Has life returned to normal in Bombay? I asked myself this question last Sunday when I attended a function to mark the re-opening of the Taj Mahal Hotel.
Many of us who went to Taj were surprised to see that it was back in business: we had been told to wait several months for things to return to normal. So, we weren’t sure what to expect: would sections of the lobby be cordoned off as the builders worked to repair the damage? What about the Shamiana where grenades had been flung? Was it true that the MF Husain painting that hung over the reception desk had been damaged?
In the event, all of us were stunned. The Taj seemed as complete and as timeless as before. If you did not know that terrorists had taken control of the hotel for three nights, then you would not have noticed anything amiss.
I went to the Zodiac Grill, where guests spent an uneasy night as gunshots resounded around the building. It looked exactly the same. The lobby was just as it had always been. The poolside was as tranquil as in the old days. The Shamiana had been so perfectly restored that you could not imagine that grenades had exploded and that a brave manager had been murdered on the premises. I wandered to the old wing. The ground floor was a classy as ever. I went all the way to Joy Shoes where it was business as usual.
Then, of course, the function began and it all came flooding back. The Taj’s Vice Chairman R K Krishna Kumar spoke movingly and brilliantly of the sacrifices made by those caught up in the carnage. Priests from five different religions mourned the dead. By the time all the employees who had been on duty that night paraded through the lobby, there was not a dry eye in the house.
As the tears flowed, we realised that everything was not really back to normal. The first floor of the old wing was damaged. The fifth and sixth floors would have to be completely redone. The Golden Dragon and the Harbour Bar were closed — perhaps for a very long time. And as I spoke to the Taj staff, many of whom I have known for decades, it was clear that nobody had really got over 26/11. I didn’t know what to say to Karambir Kang, one of the true heroes of today’s Bombay. But I spoke to Hemant Oberoi who had lost five of his chefs. I talked to the bellboys who had ducked for cover as the firing began. I asked an old waiter at the Shamiana about the events of the night.
“It was the worst day of my life, sir” he said sadly. “Why do you want me to talk about it?”
Yes, I know. The Taj is not a metaphor for Bombay. VT Station means much more to most of the city’s residents. And South Bombay emotion has been given a bad name by the twits and twats who appeared on TV to recommend carpet-bombing and non-payment of taxes as solutions to our problems.
So I should be wary of reading too much into an afternoon at one of the world's greatest luxury hotels. But, political correctness be damned: there was something about the Taj function that seemed to me to epitomise the state of Bombay nearly a month after the attacks.
On the outside, things seemed to be returning to normal. The gleam, the sparkle and oh yes, the spirit, were all back. But no smiles reached the eyes. There was no joy that was not tinged with sorrow. Each time you hugged a friend, you felt grateful that he was still there. And every time you looked around at this greatest of all Indian cities, you felt both proud and indescribably sad.
It’s fashionable now to rubbish ‘the spirit of Bombay’.
But, you know what? It’s all too perceptible, all too visible, and all too evident.
The spirit of Bombay lies not in the mindless patter of page three people as they slip into designer dresses two sizes too small for them, dye their hair blonde and talk about privatising the police force. Nor does it lie in some magic desire in all our hearts to overcome every adversity.
The truth is, we hate adversity. We hate the terrorism that never seems to end. We hate the loss of life. We hate the floods that submerged North Bombay three years ago. We hate the incompetence and ineptitude of those who are supposed to administer our city. And we hate the constant struggle that life sometimes seems to have become.
The spirit of Bombay is not about adventure and challenge.
It’s about bouncing back; about survival.
No Indian city can take so much adversity, so much misfortune, so much mayhem, so much chaos, so much terror and so much governmental ineptitude and still hold its head high. We don’t bounce back because we enjoy being down. We wish to God that we never sink that far again.
We bounce back because we can.
That’s the spirit of Bombay. It’s a spirit of survival, of resilience, of never-say-die.
And that’s what I saw in the Taj that afternoon. And all over Bombay that weekend.
We are sad. We are bloodied.
But we are unbowed.
And yet, just because we can bounce back, that doesn’t mean that they can keep knocking us down. We need now to ensure that the lessons of 26/11 are never forgotten; that we take the steps we need to protect our city and our lives.
It’s not, as the TV talk shows would have it, a simple or one-way process. It’s no good raving and ranting; foolish to add up how much we pay in taxes and demand some bania-like equivalence in government services; and silly to pretend that what happened to us is unprecedented when we know that other Indians share our problems and our concerns.
Each person who loves Bombay will have his or her own take on what we've learnt in the month after the tragedy. This is mine:
First of all, we need to celebrate the diversity and unity of Bombay. In an era when Bal Thackeray calls for more Hindu terrorists and his juvenile delinquent nephew sends his goondas to beat up Biharis, it is sometimes difficult to remember that Bombay’s claim to fame used to be its cosmopolitanism.
The most re-assuring aspect of the way we reacted to the attacks was the manner in which we clung to our cosmopolitan spirit and found unity in our diversity.
The police asked the army to patrol communally sensitive areas fearing that Hindu would attack Muslim homes. The foreign press went on and on about how the attacks would damage India's already fragile communal balance.
In fact nothing happened.
We saw the attack for what it was: mindless terror by mindless Pakistani jehadis.
It had nothing to do with India’s Hindus or India’s Muslims. The terrorists killed both as well as Christians and Jews, and Sikhs and people from every community.
Terror has no religion.
The response to the attack should also show up our latest Marathi Mouse. Just as the Maharashtrian Hemant Karkare died fighting the terrorists so did the Malayali Sandeep Unnikrishnan and the North Indian Gajendra Singh. The head of the Bombay police is a Muslim and the head of the NSG is a Bengali.
