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Posted on Nov 30, 2008
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mumbai attacks

The House With Five Steps

Even people who saw Nariman House everyday did not know what it was or pay any attention until the tragic attack.
ROHINI MOHAN
tells its story

procons

A smouldering Nariman House
Photos
: Shailendra Pandey

It was a house no one really saw. Until grenades flew out from its windows. Hostages Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife Rivka died in the terrorist gunfire that shook Nariman House for 40 hours. They are survived by their two-year-old son, who is with an uncle in Worli now.

Nariman House in Mumbai stands in a usually lively residential street in Colaba, but very few neighbours have ever seen its door. "It's located in what we call in Marathi Panch Pairi road, or five steps road. And that's the size of the entrance too. It's so narrow that even I, who've lived here all my life, have missed it," says Viraf, a bank employee who lives in Colaba Court behind Nariman house.
A wall around the Nariman House separates it from houses at the back and the near-inaccessible entrance hides it from front view too. This was the challenge even the 20 NSG commandos faced—there was no way to look into the House, or even access its windows. It is flanked on all sides by buildings, which is why the NSG personnel decided to enter from the roof, dropped by a helicopter.

The Nariman House was a combination of Jewish educational centre, prayer hall, and lodge, and was known by Israelis as Chabah House. It is one of more than 3,000 such Jewish centres run by the Lubavitch Hasidic movement around the world. In India, there are three other such centres in Bangalore, Manali and Goa.

Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife Rivka ran this house, giving food and shelter to many Israeli backpackers. They had moved to India five years ago from their home in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, which is the headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch community they were part of. Since 2003, Mumbai has been their home, and they opened their doors to anyone from the Jewish community who found themselves lost in Maximum City. They charged a rent of just Rs 500 per room, a steal for backpackers in Mumbai.

Mumbai Police Chief Hassan Gafoor says, "The two terrorists had posed as lodgers, who wanted a room for the night. That's how they entered the house." The first grenade hit the petrol station in front of the building, and it brought people rushing out of their houses. Amid the flames, many looked for the source of the ensuing gunfire. Since the house is marred from view, all the local shopkeepers could do till the ATS came was to ensure that no bystanders got near the general area.

"I knew it was a house for many foreigners," says Praveen Kumar Patel, who has been selling sugarcane juice from a cart in the

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An NSG commando lands on the Nariman House during the rescue operation

opposite corner for 25 years, "Many firangs drank juice here, but I didn't know they were from Israel. They seemed harmless, why would anyone want to kill them?"

This is one question all the neighbours ask: Why was this house a terror target? It is not known yet if this was chosen by terrorists for a reason, but Rabbi Yisroel Lew of a Chabad centre in London says, "We are no one's enemies. We're just religious people who keep to ourselves. Our beliefs may have offended these people blinded by their intolerance. Or it could be simply because we're Israeli."

The Chabad-Lubavitch community is comprised of orthodox Jews who are Israeli by nationalty. Chabad is a Hebrew acronym for the three intellectual faculties of: chachmah--wisdom, binah--comprehension and da'at--knowledge. Lubavitch is a town in Russia, where the sect originated, and spread across the world. News of the attack on Mumbai's Chabad House gripped centres around the world.
Rabbi Gavriel had called the Consulate General of Israel asking for help, as soon as the firing started. But it was only 40 hours later that the NSG ended its Operation Tornado, eliminating the terrorists inside. They could not, however, save the Rabbi and his wife, who eyewitnesses who saw their bodies being taken out, say looked like they were dead a long time. Perhaps on the very first day. A commando, Joginder Singh, was also killed in the operation.

A BMC official told TEHELKA that Nariman House is now in danger of collapsing.

Posted on Nov 30, 2008

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