Fiction | ‘Palace on Fire’ by Susan Bloch | Issue 37 (Jan, 2021)

The fifth-floor suite at Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Palace Hotel stinks of sweat, semen, and coke. Exhausted after his London flight, Philip Johnson, a British banker, lies on his back on crumpled yellow silk sheets, his snoring ragged. Only five hours after check-in, an empty bottle of Johnnie Walker rests in Philip’s upturned palm. On the bedside table, a residue of white powder dusts a gold sniffer. He doesn’t do drugs at home, but Philip needed this fix after his wife Liz had brushed him off. Yet again. 

Maharajas, maharanis, mobsters, royalty, and escorts have had sex and slept under the canopy of this four-poster bed in a room where the vibrant pink and gold striped wallpaper fills the room with a soft pastel glow. Frangipani petals, their fragrance smothered by sin, float on water in a large copper bowl. Mimicking sentries standing guard, the floor to ceiling bay windows, framed by heavy velvet curtains and gold tassel ties, exaggerate the Moorish architecture. To the north you can see the Gateway of India—a tall arch monument in a public square built to commemorate the visit of King George V in 1911. A major Mumbai tourist attraction for foreigners and locals, the surrounding square is packed with lovers, families, vendors selling trinkets and sunglasses, and pickpockets. To the west the horizon is dark and obscure. Only orange and pink translucent rays peer above the menacing fog bathing the Arabian Sea. Madonna’s husky voice belts out to the rolling drum tracks. “Jump,” she chants again and again, as if she knows that soon Philip might have to.

Below, waves pound the jagged rocks that line the city’s southern peninsula, flogging hundreds of blue and orange fishermen’s boats anchored to wooden jetties. A murder of house crows patrol the shoreline picking at dead fish, banana peels, coconut husks, and plastic bags held hostage by the crags. On a nearby landfill ridge, a sliver of moonlight rests on the fisherman’s slums—shanties made of plastic sheeting, corrugated iron, and brick. Home to thousands, these shacks lean against one another as if looking for support. In the dull light their reflections quiver, stretching and shivering on the choppy waves. Flames outline a silhouette crouching on a ledge as smoke vanishes into the opaque sky. A man shouts. A bottle shatters. The drumbeat of a Bollywood song grows louder. A baby cries and a mother’s voice soothes. In the breeze the smell of ammonia from a public toilet makes eyes water and lungs burn. 

Half a mile down the shore a chain of streetlights known as the Queen’s Necklace flood the pedestrian promenade. On the gridlocked road tires screech and horns beep, drowning out the sound of the pounding surf. Children skip along the sidewalk and pester their parents to buy them popcorn, balloons, and ice cream. There is an aroma of potato samosas. Lovers lean in, whispering and laughing. A man dressed in a white turban, kurta shirt, and baggy cotton trousers perches on a flat rock where he practices pranayama yoga breathing. A deep breath in, then a long exhale. Guests at the five-star luxury hotels sip Kingfisher beer and dine on lentil soup, tandoori chicken, curried vegetables, and kulfi ice cream while they watch white gulls float in the depthless evening light. 

November 26, 2008, begins as many ordinary autumn Mumbai evenings, throbbing with crowded pedestrian sidewalks, traffic jams, and forbidding ocean tides. The city’s pulse is strong.

In restaurants, cooks chop onions, fry samosas, roll out chapati, and boil lentils. Waiters serve bowls of creamy black dal, curried vegetables, and creamed spinach with cubes of white cheese. At the train station thousands of commuters surge through the crowds to get onto trains bound for home. Porters balance bundles of newspapers, stacks of trays loaded with eggs, and suitcases on their heads. People shout into mobile phones. Vendors steady cups of chai on trays. Beggars squat in the middle of the platforms holding out a palm. 

In apartments mothers read bedtime stories, kiss their children good night, and settle down to watch Jodhaa Akbar on TV. Women young and old swoon over Hrithik Roshan, the handsome male actor. Later they’ll be unable to remember if he found Princess Joda, his true love. 

No one notices a dinghy—loaded with ten AK-47s; pistols; satellite phones; rucksacks loaded with rolls of ammunition, grenades, explosives, detonators; street maps; and ten men in black T-shirts—weave between the fishermen’s boats, sneaking toward a jetty. No one hears the chug of an outboard motor, an inauspicious sound at this time of night. 

