Role Playing in Mumbai

Amidst all the horror seeping out of Mumbai, I was struck by the behavior of the hotel employees—the stories of cooks, bell boys and waiters risking their lives and in some cases dying to help keep the guests safe. I have seen this same behavior in other disasters—most notably the 1977 Beverly Hills Supper Club fire, which I wrote about in detail in the book. But each time, it strikes me as surprising all over again.

Here is an excerpt from a New York Times story about the heroes of Mumbai:

As the city faced one of the most horrific terrorist attacks in the nation’s history, many ordinary citizens…displayed extraordinary grace….[At] the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower Hotel, a sous chef named Nitin Minocha and his co-workers shepherded more than 200 restaurant diners into a warren of private club rooms called The Chambers. For the rest of the night they prepared snacks, served soda, fetched cigarettes and then, when told it was safe, tried to escort the diners out through the back. They wanted to make sure their guests, many of them Mumbai’s super-elite, were as comfortable as possible. “The only thing was to protect the guests,” said the executive chef, Hemant Oberoi. “I think my team did a wonderful job in doing that. We lost some lives in doing that.”

In catastrophes, human beings tend to hold fast to the roles they held before anything went wrong. Hotel guests, like airplane passengers, tend to play the part of the passive, obedient victims. Employees—even ones earning poverty level wages—tend to feel a profound sense of responsiblity for the guests they were serving cocktails to just moments before. A study of the Beverly Hill Supper Club fire found that about 60% of the employees tried to help in some way—either by directing the guests to safety or fighting the fire. By comparison, only 17% of the guests helped. People were remarkably loyal to their identities, and so it was in Mumbai.

These stories are important, because they remind us of our humanity just when we are close to losing faith. But these stories are also lessons about what could be, about latent defenses we don’t know we have—and don’t cultivate the way we might. Imagine, just for kicks, if our culture pushed everyone to have an identity as someone who helped, who took action in the face of terror and confusion, who was responsible for the safety of others. Imagine how crowded the trenches would be.

GeneralAmanda Ripley