

    am disapointed,shud hav thought btr b4 trying 2 awaken midlclas urban india 2 ‘see’ byond the ‘here & now’ & look further hereafter do do som serios soul-searching,may b i was wrong,tym iz not yet ryp 4 ppls’ dmcrtc rvlution in India,hai… shal wait wid a hevy heart….. shal try 2 hav more understanding & compassion 4 /lesr creatures… r u listeng 2 dis megalomaniac impotent/ anry blah bla blas,Sudipo Chakrovarti @Goa…Red Sun rizing or me halucinating…. hah !

  17. Cbksing permalink
    December 3, 2008 6:08 PM

    I agree with the points Gnani brings up. but I do think, just as TV channels are evidently biased towards the elite class, his anger perhaps at the elite class/elite TV has biased him too.
    One has to be objective.

    First, let’s get one thing clear. TV channels will go where the live action is. It could be in a five star-hotel, a slum or a station. If the terrorists had taken hostages and held a pitched battle in the Victoria Terminus for three days, the TV OB vans would definitely be positioned there with reporters giving breathless updates each second.

    Two. The anger at these attacks that has made many of us say: enough is enough, not just NDTV. And that is not because the rich, elite had finally been affected by a terror attack. I am a member of India’s middle class. I could have been on any one of the Mumbai trains during those horrific blasts. Like all of us, I am a potential victim each time I take public transport or go to a popular marketplace. I was very angry then too.

    But what is different now is that this attack is just one time too many that Mumbai has been struck. The attacks are relentless. This attack was indeed the last straw. The reaction would have been the same if the attack was in a mall or if the terrorists had barged into colony of fishermen and started shooting and taking hostages. The anger is at the helplessness of feeling that someone can barge into your house at will and rob you and kill you again and again and again. This is not Zimbabwe or Somalia. This is India, a growing superpower.

    Three, I disagree with his stand on politicians. Yes politicians are vilified all the time. But that’s because they all deserve it. They have failed us each time. I’ll give you an example. I now live in Gurgaon, a suburb of Delhi, where there are no roads, no electricity, no law and order but many fancy buildings.

    Now we pay the government tax so that it can provide us certain things. But they usually don’t. And we accept it. So, if they cannot provide electricity, we arrange for inverters/generators. If they can’t provide water, we call tankers. They can’t provide us basic security, so we hire security guards to patrol our colonies. In some places, some residents associations have also taken it upon themselves to construct roads. Now, if the government cannot even provide us security from terrorists, are we supposed to put together a private intelligence force?

    Yes, we can step up security. But have you seen Churchgate during rush hour? Try making [people go through a body scanner. And in any case, you can have 100 X-ray machines and 50 sniffer dogs at every station, hotel and public space. But when 5 lunatics come into the country with utmost ease with all guns roaring, they are hardly going to put their guns through the X-Ray machines. They will shoot. That’s what happened at the Taj.

    When someone decides to take a machine gun and start shooting in a crowded market, you cannot stop him till he kills a large number of people.

    What you could have done is PREVENT that lunatic from getting there in the first place. You have to prevent such attacks with suitable intelligence. Not just collecting information, but analysing and taking tough action on that information. And as is evident from news reports today, that is where our government has failed us. Again.

  18. ranju radha permalink
    December 4, 2008 4:41 PM

    Gyani unearths the essence of Journalism culture in India. Weaver (1998) after surveying journalists all over the world has concluded that the “typical journalist is young, male, college-educated and comes from the established and dominant cultural group”. In the Indian context one can read it as male “upper” caste and one can see the brahminical culture of arrogance, hatred for other cultures, demonizing tendencies and disregard for differences in the media coverage whether it be the issue of reservations, fake-encounter at Butla House, Mumbai attack or the demise of Kanshi Ram or V P Singh. Unless and until the brahmincal cultural domination ends, the viewers may not get an opportunity to see the Other World/India.