The dinghy carrying the terrorists, members of the Pakistani Islamic terror group Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, slows. The engine is switched off, the attackers using their bare hands to paddle to shore. One ties the mooring rope to a pole while another passes out the ammunition. A third whispers, “Allahu Akbar,” blessing each one with a hand on top of their head as they crawl onto land. They’re close to their primary target—the legendary Taj Mahal Palace hotel, where rich tourists stay when they come to Mumbai. 

At hotel entrances laidback security guards, batons tucked under their armpits, slouch smoking and chatting on mobile phones. The few policemen strolling among the evening throngs are on the lookout for pickpockets. No one would ever be able to comprehend how security forces and the Indian Intelligence Agency were so uninformed and unprepared, or have imagined that soon luxury hotels would become morgues. Glasses, mobile phones, laptops, and school satchels would litter the platforms at the main railway station, and red rivulets would dribble down the yogi’s white turban. For three days a ripe, acidic smell would engulf the city, blocking out autumnal aromas of charcoal-grilled corn and sandalwood incense. One hundred and seventy-four people would die. No one could have imagined that this jihadist attack would, coincidentally, be a coverup for murder in Mumbai’s simmering underworld.

***

In the Taj’s hotel suite Philip’s head slips off his pillow. He grunts himself awake, wipes the saliva drooling down the corners of his mouth with his thumbs, and raises himself onto one elbow and blinks. Rivulets of sweat trickle along the rolls in his belly. He runs his fingers through the few dark curls on his chest, checks his manhood is still in place, and yawns. 

“Ready for more, dahling?” a woman shouts from the bathroom in a sing-song voice.

Philip stretches out his arm to look at his gold Rolex and taps it to make sure the time is right. He’d been out cold for three hours. His mobile buzzes but he doesn’t answer. The screensaver photos of his twin teenage daughters with their golden blonde ponytails, slightly crooked smiles, and braces flickers. Lips pursed Philip kisses their foreheads. Texts flash enshrouding their turquoise eyes. 

Where are you? 

You’ve missed your payment again. 

You won’t get away with this. 

Philip’s mouth fills with a sour taste. He tries to moisten his lips but his tongue feels shriveled. Unwrapping a roll of mint Tums he chews on a couple of lozenges. Sweaty palms pressed together Philip jams his fingers up against his chin. The money. He owes ten lakhs for the last batch. Instead of sleeping, he should’ve been at the bank transferring the money from his offshore account in the Cayman Islands to Bijay, his handler. There is no way he can get his hands on this kind of cash now. The concierge, Raja, his go-between, warned him not to mess around with these guys. 

What if the board at Barclays found out that he is dealing coke and laundering money? This extra income affords the perks that keep his wife, Liz, from complaining that they don’t have enough. It’s never enough: the mansion in the Cotswolds with an indoor pool, gym, sauna, and five horses in the paddock; a yacht in Monaco; a box at Covent Garden; and twins in private schools. Now she’s made a down payment on a castle in Tuscany without even checking they had the cash.

“I promise I’ll give up my golf coach,” Liz said the morning he left, winding a strand of highlighted curls around her index finger. “We can spend the summer at the palazzo and I’ll make it all right. Promise,” she said, pecking Philip’s cheek then wiping her lips. Chanel No.5 lingered in his nostrils, reminding him of how he’d fallen for her on their first date, and how he kept hoping it would all come right. But Liz was always promising and now he was in this mess all because of her. He’d tried to extricate himself from the gang’s tendrils many a time, but they threatened to contact the bank and reveal his off-shore accounts. He couldn’t escape. 

God knows he’d tried to make her feel loved. But no matter how hard he tried, she loved the bottle and her golf coach more than him. He could see her now, in a grey cashmere sweater and Hermes scarf, perched on the bunk next to the chintz cushions in bay windows in the living room, twisting the cork on a bottle of chilled chardonnay. He stares around his hotel room. Except for the white powder and the Mumbai mistress it feels almost like home, right down to the navy velvet curtains with gold tassel ties. 

But now it’s not safe to be here. 

Philip decides to make a run for it. He needs a hideout from Bijay, his handler, until he can come up with the cash. Perched on the edge of the mattress, Philip pulls on a pair of linen slacks up to his knees, stands up, wiggles the pants higher, zips the fly, and pulls in his belly to close the button at the waist. He bends over to slip on a pair of Valentino sneakers, lets out a loud fart, and wrinkles his nose. Damn the dal and curried vegetables.

Bijay lurks in the hotel stairwell smoking a joint, waiting for housekeeping. When he sees the cleaner wheeling her trolley stacked with clean towels, soap, and shampoo for the evening turndown, he pushes on the fire door and steps into the fifth-floor corridor. He slips her a five hundred rupee note—almost a week’s salary—in return for the master room card and the Britisher’s room number.

