The violent spectacle of terror distracts from the reality of another India long used to suffering.
It may be because I’ve never lived in Mumbai, but when news of last week’s horrifying siege began to filter through on television and the internet, I found it hard to reconcile myself to the idea that the Taj, the Oberoi and even Cafe Leopold are places that define everything Mumbai stands for.
I’ve never been to the Oberoi or Cafe Leopold, and although I wandered into the Taj lobby on one of my first visits to the city, it made no impression on me beyond a sense of rather sanitised opulence. Instead, what affected me strongly and made me wish, all through my 20s, that I had moved to Bombay instead of Delhi, was the way ordinary people lived there.
From the working poor to the middle-class journalists, poets and artists I met on my visits, there was a sinuous, easy engagement with the city. It was the kind of place where men and women worked and relaxed together, where you didn’t need lots of money to stay out late into the night.
The places I remember most are poky little cafes with pinball machines, stretches of beach and parks where a sudden whiff of marijuana would travel through the evening air, and the crowded trains that ran almost all night and made Mumbai a far more democratic city than Delhi.
It was some of this Mumbai, the city shaped and lived in by ordinary people, that I was looking for last week. It was this Mumbai that I couldn’t find in news of the attacks. The first assault seems to have taken place at the main train station, killing as many as 60 people. Yet there was little of this except in a few photographs: one capturing the young, clean-shaven man surveying the carnage he has wrought; another showing abandoned luggage and footwear on a bloodstained floor; and one of an elderly man being led away by a solitary policeman.
What was true of the train station was equally true of the other attacks: nothing of the shopkeepers shot down, nothing of the hospitals where they opened fire. It was as if the attackers had morphed magically into the Taj and Oberoi hotels and the Lubavitch centre at Nariman House.
I understand that it was necessary for the coverage to focus on the places where the attacks were going on. These were the sites where events were still unfolding, with people being held hostage or trapped inside their rooms, and these were the locations the attackers had chosen for their last stand.
But it was still surprising to see how quickly this made it a story about besieged hotel guests, mostly westerners and upper-class Indians. The other people who had been killed — some of them Muslims — were faceless, and those who weren’t faceless were on the margins.
I had to look away from the focus of the pictures to see the ordinary women and men helping hotel guests emerging from the wreckage, just as buried somewhere in the reams of prose about how the city would never be the same again were micro narratives of waiters at the Cafe Leopold hurrying guests into a hiding corner, and of workers at the Taj supplying people, through the firefights and grenade attacks, with sandwiches and drinking water. It seems to me that there was a striking generosity on display at most of these places that has been utterly disregarded in all the talk about commandos, guests and terrorists.
Amid the flurry of accusations, there is already a story being shaped that this was an attack on India’s globalisation. There have been plenty of fatuous comments from India’s elite about how it feels threatened in its pursuit of fine dining, the predictable war talk about Muslims and Pakistan from the Hindu rightwing, and the equally predictable agonising in the west about whether the subcontinent has once again become the most dangerous place on earth.
It is not that the anguish and suffering of people trapped in restaurants and hotel rooms was insignificant, but what is dismaying is the lack of recognition that such anguish and suffering have been evident in India for a long time: in the bomb blasts that took place in October, for instance, in the north-eastern state of Assam; in the unending onslaught on Kashmiris; and in the steady and relentless marginalisation of the poor and the dispossessed.
The men who slipped into Mumbai, for all their posturing about the state of Indian Muslims and Kashmiris, had certainly no interest in such details. They wanted violence and spectacle, and they will have got what they wanted — unless we can turn our attention to the ordinary people who were relegated to the shadows throughout the siege.
(NOTE: Siddhartha Deb is the author of the novel An Outline of the Republic. He is writing a non-fiction book about India.)