  19. Uttara permalink
    December 4, 2008 6:38 PM

    I agree with Sankaran, to call the Taj hotel an icon of India is a lie . I would like, however, to reflect on my reaction to the Taj burning as a middle class person who was from Bombay and sometimes had access to it’s not so egalitarian spaces. I say “sometimes”, because though I could go inside I could not always afford to eat there.

    Can a building mean more than one thing, can it mean contradictory things-it did for me. It was painful to watch the Taj burn because it is one of the few beautiful old buildings being preserved in Bombay, the rest are covered in billboards or crumbling away. I had a real fear it would collapse, unlike VT, another beautiful old building, especially since the NSG didn’t always allow the fire brigade to douse the flames immediately.

    The Taj was also symbolic of an old style Parsi philanthropy that has existed in the city for years.

    She felt like a posh, beautiful old auntie in the imagination, an auntie one wouldn’t like completely and one would have terrible arguments with, but whose passing would hurt.

    On the other hand, the Taj is an inegalitarian space par excellance defined by who it keeps out.

    VT is an icon of what Bombay is and what makes it different from other cities. The public transport in Bombay is one of the things that makes it different from other Indian cities, what makes it a more egalitarian, democratic space, where travel need not be a daily act of aggression. The trains, autos, buses and even taxis belong to everybody, the Taj belonged to just a few of us, even in the imagination.

  20. Siddharth permalink
    December 5, 2008 11:16 AM

    ranju radha,

    Your generalisation is gross.

  21. ranju radha permalink
    December 5, 2008 5:18 PM

    The generalisation that define gunas and dharma can only be gross. But when such gross becomes the norm, one has to point it out in the same vein.

    The “visibility” of the gross will upset the “national/secular selves”. The “upper” caste anti-political frustrations seen as a post-Mandal and post-mumbai attackes also indicate the same cultural peeling felt by the so far socially protected selves. The coming of “upper” caste/class women on the streets in post-mumbai politcal scenario elicit a kind of third Mandal rupture in the socio-political realm of the caste-cladded Indian middle class. It can be shacken by the visibility of “gross” only.

  22. Sunny Joseph permalink
    December 6, 2008 4:51 PM

    Why is Gnani Sankaran quarreling about the iconic merits of the Taj vis-a-vis CST? Both are handsome buildings, and both have their places in India’s architectural history. That CST is an iconic building does not make the Taj any less so.
    Calling the Taj an “icon of the financiers and swindlers of India” is in poor taste. Does he think only his Aam-Aadmi-heart bleeds for India? Just because one is a businessman who can afford to dine at the Taj does not make one evil or indifferent.
    Some of his other observations were laughable. “Khakares and Salaskars would not be dead if they did not commit the mistake of traveling by the same vehicle. It is a basic lesson in
    management that the top brass should never travel together in crisis.” Was this guy a former cop or what?

  23. December 7, 2008 4:33 PM

    re: Anuradha Singh : “but still Taj is the icon of India!! actually whose India? and the media and news channels keep reinforcing it..”

    I think the problem is that this is the India that the media & corporations are trying to portray to the West is the ‘new’ India. for past few years, in magazines & newspapers India is mentioned as the rising economic power – top 5 by 2050 etc. there’s much less reported about the local people and their struggles with fast / developing country changes – not one of my friends or work colleagues would know what a Dalit was. so to the rest of the world, the Taj and Oberoi/Trident are what the West can identify with – this is where they stay, conduct business, where things look the same as back home. (for many, where things look nicer than back home)

    the Western media hardly cover the previous attacks in India, which affected local people (some in larger numbers than this recent attack) – they warrant perhaps a single small headline / 1 article mixed in with the world news.

    I think because the Westerners were targeted and the Taj/Oberoi were symbols if not actual gateways to the West this is why there was more media focus. this attack was terrible but for my interpretation, it was an attack on India wanting to become a big player in business/financially in the West. the Indian media seem to want this to happen (as it is happening already and they are a part of it), so I think this is why they focused on the hotels rather than CST and other sites. they seem to identify more with the rich/western culture than their own people & own culture! I don’t think this is how it should be, but this is how I see it. (sorry if I’ve offended anyone as that was not my intent)

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