This is a country built by Indians; not by Maharashtrians, Gujaratis, Malayalis or whatever. And not by Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs etc.
Bombay has always epitomised that great truth. And perhaps the only good thing to come out of this tragedy is that we were able to tell the world that in our city, our unity comes from diversity.
The smell of fear can sometimes become a stench. I’m not going to be very popular for saying this but the sad truth is that the stench of fear turned some of Bombay’s C-list celebrities into televisual morons; terrible advertisements for our great city.
It’s all very well to blame TV channels for inviting Simi Garewal, other small-time actresses, self-aggrandising ad-men,
pompous midgets, and has-beens in ill-fitting toupees to comment on events in the city. But that is also the reality of Bombay. We’ve become a city that worships pointless celebrity, where people are famous only for being famous, where those who talk sense are marginalised by those who hog the limelight, and where appearances count for more than substance.
I know that these people do not represent my Bombay and I cringed each time one of them opened his or her mouth on TV to hold forth on how India should be run or how the fact that terror had come to South Bombay demonstrated that democracy had failed.
Their bombast and their anger came from fear. Their arguments came from their own tiny little minds.
But the fact is that we have allowed these people to become the faces of Bombay; allowed the media to portray the city as a vapid metropolis full of glamorous folks who imagine that they are living in Manhattan.
When times were good, we never complained that these people turned up on channel after channel representing Bombay’s interests. Can we complain now just because they’ve embarrassed us when times are bad?
In the month after the Bombay attacks, I was in four or five different towns and cities. And each time I heard the morons being rolled out on TV, I wanted to hide under the sofa: there was such a complete disconnect between these jokers and the rest of India. They came off as self-obsessed and trapped in some state-less bubble.
Bombay has always had a complicated relationship with India and indeed with the rest of Maharashtra. We are no less patriotic than any other city — in fact, sometimes I think we are more patriotic than most.
But we always feel like the one member of a family that does so much for all of the others and never gets his or her fair share in return. Maharashtra survives on Bombay’s revenues. Yet its politicians see the city as nothing more than a golden goose. They raid it for the golden eggs but never care enough to do anything for it.
So it is with India. Bombay should be our country’s advertisement for itself. But if you were to add up the kind of money that has been spent on Delhi over the last three decades and compare it to the amount the Centre has spent on Bombay you would realise why Delhi has broad roads, clean colonies and a fly-over at every corner. Delhi is India’s showpiece — at least from a governmental perspective. Bombay is merely the city that pays for everything.
Outside of Bombay, people do not realise how the citizens of this, India’s largest and most cosmopolitan city, resent the way we are treated. We are happy to do our bit for Maharashtra or for India. But deep in our hearts, we feel that we’ve never got our due.
When the attacks occurred, this deep-rooted resentment came tumbling out. The prevailing sentiment was: look we give so much for India and get so little in return. We don’t mind that you can’t be bothered to fix our infrastructure. But can’t you, at the very least, protect our lives?
That feeling came out the wrong way, alas. It emerged as anger against state politicians. Both Vilas Rao Deshmukh and RR Patil were seen as representatives of a Maharashtra political structure that ignored Bombay's interests.
And it turned up again as the crass threat to refuse to pay our taxes until the Centre guaranteed the safety of our families and children.
Both responses were wrong. I think Vilas Rao was unfairly targeted. And we made many enemies in the rest of India when we arrogantly declared that we would not pay taxes. We forgot that without politicians there can be no democracy. And when this was pointed out, the morons who went on TV blustered: oh, let the army take over then!
In the process, we misrepresented our case and lost the sympathy of much of India. We did not really mean that we would not pay taxes or vote.
What we meant was this: when are you guys going to give Bombay its fair share of attention and resources?
It was — and is — a valid question.
But because we asked it so badly, we abandoned the moral high ground and came off as spoilt children.
So, what now? Well, let’s stop being so angry and so frightened. Other Indian cities have lived with terror as indeed have we. The 1993 bombings targeted South Bombay just as much as the suburbs. Global cities have learnt to cope — for all of the 1970s and the 1980s, London was regularly bombed by the IRA.
So let’s be realistic. This is not the first terror attack. And it probably won't be the last.
But we will cope. Great cities always do. And given the choice between the 26/11 attacks and the 1993 riots, I would pick terror over massacres. In communal riots, your neighbours came and burnt your house. Your life is uprooted, your family dies, your daughter is raped and things are never the same again. The people who lost everything in the Bombay riots are still suffering.
So, yes, 26/11 was terrible. But a riot is worse. We can guard against Pakistani gunmen. But it’s much more difficult to guard against the hatred within a society.
So by all means demand accountability from politicians; create hell when you see them interfering with the police force; ask for an infrastructure that works; demand the security that is our due; and make it clear that Bombay has had enough.
But don’t forget why Bombay is Bombay. Never forget what makes us a great city.
Our city was ceded by the Portuguese to the British. It was built by Gujaratis, Parsis, Muslims and Maharashtrians. Its film industry was revitalised by Punjabis, many of them refugees after Partition. Its education has been enriched by Christians. And each day, five hundred families from all over India make their way to the city of dreams.
That’s what Bombay is about. It is a city where all things are possible. Where the hierarchies of the rest of the India do not operate and genuine advancement is relatively easy. Where the world never seems more than a quick step away.
And where nobody is a Muslim, a Hindu, a Maharashtrian, a Punjabi or whatever.
Where we are all Indians.
Lose that dream of a cosmopolitan city of opportunity, allow the politicians to divide us and let third-rate socialites become our spokesmen, and we lose the city’s soul.
We lose the dream.
And eventually we will lose Bombay.
So, never mind the blame game. The answer must come from within.