Terrorism and Hospitality

In 2012, I stayed at the Taj Mumbai Hotel. I was there on business, my third stop visiting our India offices that fell under my jurisdiction. My manager assistant who was traveling with me was raised in Mumbai (which he insisted on calling Bombay, the name the city was called until 1995 when political parties changed). The hotel is a luxurious Colonialist structure (built in 1903) with 120 rooms and several high end restaurants. The reception staff proudly mentioned (for my benefit, as an American) that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had stayed there in 2009 and pointed to the place just outside the security-walled entrance where President Obama made a statement to the press. These events were noteworthy because the hotel was among locations that were attacked in 2008 by Pakistani terrorists who landed a boat a few yards from the entrance, then went on to massacre nearly 200 citizens, wounding 300 more, at 12 locations around the city. Because I had stayed in the hotel, I was intrigued about the limited release movie Hotel Mumbai that just came out, so we went a week ago last Friday. It was a haunting experience.

As we were escorted to our rooms, Vijay (my assistant) pointed out where there were still chips and bullet holes in baseboards and corners of a few walls in less prominent areas of the restored hotel. He mentioned to me that the terrorists had gone from room to room to kill guests, and that many had been killed in these hallways just a few years earlier. He joked darkly not to open my door unless I had truly ordered room service. The next morning I had breakfast in the Club room with one of our prominent local business partners. It’s the place where several of the guests hid overnight during the attack, fearing that the terrorists would finally succeed in blasting the heavy door open.

Some critics have said that the movie is too soon or that it’s exploitative. It may be. It was definitely hard to watch, but it was also uplifting and thoughtful amid the horror and senseless violence. The attitude of hotel staff when I stayed there was to downplay the danger, but also to demonstrate that they are resilient and that “guest is God,” which showed through my entire stay. The movie features the everyday heroism of the staff members, many of whom laid down their own lives to protect guests of the hotel.

The movie also humanizes the terrorists… to a point. It shows how young devout impoverished boys with family ties could be manipulated into a grandiose gesture with empty promises.

Anyway I’ve been thinking a lot about these things. I’m glad I saw the movie, although I didn’t know all the details of the attack when I stayed there. I didn’t know about the Club. I didn’t know (until my assistant told me) that the terrorists went room to room to kill people (I had wrongly assumed that the attacks were just in the large lobby area). Because it was weighing on my mind, I found an interesting article about the heroism of the staff members at the Taj who put themselves in danger to save guests.

During the onslaught on the Taj Mumbai, 31 people died and 28 were hurt, but the hotel received only praise the day after. Its guests were overwhelmed by employees’ dedication to duty, their desire to protect guests without regard to personal safety, and their quick thinking. Restaurant and banquet staff rushed people to safe locations such as kitchens and basements. Telephone operators stayed at their posts, alerting guests to lock doors and not step out. Kitchen staff formed human shields to protect guests during evacuation attempts. As many as 11 Taj Mumbai employees—a third of the hotel’s casualties—laid down their lives while helping between 1,200 and 1,500 guests escape.

The linked article (from Harvard Business Review) explains how the Taj hires its entry level staff members. They hire young people straight out of high school in the rural towns, not the city (because the young people in the cities don’t have the same values they find in the small towns). They hire for 3 qualities:
1) respect for elders
2) optimism in the face of challenge, a belief that things will work out for good
3) neediness – including a family in indigent circumstances

The Taj Group recruits them into one of their hospitality programs, schools where they sleep in dorms with other students, and their room and board and study for two years is paid. For their families, this can be life-changing economically, with effects that ripple to all members of the family.

It occurred to me that aside from the second quality (optimism), this is similar to how terrorist cells recruit, and instead of a sunny disposition, they seek an unquestioning devotion to a religious cause (that they can twist to their ends). During the attacks, the young men are being fed encouragement from a leader’s voice through an earpiece. Their remote leader talks about their reward in paradise, their duty to Allah, dehumanizing the Mumbaikers as having stolen from their grandmothers and parents and living on the spoils of their people. The voice tells them the world is watching their “heroic” acts and calls them roaring “lions.” Their acts of violence are linked to a perceived religious and patriotic greater good.

Ultimately, the movie is about the small human connections that triumph over dehumanizing messages of fear and violence, but it’s also more subtly a commentary on the ways that the poor are vulnerable to exploitation. As viewers, we know that the terrorist leaders have no intention of paying the families of the boys who are completing their suicide mission–the promises are just as empty as their dream of paradise awaiting them after the massacre. The hotel workers, though, have a middle class existence that is mostly happy, built on hard work, family values, and self-sacrifice. And those unexpected sacrifices benefit the wealthy westerners whose brush with these events shakes them to the core.

Even if terrorism and hospitality are two divergent paths for those who are needy, one with positive outcomes and one with negative, ultimately they are still the ones in the line of fire.


