REUTERS WITNESS - Back from the dead in Mumbai

MUMBAI Wed Dec 10, 2008 5:03pm IST

File photo of Leopold cafe in Mumbai. REUTERS/Prashanth Vishwanathan

File photo of Leopold cafe in Mumbai.

Credit: Reuters/Prashanth Vishwanathan

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MUMBAI (Reuters) - It’s not often that you get to read your own name in the obituaries. Three days after armed militants went on the rampage in Mumbai, newspapers and TV channels included my name in the list of more than 170 people who lost their lives in the carnage.

They were wrong -- obviously.

But I had a tough time fending off phone calls from anxious relatives, friends and colleagues who thought I had succumbed to my injuries.

Yes, I am alive and well. And painfully aware that my first trip to the Leopold Café might have been my last.

I was there on that unforgettable Wednesday night, deep in conversation with two French acquaintances -- Kate, a filmmaker, and her friend Clementine.

As we drank beer and tucked into prawns and chicken tikka, we talked of Kate's debut Hindi film -- a comedy about a girl in Paris who wants to marry a man with a moustache.

An hour later, as Clementine suggested we order more beer, a diner at a nearby table caught my eye. I remember thinking he looked uncannily similar to actor Johnny Depp in the 'Pirates of the Caribbean' series.

The next instant, his table was smashed and the diner was flung aside. I heard what seemed like a blast and something hit me hard on my back. I panicked and ran out through the nearest door.

Out on the road, I touched the wound and found it was bleeding profusely. I could hardly move my right hand. I shouted for help but no one paid any heed. Tried to move ahead but couldn't and fell down.

As I lay there, I felt someone grab hold of me and help me to my feet. The Good Samaritan hurried me towards a nearby cinema where we clambered into a taxi and rushed to the hospital.

I could still hear the gunfire in the street and my companion told me there was some sort of gang war going on.

The doctors at the hospital were reluctant to admit me but the stranger beside me begged them to take me in. As I removed my shirt and pressed against the wound, a copper-coated bullet fell out.

The woman treating me smiled and uttered the three words I'd been waiting to hear - "You will survive".

The 60-hour siege of Mumbai continued and not everyone was as lucky as I was. More people were brought in as the minutes ticked by.

The man next to me had two bullets lodged in his stomach and was writhing in pain. A weeping mother clutched her dead child. Two policemen were dead and another was battling for his life.

"Only Allah can save us now," whispered someone on my right, a man who had been shot in the chest.

As I began to come to terms with our ordeal, I turned to the man who had rushed me to hospital and asked his name. Turns out Kishore owns a small shop near the Leopold Café. He had already informed my friends, dialling a number that I had mumbled earlier.

My bureau chief in Mumbai, Charlotte, was among the first to find me at the hospital, weaving her way through a row of dead bodies before she spotted me and heaved a sigh of relief.

My ribs hurt and I was feeling breathless but I wasn't badly hurt.

I was alive. I was safe.

Later, as local politicians made a beeline to the hospitals, I was glad to see none of the staff or the victims paid them much heed. The old man at the X-ray machine shouted at one of the leaders, asking his supporters not to obstruct hospital staff.

I was moved to a private hospital on Thursday morning where I was told a rib fracture had prevented the bullet from puncturing my lungs. I underwent surgery to prevent spreading the infection.

And what of my companions at the Café?

I felt like a coward when I thought of Kate and Clementine. I had left them behind. It's hard being a hero when you are busy trying to save your own life.

I learnt that Clementine had been shot in the arm but it wasn't serious and both my friends flew to France soon after.

This week, I got an email from Kate. She says she'll back in India soon.

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