Saturday, July 22, 2006

This is my Bombay.

Note: This blog post was written after the train blasts in Mumbai in 2006 that senselessly killed hard working Mumbai residents heading home. Even though I have seen the city brave tougher attacks before, and since, it was tough writing this post, starting from finding cogent ways to string together an expression of all the thoughts crossing my mind. My reference to Bombay here is nostalgia for a rose-tinted-glasses view, growing up, of the city we now call Mumbai.

Bombay has suffered many attacks on its spirit and its body. However, for the first time, the flood of comments in the media about the Bombay Spirit, about carrying on bravely in the face of adversity, have evoked a mixed response. Having grown up in the city, and havin borne witness to some of its trails and tribulations, I can understand the mixed feelings about the Bombay Spirit.

After the ghastly train attacks, frustration with the inability to stem the attacks has not only taken on an extra edge, but has also led to a few negative reactions at the mention of the Bombay Spirit. To some, words about the Bombay Spirit have become just pithy comments that gloss over the horrific loss of life.

In line with Bombay's natural response to terror attacks, I have noted some, like the deputy editor of the Times of India (attributed to Sudip Ghosh, attached forward below), who continue to take pride in the city's response. They believe Bombay's stoicism allows it to function through India's chaotic reality.

I share some common ground with the ToI writer about the response to this tragedy. For starters, these terrorists need to get a hard message. However this message will be delivered through gritted teeth, and without pride. Let me segway into this city's past to illustrate my concerns about the incessant talk of the Bombay Spirit.

The communal riots were Bombay's darkest hour. I remember standing at the balcony and watching a convoy of army trucks pass by. Each truck was open, with soldiers, looking, and pointing their guns, at all angles. Each truck had a red flag, which meant shoot at sight.

As a teenager who saw the city he called home go crazy, I felt glad that the army had stepped in to restore order. As I gazed at the soldiers, I felt like celebrating their presence by waving the flag for them. The soldiers felt like the magic bullet the city needed to return to its old, bold ways.

One wrong move and I could have been shot.

Even though I had seen people run for their life and cars burn, realizing this simple truth is when I realized how wrong things had gone.

I felt cheer, relief, and a bit of pride, when I should have been saddened that the army had to step in. I am glad sanity returned to the city during those troubled times. Now, as I look back at those troubled times, I have also come to a sad realization that the wheels could come off this fast paced city again.

I understand that the Bombay Spirit is supposed to be the antidote to this fear. For Bombayites, it is real, as real as life itself, and is called upon often.

I love the brave city's spirit. I love the way it bounces back from the monsoon floods every year. As a college kid in a trainee role, I have walked four hours in pouring rain to get back home and gone back to work the next day, just like millions of fellow Bombayites.

I am sure Bombayites consider options, like skipping work the next day, or venting their frustration in a million ways. Nevertheless, they make a choice to return to business-as-usual. While they are at this business of The Usual, Bombayites will even find it within them to lend a hand to a random stranger who is struggling a little more than them to cope.

Bombayites take out-of-ordinary events as a matter-of-fact, look at what they can do to change things around them and then, dispensing with the song-and-dance, stoically return to business-as-usual. Better than usual. I like to call this the Bombay Spirit. It embodies enterprise, tenacity and an unfettered pursuit of dreams.

Whenever I distance myself from the cacophony of being a Bombayite, this combination of Bombay personality traits that create the Legend of The Bombay Spirit never ceases to amaze me. This amazing Spirit, is based on the ability to endure and keep on going. This Spirit is based on the ability to adapt to a hostile environment that rachets up the hostility every time you blink and still deliver.

Perhaps, that's where the problem lies too. I now begin to not just question whether the Bombay Spirit can take these punches, but also question the value of the Bombay Spirit itself.

Is Bombay a city too busy making money to worry about itself? Does Bombay truly believe it is so good at what it does that it will run forever without pausing to catch its breath? Does Bombay believe in its own immortality and invincibility so much that fixing its problems looks like a losing proposition?

Another, more disturbing, question creeps into my mind. One my heart is not willing to accept and one my mind rebels against. Does Bombay believe, like a lunatic caricature of the stereotypical, fatalistic Indian, that it is inexorably headed toward the end, and is greedily gasping its last breaths, snatching at the last sparks of warmth from the dying embers of brilliant flame in a murderous freeze, and wringing the last chunk of change out of a dying "sone ki chiriya" (golden goose)? Surely, this is not Bombay Meri Jaan.

