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Home > India > News > Columnists > Matthew Schneeberger

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Why do they hate a City of Dreams?

December 02, 2008

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Once, in early 2007, just a month after I had moved to Mumbai, in my rush to exit an overcrowded train pulling into CST, I fell hard on to the platform, scraping the skin from my hands and knees and tearing two holes in my trousers.

Lying there humiliated, limbs flailing in every direction, I felt like an outsider, a voyeur, one who didn't quite belong. Someone who'd never unlock the secret to South Asia's City of Dreams. But suddenly, before I could finish the thought 'I want to go home,' five helpful hands lifted me to my feet, dusted me off and assuaged me of my embarrassment. "All ok, baba?" a man asked tenderly, with genuine concern.

Unfortunately, I didn't have time to register the faces attached to those hands, because my unknown saviours were gone in seconds, disappeared into the immense throng of people coming and going, melted back into the crowd. I marvelled then at the strange amalgamation of anonymity and intimacy that defines this city.

Though I had originally come to India for the love of an Indian lady, that day -- when I toppled from the train and Mumbai didn't hesitate to pick me up -- I really and truly fell in love with India herself.

Now I wonder if any of those kind-hearted CST passengers were again passing through the station last Wednesday. I think of all those optimistic, hard-working folks just going about their daily lives. It pisses me off to no end that they were murdered in cold-blood. It could have been, should have been, prevented.

So, no, I'm not prepared to wax eloquent about any real or imagined 'indomitable Mumbaikar' spirit. In the wake of this enormous tragedy, that cliche should be damned to obscurity. Rather, I just want to mention the incredible individual and collective brilliance I've encountered during my 22 months here, to point out what makes this city such an extraordinary place to live, work, learn and love.

I reminisce on the wonderful friendships made, the unforgettable moments shared and the beautiful people met, from rickshawwallahs to fashion designers and everyone in between: Gujarati housewives and their tasty pickles, Maharashtrians who warmly invited me to their partake in their Ganpati festivals, the Muslim cabbie from Bihar who returned a friend's Rs 30,000 mobile phone only by the compulsion of his own conscience.

I remember late night joyrides along Marine Drive [Images], with the windows down, salty sea breeze heavy in my nostrils and the glinting lights of Malabar Hill off in the distance, bizarre but irresistible Indian pop music blaring from the speakers. Sunday afternoons in Bandra, shopping for books and eating heavenly Alphonso mangoes. Galoti kebabs on Mohammed Ali Road for a pittance and 5-star meals at the Taj. Cold Kingfisher beer at innumerable trendy nightclubs, seedy haunts and cosy cafes. Plays at NCPA, films in Andheri, live concerts in Parel.

But, most of all, I think of the people: Intelligent, motivated, warm-hearted, cosmopolitan, diverse, dynamic, from all major faiths, comprising all possible backgrounds and histories.

This to me is Mumbai. The Mumbai I witnessed in incredible acts of individual heroism and bravery last week: Distraught but duty-bound medical professionals at JJ Hospital and St George's Hospital working calmly and efficiently throughout the night without rest, self-sacrificing staff at the Taj who put the safety of guests before their own, blood donors flooding banks to ensure a healthy supply so that doctors could perform life-saving operations, angry but focused young Mumbaikars assembling to demand answers and accountability.

But, now that the crisis has passed, the jackals are out and they smell blood. They represent that other side of Mumbai, the side I've been warned about: Self-styled demagogues turning countrymen against one another in order to achieve their own selfish political motives, an unresponsive and corrupt bureaucracy, a citizenry either unwilling or incapable to provide proper public vigilance.

From here, there are just three ways to go about the recovery and grieving process: desperate pessimism, pathetic inactivity, or concentrated optimism.

A negative response would see a reprise of communal tensions from years past. Or a game of nuclear chicken with Pakistan. Or another military state-esque Emergency.

An inactive response would be to make cheesy Youtube videos about the 'indomitable spirit of Mumbai' without managing any substantive change. To thrash about like spoiled children for a couple of weeks before retreating into that comfortable cocoon of familiarity. I've read reports that multiple, specific intelligence warnings precipitated this attack, but were not acted upon. I've been told that Mumbai has no elite counter-terrorism encounter force to speak of, and that the city police were hopelessly outgunned by the attackers' modern, automatic weapons. If these concerns aren't addressed, such inactivity would indeed be pathetic, almost resigning ourselves to it happening again in the future.

Concentrated optimism alone will bring together all that individual talent, motivation and brilliance and channel it in the right direction, to ensure that Mumbai is no longer vulnerable. This city will prove its true greatness not by 'getting on with it'; but, rather, by holding accountable those who perpetrated this act and those who allowed it to happen.

So, yes, I'll stop for a beer next time I pass Leopold's, I'll catch a film at Metro Cinema, I'll window shop at the Oberoi (even if I don't have the money to buy a single item at many of the stores). Sure, I'll do all those things, like Suketu Mehta suggested, as a sign of solidarity.

But I will also organise with my fellow young Mumbaikars. I will write politicians. I will petition citizens. I will give something back, in addition to spending money, to this City of Opportunity, the heart of this brilliant, boisterous Democracy I now call home.

For, make no mistake, those who perpetrate these attacks do so because they hate India's freedoms, her successes, her strides forward. They hate her pluralism, her openness, her delicious and life-affirming ambiguity. The very things I hold near and dear, the lessons this country has taught me.

Three weeks ago, I had the opportunity to meet a delegation of 20-somethings from MTV Pakistan. Over beers in Andheri, every last one of them expressed an almost child-like fascination with Mumbai, their conversation peppered with phrases like, "I love this city!" and "It's absolutely unbelievable!"

Turns out, since youth they had harboured an immense passion for Mumbai, for Bollywood, for the idea and the image of the Gateway of India, of the Taj Hotel's [Images] brilliant architecture and storied past, of Nariman Point's business-saturated towers, of Malabar Hill's swanky luxury apartments, of Juhu's celebrity hideaways, of suburban megamalls and South Mumbai cinema halls, of ancient mosques, temples and churches co-existing side-by-side.

"People in Pakistan dream about Mumbai," one of the guys told me. "To be honest, we're envious."

That night, I kept thinking inside my head, over and over, not vocalising it for fear of offending someone, "Look at these kids, the Indians and the Pakistanis -- ;same likes and dislikes, same fears and aspirations, same taste in clothes, in music."

When I see photos from CST of the lone surviving terrorist, 21-year-old Azam Amir Qasab, I shudder: he looks just like my Mumbai friends, just like the kids from MTV Pakistan.

The only discernable difference is in the eyes. When those young MTV Pakistanis spoke of Mumbai, their eyes grew wide with wonderment and enthusiasm. Azam Amir Qasab's eyes, on the other hand, glinting with determination and seething with hatred, tell an entirely different story.

So I ask now, because I have no answer: How does a 21-year-old grow to despise a City of Dreams?

Cleveland, Ohio-raised Matthew Schneeberger is a Special Correspondent at rediff.com


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