***

Outside the hotel entrance, people laugh at what sounds like firecrackers. But when the glass door at the hotel entrance shatters, security guards armed only with flip-phones and truncheons run into the chaos. Children cling to their parents’ knees and waists; adults throw themselves onto the ground. 

On the fifth floor, double-glazed windows and air conditioning shut out the sound of the explosions. Philip swallows four Paracetamol with the dregs in the whiskey bottle and tosses the empty pill container into the bin. Striding to the window he twists the handle, but it doesn’t shift. Even if it opened, he wouldn’t be able to get out. There is no ledge to crawl along, and the wall is as sheer as the slopes on Everest. Self-absorbed in his own fiasco, Philip doesn’t notice the bodies lying in the square below. All he can hear is his jagged breathing. He chews on a torn thumbnail, lifts the receiver of the hotel phone, and dials seven for the concierge. No one picks up. “Why the hell am I paying twelve hundred dollars a night if the service is lousy?” Philip yells, slamming the table with his fist. 

Philip, unaware that Mumbai is under attack, doesn’t know that Raja, half his face missing, lies slumped over his desk in the reception area; that fumes from hand grenades fill the lobby, choking the corridor leading to the bar; or that hand-embroidered silk wall hangings in the lobby smoke and hiss as fire sprinklers release a white glutinous spray.

Philip grabs his phone, wallet, and passport, and is about to leave when the blast of a hairdryer comes from the bathroom. God, he almost forgot her. He gathers up her clothes and runs to her. Shweta’s long black curls roll onto her shoulders, and her hips shimmy as she turns toward him, running her tongue over her full lips. 

 “We need to get out now.” He throws her clothes at her. “Hurry!” 

 “What’s the rush? You have me until tomorrow morning.”

He doesn’t ogle at the way she holds her breasts or strokes her pubic triangle. He doesn’t lean over to caress her silky skin or smell her sandalwood scent. But when he hears footsteps in the corridor, he slams the bathroom door shut and yells, “Lock it! It’s not safe for you to come out now.” 

Bijay places the plastic key against the electronic door lock, waits for a click, slips into the room, and shuts the door behind him—legs apart, hands on hips, chin high. The turned-up collar of his Tommy Hilfiger jacket highlights the two diamond studs in his left earlobe, and his gold chain jangles against the buttons of his Versace shirt. Thin hair, tinted red and oiled, plasters his scalp and dilated pupils hide behind Ray-Ban aviators. 

 “The money. Where is it?” Bijay slides the Colt out of his crocodile-skin belt and points the barrel at Philip’s right knee. He releases the safety and rasps, “The money or your knee.”

Philip holds his hands above his head and steps backward, falling onto a purple satin cushion. The air-conditioner hums. Shafts of a greyish-yellow light sully the carpet. A trickle of warm liquid runs down his thigh. 

 “Tomorrow. Please. I promise. You’ll have it all,” Philip sputters. He struggles to sit up. 

Shweta peers out through a slit in the bathroom door. When she hears Bijay’s threat, she slips her Beretta out of her purse. She likes Philip. He’s gentle, makes an effort to pleasure her too, and pays more than anyone else. Enough for her three-year-old son, her mother, and blind sister to live in a modern flat in Juhu, a middle-class neighborhood. Shweta’s fingers stiffen. She struggles to loop her index finger around the trigger. But when she hears Philip blubbing Shweta holds her breath, eases the door open, and fires.

***

In the gift store five floors below a terrorist shoots a male guest in the back. The man slumps to the floor as blood spurts through the hole in his navy linen jacket. At reception, another guest takes a bullet in her shoulder as she hands her credit card to the check-in clerk. The receptionist grabs her forearm and pulls her around to the back of the desk. A British couple on honeymoon crouch under a table in the Taj’s patio restaurant clutching the white tablecloth. A pile of dishes tumbles on top of them. Bullets follow.

Four cooks hide behind a goat’s carcass hanging by a hook from the ceiling of the kitchen’s walk-in fridge, leaving the door slightly ajar. The ring tone from one of their mobile phones echoes across the kitchen, revealing their hideout. A terrorist throws a grenade into the chiller room and slams the door shut, then turns to spray bullets at a waiter sheltering underneath the chopping table. 

Flames lick the ceiling. Smoke surges up the stairs. Smoke detectors chirp and fire alarms clang. Guests barricade themselves in their hotel rooms, pushing chairs and tables against the doors. Armed with ashtrays, bottles of wine and whiskey, cans of Pepsi, and bedside lamps, they hide behind shower curtains and under beds. They stuff wet towels at the foot of their doors to keep out the smoke.