  1. Great post. Read mine if you like.

  2. I have lately been thinking a lot about how economic disparities and pride are destroying our common values and shared community. I have seen it personally destroy friendships and canker wards as people turn every ward party into another occasion to brag about the inflated value of their home. I read an opinion piece in the Washington Post that tried to shame older people who own homes into giving those homes up because younger people think they have a right to a large house with a big yard and then saw this piece reprinted in the Deseret News. In the comments below was a demand that the writer’s ward has a right to have more Primary children but cannot because of the selfishness of these older people who will not move. I am watching friends and family have to leave their homes in Utah because their senior apartments are raising rents 15% a year and fixed incomes do not increase 15% a year. Or go back to work in their 70’s to pay the space rent in their senior trailer park, which doubled in six years and will soon consume their entire Social Security check. I have read stories in the press demanding older people retire so the Millenials can have their jobs, then watched these new Millenial managers treat the older workers as if they are too stupid to do their jobs.
    The poor may be vulnerable to false promises of rewards in Heaven but the middle and upper classes are our main problem. Greed and pride and a sense of entitlement are the real sins.
    Do not think I do not understand the dangers of terrorism. I visited Kashmir in India in 1996 and rented from a young man who was attending meetings where would be terrorists were lecturing. I met some of these terrorists, had them explain to me what they were trying to accomplish and heard first hand what garbage they were being taught. The gunfire I heard was live, as was the tracer fire that lit the night sky as I traveled in by bus. I do not write from reported stories but from personal experience.
    But terrorism is a distraction that affects very few. It is Satan’s handwaving to distract us while greed and dishonesty and a total loss of values of respect and decency and common purpose are the real enemies.
    Label it self-reliance and every middle class Mormon is on board for policies that would have shamed their grandparents. I have heard a Relief Society president in Utah explain why it is acceptable for a young man in medical school to let the state’s Medicaid program pay his famiy’s medical bills, but that poor working class people are exploiting the system if they do the same.
    We consider ourselves charitable if we favor building a new homeless shelter. Why not instead pay people a decent wage so they can pay their rent. We so proudly provide toys for the poor at Christmas while we outsource their jobs to Asia.
    Our hands are clean, we tithe on mint, we proclaim. God warned us that the world lies in sin because one possesses above another. I guess that part of the scriptures can be ignored. It is inconvenient and we could not visit Europe this year or buy the new I-phone if we had to take it seriously.

  3. I too wonder if we are concerned with the wrong poor people. I am not saying that those far from us do not matter. I just think sometimes we can ignore the needs of those near us by focusing on those who are far away in distance. Is it easier because the real cost is considered too high?

  4. I too have some actual experience with terrorism including meeting a would be terrorist while traveling in Asia. While I applaud the actions of the hotel workers in India as showing incredible courage and devotion, I too wonder how relevant this is to the problems the poor we can affect is.
    Are we active in promoting laws that keep jobs from being outsourced? Do we pay our employees a living wage? Do we justify our shopping on Amazon because it is so convenient without considering the sweatshop conditions its employees face? Do we contribute to the destruction of local businesses by shopping online? Does any of this even enter our consciousness as we try to ensure our children go to college and get good professional or management jobs?

  5. Valerie says:

    It is always haunting to realize mass killing took place in a place you are at or just visited. Over 20 years ago I travelled that road in Kashmir where a suicide bomber killed so many not long ago and brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war. It was just as dangerous then as now. Perhaps not surprising was the fact that the would be terrorists I met in Srinigar so much resembled our young male missionaries, full of excitement and zeal for their religion and unthinking about how best to spread its influence. Of course, there is no comparison once they started decapitating their hostages or blowing themselves up, but I was there right before that began and I witnessed young men being radicalized by others who had attended terrorist training camps and could not see where these beliefs would lead.
    I guess what I am saying is, teach your children to ask where their actions will lead. One of the young men seemed stunned when I mentioned the length of time my ancestors in Ireland fought the British and how starting what the terrorist trainers were recommending would not bring immediate prosperity and an opportunity for him to visit Europe. Also, no matter what they thought the Clinton Administration’s undersecretary of State had said in her ill-conceived speech, the US military was not going to invade India to free them. And parents need to be in close emotional touch with their children, especially their sons, during their teens and early twenties. You may believe your child knows enough to reject bad information but often they do not.

  6. Jennifer says:

    I also believe we are avoiding discussion on the real causes of poverty in the US. I recently read Tucker Carson’s book Ship of Fools and had my eyes opened to the falseness inherent in both political parties. Neither any longer care about the workers. Both have substituted identity politics for real efforts to protect workers. And I believe that building Zion, with its mandate that there must be no poor among us, is being given lip service in our culture, even within the Church in some places.
    I applaud the hotel workers in India. But where was the heroism of the rich guests? Or, as someone I knew in New York said right after 9/11, “It is different for the police and firefighters who were killed. They go to work every day thinking something might happen to them. But we work in investment banking. This should not have the power to harm us.”

  7. Perma Banned says:

    “Alex, I’ll take ‘elite white liberals who don’t want their kids in the military’ for $500.”

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