Adventures in Learning

Training in the Time of Terror

[Everyone remembers 26/11 2008 in India at least.  On the eve of that great tragedy (November 25, 2020) I am prompted to remember it for reasons that have stuck with me throughout these years.  Learnings of a lifetime were strewn in my path that day, night and the next entire week.]

Just three days earlier we had lost our youngest brother, Paul, at the age of 43, to cancer.  On the 25th we attended his burial service and the next day, November 26th, I left for Mumbai by the evening flight to conduct a training program for my company.  I was to train a group of 18 senior-citizen Master Trainers from the world of Banking and Finance.  They had come from around the country for this week-long program.

The Backpack and the Strolley

As we circled the skies above Mumbai, all that the Captain told us was that we were waiting for permission to land.  He told us this a few times, but not the reason why.  People were worried as any form of communication was strictly disallowed.  We eventually did land but quite far out from the main airport building.  The doors remained locked and we were told that the equipment for us to alight was yet to arrive.  It did, after about 45 minutes, along with a posse of policemen.  We got off the flight, turned on our cell phones to see that I had a string of missed calls mostly from my family.  “I’ll deal with that later”, I thought and headed for the bus. Once we alighted from the bus a few of us were singled out and asked to move to one side where we had to produce identity documents and state why we had come to Mumbai. In retrospect I wonder if it is because all of us had backpacks — a few days later the pictures of the terrorist with a backpack went viral on news channels.  Till this point we had not been informed as to why there was such a lot of obvious panic around.  After the questioning, I tried to call my hotel – Hotel Airlink – to find out if my airport pickup had arrived.  I was told that traffic was not being allowed near the airport but they were sending someone to help.  My assistance arrived and the first thing he told me was about the terrorist attack which had taken place minutes earlier — he had no details, but was sure it was the reason for the flight’s delayed landing and subsequent actions. As we walked, he insisted on carrying my strolley, he was trying to tell me what he had seen on TV when the call came from my immediate boss in the company.  

Not taking orders tonight, sir

“Don’t leave the airport.  Take the next flight out and go back!” I was ordered.  I said that I was already at the Hotel and would take a call early in the morning as my trainees had come from all over India and were already in a Hotel at Andheri. After much argument I firmly decided that I couldn’t leave without at least connecting to my trainees.  I was assured that anything I did would not merit support from the company should anything untoward happen.  We reached Hotel Airlink where they had already prepared my favourite room, a hot meal and all the excellent guest service that I had become used to at this home-in-Mumbai. I turned on the TV and decided to call my family.  As I watched the horror unfold onscreen, I could hear the terror in the voices of my family who had just lost a family member and were obviously concerned about my welfare. And visibly upset that I had kept them in suspense all this while.

The long way round

I didn’t sleep much that night. At dawn I talked to the manager.  I told him though I had booked for a whole week, it might be better if I checked out and went to the Hotel where the trainees were staying.  He was so gracious, he not only cancelled my booking but he didn’t charge me for that night either!   They managed to get me a taxi going to Andheri though I was pretty worried about travelling.  The previous night a bomb had gone off just behind our hotel making short work of any sleep I had planned.  The cabbie assured me that he would get me there but that he would take a circuitous route off the Western Express Highway.  He also told me that since it passed through predominantly Muslim areas, we were safe! The route was amazing, very different to the Mumbai I had hitherto experienced.

Hotel Residency

Eventually we arrived at Residency Hotel .  What followed was hardly a jot short of miraculous.  Our training centre, down the road, had declared indefinite closure, so the conference room wasn’t going to be available.  The gentlemen, who were my trainees, met me and expressed their concern.  Some had come via rail, some via road and only a very few had used flights. Return tickets had been booked weeks in advance.  The airport and railway stations were closed.  They were fast reaching a stage of panic in trying to get out of the city.  I checked in and called for the Manager.  He was most gracious and said he would help in any possible way.  I asked him for a conference room or banquet where we could have an immediate breakfast meeting.  As we outnumbered any other group there, he was happy to make the arrangements with alacrity.  Once my group was settled in I talked about whether we wanted to do the training, since we were all booked into the hotel anyway, or would we prefer to venture out trying to purchase or change tickets!  After some discussion, they decided unanimously, if we lift the embargo on use of cell phones during training (my Hitlerian rule fell by the wayside) they would be happy to be trained.

Banking on Onsite Training

That decided, we convinced the manager that “for a few dollars more” we would conduct the training at this hotel – a deal he was quick to make to stem the ebb tide of guests leaving.  I called a few local fellow employees, went over to the office, collected all the charts, pens, whiteboards and other material and set up a camp training centre.  The training, punctuated by calls from various homes,  went unhindered for a week, by the end of which Mumbai had bounced back to near normal, as it always does.  The trainees bonded so well that there were teary-eyed farewells and promises that would have made a teenager blush.

The two sequels to this story are worth mentioning.  The group of Master Trainers whom we had created went on to do some top class training in the area of Finance (most of them were ex-bankers) and have remained good friends with me since.  In the other sequel, I was let off with a stern warning not to ignore the direct instructions of the MD in future, but thank you for doing this anyway!

Some learnings out of this

  • There are people who worry about you – friends, family, managers, co-workers and hoteliers.  Keep them informed!
  • A Trainer on his Feet is worth Three on the Seat.
  • Panic is no picnic.  Deal with it carefully.
  • When in doubt, carry on doing what you were doing.

[Please do comment and share if you liked this Blog.  Comment if you didn’t.  What were YOU doing the night of 26/11?  How did the news affect you?]