“They heard the gunshot,” Shweta, still unaware of the attack, rasps, “they’ll be up here any second.”

Bijay’s head lies in Philip’s lap. Blood trickles onto the beige carpet. Philip swallows loudly to make sure he is still alive. When he tries to shift Bijay’s head off his lap, his arms turn to jelly.

 “Dahling. Stand up.” There is a slice to her voice. “We have to get rid of the evidence before the manager comes. Hide him.” She rushes back into the bathroom, shoves her Beretta behind the toilet, slips into a bathrobe, and walks back into the room expecting to see Philip pushing the dead man under the bed. But he’s still on the ground. Catatonic. 

 “Either you help me hide this guy or I leave.” She can almost feel handcuffs cutting into her wrists and her beloved family on the streets. Shweta had often teased Philip that he was a softy. It was a side of him she liked—his genuine tenderness. But now was not the time. All those years at snobby Eton College had taught Philip how to be ‘posh,’ and have good manners, but not how to cope in a crisis. Growing up in a slum with her elderly grandparents Shweta had learned to beat off many an attempted rape, her bully of a brother, and sleep on an empty belly drenched in monsoon rains.

 “You can’t leave me now. It’ll look like I did it.” He rubs the bottom of his nose with the back of his hand and sniffs.

 “That’s what I’ll tell the cops. You, the Britisher, shot him.” Shweta slips on her shoes. 

 “But that’s a lie,” Philip bends his knees. 

 “And you’ve never lied in your life before?” She swivels around and faces him full on. 

 “No. I cannot do this.” He leans over and reaches for the house phone. “I’m going to call the manager. He’s a friend of mine. He’ll know what to do.”

 “I’m not taking the rap for this.” She turns her back to him. Hands shaking, she lights a joint, inhales and exhales slowly trying to steady herself, and stubs the end on the walnut bed frame. It seems to take forever for Philip to stand up and begin to drag the corpse across the carpet. When Shweta turns around a few seconds later, she notices flames and smoke billowing across the window. Only then does she sense something else is terribly wrong. Not this shooting, but something else. Something much worse. 

Philip, now fully alert, follows Shweta’s gaze. 

“My God, the hotel’s on fire,” he mumbles without moving his lips. Smothered in the stench of cordite mixed with sandalwood and shock, Philip gives the corpse a last kick under the bed. 

He picks up the receiver again and presses zero. But no one answers. He tries his mobile, but there is no reception. 

“Quick, we need to get out of here.” Shweta’s scream evaporates into the high-pitched sound of hissing smoke detectors and clanging alarm bells. 

Rushing into the bathroom she grabs her gun, and stuffs it in her purse. She douses two bath towels with water, throws one over Philip’s head, and covers her hair with the other. She tries to open the main door but it’s stuck fast. Sticking the sole of one foot against the wall, the stiletto heel digging into the wallpaper, she pulls the door handle again, and staggers back as smoke fills the room. Coughing and spluttering, Shweta grabs Philip’s hand. His palm is moist. Their hands slip and re-clasp. A wild smell of deep pervasive burning follows them as they charge down the corridor. Shweta rams her shoulder into the exit door and they race down the empty stairwell two stairs at a time to the lobby, unprepared for the blood-spattered walls, bodies splayed across the carpets, shattered china, and the stench of blood and urine. Shweta flexes out her tongue and wipes the grey flecks off her tongue with her upper arm. Panting, she pulls Philip toward the kitchen, thankful for the times when she’d had to make a hasty exit from the hotel through the maze of corridors.

“What is this?” Philip asks as he finally exhales the breath he’d been holding. “A war zone?”

Not bothering to answer Shweta rushes through the scullery. She slips on what looks like human intestines and her arms flail. Philip pulls her up just as an unexploded hand grenade hisses. They squeeze behind a tower of crates filled with cans of Pepsi. Shweta nods at Philip, slips the Berretta out her purse, eases the catch, and peers out to be met with a barrage of showering glass, white smoke, and the smell of charred tandoori chicken. A few minutes later Shweta steps out. 

One of the attackers has his back to her and she fires, grazing his neck. He runs off down the corridor as she tugs at Philip’s arm, pulling him down to squat behind an industrial size stainless-steel rubbish bin. Distorted images of their own faces look back at them. A greenish sock just like the pair she’d gifted her uncle for Diwali lies in the slop. Shweta’s breath comes in fast explosive gasps. 

