Dec 3, 2008

Columnists - Rajdeep Sardesai;Life is no longer elsewhere

Dear reader,

Forgive my self-indulgence, but I write this as an angry and anguished Indian citizen and south Mumbaikar as much as a professional journalist. Over the last few days, as I have watched the city of my youth being ravaged by mindless terror, I must confess to feeling helpless, almost violated, as if someone had defiled the shrine of an old unhurried, safe Bombay. Each terror site ignites a flash of memories, the roll call of the dead consist of names I grew up with. In the geography of terror, the horror has come precariously close to home: my mother lives just a block away from Nariman House in Colaba, an area that has been traditionally the most secure in the metropolis.

It’s almost as if in the space of 72 bloody hours, an entire universe of memories has been shaken, perhaps irretrievably. Leopolds CafĂ©, where I had my first beer in celebration of clearing the high school exam; Colaba market, where in the congested bylanes you got the best chicken rolls and patties in the city; Metro junction where you slipped out of college to catch the latest matinee; VT station that you passed every morning to work, the Oberoi hotel that left you awe-struck, one of the first highrises that dotted the Nariman Point landscape; and, of course, the Taj.

Mumbai without the Taj is a bit like a queen without her crown. The Taj experience isn’t just about the rich and famous; it’s a symbol of Mumbai’s cosmopolitan identity, undoubtedly elitist, but reflecting the civility that is so precious to the city. As a south Mumbai collegian, a monthly visit to the Shamiana, the coffee shop at the Taj, was part of the growing up years. You saved up for it because being in that ambience made you feel just a little adult and sophisticated. Just the thought of maybe, just maybe, rubbing shoulders with a cricketer or a film star at the next table was enough to spend hours over a cappuccino.

In that sense, 26/11 has blown apart a certain way of life, each grenade exploding the innocence of another era. Not to forget the friends one has lost.

Ashok Kamte, Xavierite from the batch of ’85, a police officer with the muscle of a Schwarznegger and the heart of a giant teddy bear. For Ashok, being a police officer was not just a professional option, it was a family tradition: his grandfather had been Maharashtra’s first inspector general of police. Sunil Parekh, a successful businessman, two years senior in school, shot along with his wife, even as they dined at the Oberoi. The ever-smiling Sabina Sehgal Saikia, a colleague from the glorious Times of India days when there were no 24 hour news channels to shatter the idyll of an extended editorial meeting. Ashok Kapur, ex-president of the Bombay Gymkhana club, whose colonial environs still provide an old school refuge from the cut and thrust competitiveness of new India.

I am not alone. Most people in this old Mumbai world have been touched directly by the terrorist. The attack has given a face to terror to a community which until now was happily insulated from it. While buses were blasted in distant suburbs, train commuters were targeted and the crowded bazaars of central Mumbai were hit, south Mumbai was somehow a sanctuary where you felt protected, where the tryst with terror for a majority was limited to watching it unfold on TV in some distant corner. Now, sitting in your verandah and watching NSG commandos being airdropped and gunshots being fired, there was no escaping the reality: terror had entered your neighbourhood.

Which is also why 26/11 is very different from Mumbai’s original date with terror on March 12, 1993. Then, the serial blasts across the city left us dazed and fearful. Then, we thought the terror had sprung from the ghettoes, from the grimy underbelly of the city. We knew of Dawood, although we didn’t quite know what RDX was. We saw the blasts as a continuum of the riots, a cycle of violence and vengeance that we hoped would soon end.

Fifteen years later, after repeated assaults, the perpetrator of the bomb blast has transformed himself into a far more terrifying phantom than in the early 90s. When in 1993, RDX landed on the coastal coast, it was felt that this was an unfortunate breach of security. Now we know that this was no aberration: a combination of callous politicians, bumbling bureaucrats and an emasculated police force have created a feeble and corrupted system that is simply incapable of taking on trained and highly motivated terrorists.

This is not a partisan issue either. The fact is that bomb blasts have taken place across the country, from Narendra Modi’s Gujarat to Vilasrao Deshmukh’s Maharashtra. Intelligence failure is not the prerogative of any one political party or government; it’s reflective of an antiquated bureaucracy that is totally out of its depth when dealing with the international jihadist. Why, for example, does it take a formal request from the state government to the Home Ministry for the NSG commandos to be flown in several hours after terror has struck? Where is the crisis management committee that needs to spring into action right away? And why should an officer investigating a terror case also be expected to be out on the street engaging in a gunfight with AK-47-wielding terrorists?

Today, every citizen is asking these questions. There is a new vote-bank out there, a vote bank of furious and articulate people, many of whom are directly responsible for driving the Indian dream forward. It is impossible for any politician to ignore this urban voter and rely on the rural masses alone. November 26 has ensured that the Indian upper middle class has emerged from its cocoon of privilege. The voices being heard at the Gateway of India are a slowly gathering momentum. Over the debris of the Taj, the Indian elite may finally be coming of age.

Rajdeep Sardesai is editor-in-chief, IBN network

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