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Mumbai faces a war without frontiers
Vaihayasi P Daniel
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January 06, 2009
They are calling it India's 9/11," my sister remarked on the phone to me from California the other day.


It was not a 9/11.

We did not have a bone-chilling 3,500 deaths over those three days. Nor did two of the world's largest buildings fall. And Mumbai [Images] was not wrecked like the World Trade Centres and its surrounding areas were in September 2001.

But Mumbai's 62 hours of terror had aspects that have been as dreadful as 9/11. Aspects that makes overcoming the horror of these terrible strikes rough and daunting.

I have lived through the bloodshed, butchery and tears of the city's previous attacks in trains, buses and at city landmarks. And Mumbai's riots. I have seen people, who were alive moments ago, be carted off to the hospital and then to the morgue. I have seen a leg come out of a bomb site minus its owner. I have seen what hate does to human beings.

But I have not experienced the fear of having terrorists enter your home. That has now become real. The building in which Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg lived is known to the world as a Jewish centre. But do people understand it was also their home? It was a simple residential building deep inside a crowded neighbourhood full of other residential buildings, some of them a few feet away from Nariman House. And when the Holtzbergs moved to this friendly Indian city they must have felt quite safe; attacks on Jews on Indian soil are pretty much unheard of.

These two men from hell entered the home of an ordinary, closely-knit family, one dark November evening, and killed them. They or their fellow conspirators must have scouted around beforehand and discovered this oddly-located home, that I never knew existed, which had foreigners living it and then cold-bloodedly targeted it.

That is extremely traumatising. I wonder tomorrow if they will enter the home of any foreigner. I have foreigners living in my building. Can they enter my building? Is that really an exaggerated thought? Children in Mumbai are asking their parents, "What will you do, Mom, do if a terrorist enters our home?"

Three nightmarish days of sustained grenade attacks, explosions and gunfire inflicted by unknown terrorists -- no one had any idea in those three days how many of them there were and if they were loose elsewhere in the city -- became three days etched on your soul. More, you will remember platoons of soldiers marching in your city to take control of a situation that the city's local forces could not solve and helicopters rumbling overhead dropping commandos from the sky. Those were enduring images and haunting sounds.

Now every remotely comparable noise/sight -- a firecracker, a burst tyre, a fire truck parked in a strange place, a policeman wandering with riot gear, an ambulance's urgent siren, a strange-looking car/driver moving fast, a late-night phone call, navy exercises at sea -- has new meaning. My children still have nightmares. I am too. And so is my neighbour.

Unfortunately, thanks to the carelessness of the city's caretakers, Mumbai is one of the most attacked cities in the world. I have sifted through the statistics available on the Internet and I cannot find any other city that has faced so many terrorist attacks except certain cities in Israel and Colombo.

In this ordinary city -- that hums with the cycles of everyday life -- one cannot help but now live with the grim belief that another attack could be around the corner. Mumbai, today like Baghdad, sits in the middle of a battlefield of a war without frontiers.

How do you put gruesome, terrifying strikes that happened three weeks ago behind you when you are worried that there could be fresh attacks just months hence?

Or that RDX left somewhere may go off -- like maybe in the taxi you plan to take to go home?

The police insist there were just 10 terrorists. But where are the other 300 they trained with?

Where are the people who discovered Nariman House for Imran Babar and his partner? Do you know what it feels like to live in a city so vulnerable to terrorism? Or to vaguely and uneasily wonder when your lucky relationship with kismet -- or your child's -- will run out?

Living with this mixture of fear, anxiety, horror, anger and grief is testing. In the middle of all this you must move ahead -- you are supposed to, expected to. And bring in birthdays, host dinners for out-of-town guests, celebrate Christmas. And new year. Even in grim times when you are closer to tears than joy.

I remember a woman I knew in New York who was totally traumatised by the 9/11 attacks. She did not live anywhere near Manhattan and was not there when it happened. But post traumatic stress prevented her from resuming her job in Manhattan at a major publishing house and she finally quit. I cannot be like her, can I? I must get on with it. Ignore the forbidding shadows and bury the ghosts and move ahead.

But I have a certain dull sorrow in addition to my fear. Sorrow, of course, for the people who died, like the young Israeli couple who lived a few streets away from me and for their golden-locked orphaned child or for the simple but brave Marathi policeman at Chowpatty. But in a larger sense there is inextinguishable sorrow for my battered city, my Bombay, my life.

If they had to keep attacking a city over and over again, why does it have to be this fine city? Why Mumbai with its chutzpah, its can-do spirit and warm heart. A place that offers lessons in unbelievable humanity... and always has a generous welcome for everyone from its multi-ethnic residents. You can be from anywhere in the world, but you can, if you wish to, live your life belonging to Mumbai.

What will happen to Mumbai if it continues to be attacked mercilessly? It is easy to say that Mumbai is unstoppable. But with each attack our city is finding it more difficult to pick up its pieces -- the rally at the Gateway of India [Images] this time was evidence of that. We go through the motions or resuming our daily life, pushing fear away -- getting back into our local trains, selling eggs, washing cars, sweeping the streets, hawking souvenirs, sitting at our desks, going to school -- but it is nevertheless a wounded city. It has gaping wounds, deeply scarred.

Can this city break? If it breaks what will happen? Will there be schisms that pit people against each other? Will the very fabric of the city change? Will its people become less like Bombaywallahs? Can it become a dark city like Baghdad?

I am not a religious person. Religious people have easier ways to ride these kinds of crises. But I fervently hope, with probably childlike innocent idealism, for a few things:

  • I trust that this wonderful city continues to be resilient and keeps its strength, courage and humour, which are its strongest weapons. That it never breaks. It is a demanding aspiration. But if you join me, by educating everyone you know, for the need for us to remain strong -- be it your peon or your driver or your colleague or your bus companion or your bread man or our reader -- we can do it.
  • I wish for continued understanding that we as a city are one community. We are all Mumbai-ites, united by our place of residence and by the city we love. We are not divided and we have a common enemy that we must fight together. We cannot/must not let any disharmony find control. We must stamp out any signs of it. No loose talk, rumours, resentment or ugliness. If our energy is frittered away by having to deal with narrow barriers we will not be prepared for the big fight/s.
  • That the anger that manifested itself at Gateway of India gathers force and brings a huge positive outcome. We have to reach for the stars when we demand change and good governance/ management of this city and of course the country. And as part of the media I believe we owe it to Mumbai/Bombay to constantly profile the people struggling for change and ourselves highlight the need for change constantly.

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