An oil-filled pan sizzles. Shweta smells the burning before she hears the hiss. The cuff of Philip’s trouser legs turns black, scorched by a weak flame on the oily tiled floor. She bends down and smacks the scorched fabric with her hand even though they can still hear the voices of the terrorists shouting in Arabic. The fluorescent light twitches. A glistening grey film of sweat trickles down Philip’s forehead into his eyes. No clue what to do next, he closes his eyes and leans against Shweta. 

“Keep moving before these miscreants nab us,” Shweta whispers barely audible, but forceful. Dependent on Philip’s whims and money, she’d never minded that she’d always been the passive and submissive one. But this was different. 

 “Pull yourself together,” Shweta growls. “No time for silliness now.”

Gripping his wrist and trying not to stumble on the slick floor covered in pots, urine, convulsing bodies, and empty bullet cartridges, she leads Philip along, pushing her back along the wall. 

Screams echo down the laundry chute but Shweta keeps on despite the persistent gunfire. Only a few more yards. The delivery entrance is clear. Philip retches, spewing out a brownish-yellow slop and splashing Shweta’s ankles, but she keeps running. She’d stepped in worse at the garbage dump near her childhood shack.

In seconds they’re out. 

In the TV room of their London home in Millionaire’s Row near Hampstead Heath, Liz sits on a floral chintz armchair, sipping Glenfiddich single malt on the rocks and watching the BBC’s ten-o’clock news, her nightly ritual. An interview with Prime Minister Gordon Brown is cut off to report breaking news: the terror attack in Mumbai. When Liz sees flames engulf the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel she calls Philip on his mobile and leaves a message on his voicemail. She tries the hotel but all she gets is a constant busy signal. She longs to fling her arms around Philip’s neck and tell him she’ll be happy with what they have, that she will do what is right for their marriage, and keep her promises to stop drinking and screwing around. That he shouldn’t have to be away so much. That she’ll find ways, even go to therapy, to resume their sex life. Liz sets her phone onto redial, but Philip doesn’t pick up. She gulps down the rest of her drink and tops up her glass.

Shafts of light from the flames illuminate the empty alley just as a couple bursts out the stairwell at the back entrance of the hotel. TV cameras catch a man in his early forties, bare-chested and wearing only white blood-stained trousers with torn cuffs, and a woman in a grimy toweling gown, stumbling in red stilettos. Still ignorant that not only the Taj Palace, but the entire city of Mumbai is under siege, they hug, cry, and laugh. When Liz recognizes Philip in the arms of an Indian woman, she stands up and walks closer to the screen. She flings her cut-glass tumbler across the room as she sees her Tuscany palazzo go up in flames. She picks up the bottle of Scotch, pulls out the cork, and gulps.

 “They’re one of the few lucky ones,” the TV reporter shouts above the sirens. “One of the few survivors. True heroes.”

Helicopter blades comes closer. A policeman runs toward them, grabs the couple by their arms, and tries to shove them into the back of a police van. 

But Shweta kicks out. The sharp heel of her shoe smacks into his crotch.

 “You’re on your own,” she yells at Philip. She darts away and disappears into the smoke as he jumps onto the back bench of the van. 

“How the heck did you ever get out?” the cop asks Philip. The vehicle screeches out of the alley. “Do you even know what’s happening here?”

Philip swallows, and rubs his eyes with his fingers but doesn’t answer. A cocktail of old sweat, piss, and terror fills the van, and TV cameras and reporters stalk the vehicle. He ducks, hoping to escape the headlines about his moral bankruptcy. The vehicle, siren spinning and raging, speeds through streets that are quiet and noisy all at the same time. The sound of gunfire, car alarms, and flames have asphyxiated the chatter, laughter, honking. Rickshaws lie strewn at the sidewalk. Abandoned cars and buses litter the middle of the road, and street vendors’ haphazard stalls stand hushed.


An executive coach and writer, Susan Bloch is an eclectic author of non-fiction and fiction short pieces, as well as books and articles on leadership and board effectiveness. Her essays have won a prize in the Travelers’ Tales Solas Awards and received a notable mention in Best American Essays 2017. Her short stories and essays have been published in a variety of magazines and literary journals, including The Forward, Entropy, The Citron Review, STORGY, Pif Magazine, Tikkun, and HuffPost. A lifelong traveler, she lived in South Africa, New York, Tel Aviv, London, and Mumbai before alighting in Seattle. Visit her at www.susanblochwriter.com.
 
 
 

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