Six Minutes of Terror review: A comprehensive, objective retelling of 7/11 Mumbai train blasts

I remember being at home and flicking idly through television channels when my mobile phone began to ring. A quick glance at my fairly-smart-for-its-time phone’s tiny secondary display told me it was a classmate from college trying to get in touch. With the college festival – the organising committee of which featured both of us as members – less than a fortnight away, I imagined the subject of the call was going to be something related. I’ll call back a little later, I told myself and ignored the call.

But seconds later, the phone began to ring again.

It was almost at that very moment that the metaphorical ball on the roulette wheel of channels that was my television set came to rest on a news channel that was breaking a massive story. I answered the phone this time and sure enough, the classmate – who had fortunately, narrowly missed being involved in the tragedy – was calling to tell me the very same story. It was nearly 7 o’clock or perhaps a few minutes earlier on 11 July, 2006.

Most accounts of the 12 March, 1993 blasts in Mumbai, the 11 September, 2001 attacks in New York (and Washington), the 26 November, 2008 attacks in Mumbai or even the train blasts of 11 July, 2006 tend to begin with a retelling of where the narrator was when she/he first heard about them. And in the absence of one those from Nazia Sayed and Sharmeen Hakim, the authors of Six Minutes of Terror: The Untold Story of the 7/11 Mumbai Train Blasts, I felt the need to insert my own personal reminiscences.

 Six Minutes of Terror review: A comprehensive, objective retelling of 7/11 Mumbai train blasts

And this is telling. Not my need to insert myself into the narrative, but the authors’ decision not to insert themselves into the story. It’s the absence of the ‘self’ in the story that sets the stage for the sort of dispassionately laid out, objective retelling of the tale – all twigs, leaves and branches of the story tree – without losing perspective. But, we’ll return to that a little later.

Right off the bat, the ‘S Hussain Zaidi Presents’ emblazoned across the top of the cover is a bit off-putting. No, you’re not meant to judge books by their covers, but for a non-fiction book, this sort of thing looks awfully out of place. It’s understandable if it was the poster of a film that was printed on the cover of a book – in a later printing – that served as its source material (see this for an example: Original edition versus post-film edition).

But, it’s easy to look past all that. In fact, all it takes is the turn of a couple of pages and one thing becomes very clear: The intricacy of the story being told.

Profiles of the accused follow a timeline of the blasts and a glossary of legal terms, and it’s easy to, at first, mistake this as a cute attempt at a filmy ‘Cast of Characters’ conceit. However, the events detailed in Six Minutes of Terror are real-life events and as such, there are no nameless henchmen or faceless goons carrying out a conspiracy devised by one criminal mastermind or evil genius. Just as each of the 189 casualties of the blasts had a name, a family, a life and a story of their own, so too did each of the accused. By providing each of the accused with a mini-bio at the very start, the authors provide a smattering of grey tones that are very often missing when it comes to reporting on terror – it’s either white or black, either an innocent whose life was taken away or a cruel gnashing and gurning villain who probably tortured animals as a child, and is evil-personified. This mini-chapter serves as a useful reference point to which to return as the interlinked but largely independent stories of each of these men become more complicated over the course of the book’s 20-odd chapters.

The narrative flow is for the most part, chronological in nature, only flashing back or forward when absolutely required. Key characters are introduced with a look at their respective backgrounds and their journeys – including radicalisation and training – that lead to the roles they finally played in the events of 11 July. And as you’d expect from a book that claims to be bringing you the ‘untold story’ of the blasts, this one puts everything together in the form of a coherent collage. I say ‘coherent’ because if you’ve followed news coverage of the attacks and the various stages of the investigation and trial, you’ll know how many gaps there were in the reportage over the years.

The period of nine years – between the planning stages in early 2006 all the way to September 2015 and Special Judge YD Shinde’s sentence – upon which the book focuses, is described with copious amounts of detail that reflect the level of research that has gone into Six Minutes of Terror.

Slight digression: Over the course of reading the book, its title – whether when spotted at the top of each right-hand page or on the book cover when setting it down for the day – never failed to make me reflect on a particular line in the book that reads: “The police also believed that all the timers were set for 6.30 pm, but a slight error in judgment eventually led to the bombs going off one after another”. The chilling prospect of them all not exploding within a period of six minutes, but going off at the same time – is it possible that they could have claimed more lives and injured more people? – and the sort of horrific overhead imagery (satellite imagery, maybe) to which that phenomenon would have lent itself is bone-chilling.

Back to the story carefully stitched together by Sayed and Hakim and three particular threads stood out to me as the most fascinating in the entire book. The first of these is the tug o’ war between the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad and the Mumbai Police’s Crime Branch – both of which believed it had the better network of informants, investigators and chances of cracking the case. Inter-departmental cooperation has never been a strong suit of the Indian law-enforcement agencies and this is a fascinating look at one such power struggle.

Second, there is the well-presented story of Special Public Prosecutor Raja Thakare (with an honourable mention for his opponent, Shahid Azmi, who represented the accused in the case until he was killed in 2010) and his trials and tribulations throughout the case. And the third thread that stands out is the tale of Abdul Wahid Din Mohammad Shaikh – the only accused to be acquitted, but only after spending years in jail.

One of the most noteworthy aspects of book is the way these threads – and indeed other parts of the story – are presented, without bias or preference and by just placing before you the facts and allowing you to return to the last line of the prologue to decide for yourself if the investigation was ‘really an arrow that has hit the bullseye?’.

The pacing of Six Minutes of Terror is, for the most part, spot on and the writing style is simple and concise, eschewing the need to be flamboyant for accuracy and effectiveness. But the most remarkable aspect of this particular book is the fact that it was assembled in ‘just over nine months’. And having worked with the aforementioned ‘presenter’ of this book, S Hussain Zaidi, on such non-fiction books as Mafia Queens of Mumbai, Dongri to Dubai and My Name is Abu Salem, I am well aware how quickly time flies and how difficult it would be to even contemplate wrapping up a book of this nature in such a short timeframe.

To conclude, the 11 July blasts, for one reason or another, have not received the high-profile billing as the 1993 Mumbai blasts or the 26 November attacks. Which is probably why, in all likelihood, there isn’t another all-you-need to know of this nature on what happened on 11 July, 2006. And the good news is that you are not going to require another compendium on the train blasts after you’re done reading this book. That’s how complete it is.

Note: One minor quibble, however, is the fact that while it was members of the Indian media that hopped wholeheartedly onto the 9/11 bandwagon, falling over themselves to christen the train bombings ‘7/11’, this nomenclature is maintained, for better or worse, by the authors. Over the years, I’ve grown tired of pointing out that there were no train blasts on the seventh day of November in 2006. Similarly, over the course of this book, I went from shuddering every time I came across ‘7/11’ to flipping the numbers around in my head every time I chanced upon the abbreviation, to eventually just ignoring it.

Six Minutes of Terror is published by Penguin Random House India and Blue Salt

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Updated Date: Nov 10, 2017 15:35:24 IST