I would dearly love to keep the Bombay spirit going in Bombay. However, I want someone, or a group of people, to stand up for Bombay, be accountable to the people of Bombay, and work towards solving the problems that plague Bombay.

I hope that group is a group of Bombayites who, in true Bombay fashion, see the opportunity there and rise to the occasion to put in the blood, sweat and tears.

This would be the true manifestation of the Bombay Spirit.

It is sad when a terrorist group goes after soft targets. I will be just as sad when Bombay loses its Spirit. This is just me, but I think that's when the Bombayites would have given up. I hope I don't see the day anytime soon.

Long live Bombay!

---------- Forwarded message ----------

Dear all,

Today's Mid-Day edit begins by saying that you don't need to be arocket scientist to understand that the chain of events starting fromthe Bhiwandi riots to the desecration of Meenatai's statue and whathappened as an aftermath, to the serial blasts on the trainsyesterday, means somebody somewhere wants Mumbaikar's to spill out onthe streets and grab each other by the throats.
Incidentally, these same somebody-- the faceless outcasts that theystill are-- have at least succeeded in one part of their plan.Mumbaikars have actually spilled out on to the streets.
The catch here is that they have failed to succeed in the second andmost important part of their plan: that of getting Mumbaikars to grabeach other by the throats. Mumbaikars spilled onto the streets-- in acollective show of the middle finger to those who proposed otherwise.
I know very well that you are already aware of how Mumbai stormed ontothe streets to help the injured, the stranded and soothe the injuriesthat were still gaping along its life line.
There were capsules and capsules of streaming video that showed themoffering water and refreshments to people stranded on SV Road and theEastern and Western Express Highways.
There were captures of students of Sydenham and SNDT college, whocamped at Churchgate station with the sole purpose of offering a bedto those stranded at the starting node of the life line.
And there was also that memorable grab of people standing patiently infront of KEM Hospital-- all in a serpentine queue, to donate blood. Aresult of which has been a no-shortage syndrome, when it comes toblood at all the hospitals where the injured are being treated or arerecuperating.
But this is not about all that. And yet, it is about all that andmore. It is about the sights I saw and the people I met with, whiletravelling along the Western Express Highway to Kandivali yesterday,between 7 in the evening and one in the morning.
It is about that little kid and his grandfather near Dadar, who,perhaps in the absence of anybody else in the household, took to thestreets with bottles of water and packets of biscuits to contribute inwhatever way possible in managing the crisis. "Uncle, you must bethirsty," the kid told me while offering the bottle. A parched medrank gratefully. And I saw in those eyes no fear. So what did thoseterrorists think while planting the bomb? That was at least the silentway of making one statement-- "Terror, my foot.!"
It is also about those housewives in front of a housing society nearSanta Cruz, who were standing with pots of piping tea, water and Godonly knows what else to help those passing by. And they had this boardbeside them which read "Beyond Borivli, Can Stay'. I was lucky to geta cab, but there were people who were trying to make it on foot. Andthey needed succor. Rest. Shelter. It was raining.
It is about the autorickshaw driver, who finally reached me home inthe interiors of Kandivali at 1 in the morning. And refused to takethe night fare, despite being legally empowered to charge extra. "Nehisaab, aaj ki baat alag hai. Aap thik thak ghar pohuj gaye, yeh hi kafihai," he bade me goodbye at my doorstep.
It is also about the dabbawala who provides me with my dinnereveryday. His shop is near the Borivli station, where there was one ofthe biggest blasts at 6:34 in the evening. Yet, at one o clock in themorning, the dabba was there waiting at my doorstp to be picked up. Itdidn't need a note. The piping hot food at such an unearthly hour saidit all.
The terrorists succeeded in synchronising a series of blasts thatstopped the Mumbai lifeline for somewhere around seven hours. That wasall that they achieved on 7/11. The trains were back on track by 1:30in the morning and they plied all through the night. I wonder if themasterminds will consider this before planning their next attack. Iwould urge them to-- if this reaches any one of them-- to rethink.After all, what did a year of planning, six months of smugglingdangerous explosives, extensive netwroking and crores achieve at theend-- arond 200 lives and just seven hours of disruption? Bus! I won'tbudge for that. In the deal they united more than they dreamt to ripapart.
And by the way, I did not spot any member of the celebrated Readers'Digest survey team yesterday on the roads. Or perhaps they werethere-- reconsidering their statement.
I request whoever receives this, to forward it to as many people aspossible. At least that way, we will build an opinion against thesefaceless faces of terror

--Sudip Ghosh
Deputy Editor
Times of India, Mumbai