Jan 2, 2009

India - The Divine Comedy of Mumbai (G.Read)

Ishaan Tharoor

Kept in the basement of the Asiatic Society library, a colonnaded marble building in Mumbai's colonial heart, is perhaps the Indian financial capital's least heralded relic. The library holds one of the two oldest surviving manuscripts of Italian poet Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy. Its some 450 richly-illustrated pages dating from the 1350s are bound and wrapped in red silk. Though the book rarely goes on display, Society staff insist the medieval text is in excellent condition. It came to Mumbai in the possession of a 19th century British antiquarian grandee, the imperially-named Mountstuart Elphinstone, and has stayed in the city ever since despite numerous attempts by the Italian government to repatriate it. In the 1930s, rumor has it, dictator Benito Mussolini was keen to buff his fascist pedigree by retrieving the epic and offered the Society one million pounds for it, a staggering sum at the time. But the Society politely refused. By doing so, it seemed to say that Mumbai could also be a home for Dante's imagined voyage through the underworld and the rings of hell.(See a photo essay of the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks)

Echoes of Hell and its abyss of despair resounded from Mumbai at the end of November, when terrorists rampaged through some of the city's most storied sites. From the infernal glare of smoke and flame that wreathed the Taj Mahal Hotel and the nearby Oberoi came harrowing tales of the demonic cruelty carried out inside. Hotel guests were lined up against walls and sprayed with machine gun fire, then, according to some accounts, the terrorists placed grenades in the mouths of fallen hostages as traps for pursuing security forces. Hospitals are still filled with the wounded as social workers grapple with the trauma of those left alive.

The lone surviving gunman, according to police sources, spoke of how, in the remote jihadi training camps where he was indoctrinated, instructors would rail against the sinful city of Mumbai, decry its excess and materialism and corrosive foreign influences. The worldly aspirations of Mumbai's diverse millions would be cowed by a spectacle of fire and brimstone. In the immediate aftermath, the attackers appeared to have gotten their way. All hope did seem abandoned amid the din of public grief and fury with a government many felt incapable of protecting its people.

Mumbaikars, though, did not wallow in their woe. In the past, bouts of bloody Hindu-Muslim violence followed acts of terrorism. But a sense of unity, not vindictiveness, permeated the city. Mumbai's influential Hindu right-wing went missing, knowing that its brand of extremism wasn't welcome. Soon after the last shots were fired, the city's leading Muslim clerics showed their contempt for the act, declaring that the bodies of the terrorists would not be allowed a proper burial within Mumbai.

"All of India looks to us" read a banner waved outside the Taj Mahal Hotel a week after the attacks. Tens of thousands of the city's residents from across its wide spectrum of class and ethnicity massed at the scenes of the crimes, calling for an end to the incompetence, inefficiency and corruption many in the public see as India's status quo. In Mumbai, dozens of citizens groups have sprung up, aimed at everything from neighborhood safety to overhauling domestic governance - to borrow from another epic, to try to make a heaven out of this hell.

Of course, it'll take much more than a few weeks of middle-class outrage to challenge the purgatorial murk that defines India's politics as usual, as well as the grim injustices that shape its stratified society. But it is this Mumbai, which shelters Dante's manuscript: a metropolis home to all sorts of stories, still glittering with epic possibility for the thousands who flock here every year from all corners of this vast country, including the beggars and garbage collectors and tiffin carriers who continued with the many Sisyphean struggles of their lot in the days after the attacks. More than half of the city's populace lives in slums and most could never dream of dining at the posh enclaves that came under attack. Yet they all continue to dream the Mumbai dream.

It was this mythic Mumbai too that the terrorists hoped to bring crashing down, but they failed. By mid-December, wings of the two targeted hotels reopened to grand receptions and an outpouring of city pride. Despite the drums of war being sounded in New Delhi and Islamabad, life goes on. A few days after two terrorists killed ten patrons at the Cafe Leopold, a popular drinking spot, I sat there and watched an elderly carpenter take measurements with a ruler and tape of the large glass pane that fronted the bar, damaged by bullet holes. Onlookers snapped pictures of the poignant moment of recovery, camera flashes twinkling in the crystalline cracks. In at end of the Inferno, Dante plunges into the icy depths of hell and beholds the terror of Satan's face, but he finally emerges, and looks to the heavens, "to see again the stars."

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