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Mumbai meri jaan

Last updated: 21 November, 2009

Society & Terror

Has the much-promised middle class uprising post Mumbai terror attack been buried under our comfort zones? Pragya Tiwari captures the spirit of yesterday once more.

The media circus outside Victoria Terminus on 26/11/08. DH PhotoIt started like it always does. 26/11/’08 was a regular weekday in the city. Some of us were snaking through the unrelenting Bandra traffic to get to Mondegar, the iconic South Bombay pub neighbouring Leopold, where the first bullets were fired. Suddenly news began to filter in, in confusing snippets. By the time the words “Terror Attack” flashed in confirmation, we were back in the editing studio we left from, standing around the TV, frantically switching channels, only curious. Curiosity was to turn to shock, panic, fear, despair and grief as the night played out and sucked us into the vortex of history.

In the days that followed the whole world was tuned into Bombay and the lot of us, suddenly aware of being ‘Bombayites’, more acutely than ever, lapped up the attention. Blogs, texts and Facebook groups took over from the fanatically agog mainstream media to organise all kinds of ‘protest’, ‘condolence’ and ‘spirit’ meetings. Candle-light vigils (previously known as dharnas) clogged the city’s pores and the otherwise smug hurried janta, wore a confused expression of self-serious concern for days.

There was much talk of “terror finally coming home to the privileged” with at least some contempt; but also a new hope that they might lead a revolution, if only because they can. Like a clearly shaken Rajdeep Sardesai wrote in his blog, “Over the debris of the Taj, the Indian elite may finally be coming of age.”

The revolution was waiting to be televised but it never quite took off and after about two months of inconsequential brouhaha, the city got back to being what it’s best at — ‘resilient’ or unaffected if you are not looking for a euphemism.

The entire saga was screened like a scripted melodrama, woven to grip emotions. Once the mother impetus of hyper-patriotism in the media died down, so did the movement — at least partly because the city is mostly people passing through to lick their share of cream, in a hurry to cut through to the top. They survive here by desensitising themselves to everything except the pursuit of material happiness and feed off each others’ zombie states of perseverance. This ‘apathy’ was much cussed and discussed when the promise of change began to wane. But it is not perhaps apathy that has taken root as this city’s greatest rot. It is the determinedly apolitical life of its people.

Bombay is the capital of finance, glamour and arguably culture. These quarters were supposed to lead the pack to change, but they could not ride out far on a fragmented faulty worldview set up by a competitively mindless media.

Emotional rant

If you hit the streets in those days, raw emotion was palpable and everything you read or heard was in the nature of ensuing rant. There were people asking for ‘no’ vote and non-payment of taxes. Others wanted some or the other politician sacked and most just wanted to attack Pakistan.

Bridging the din was the I-heart-Mumbai slogan and merchandise. So flimsy was the thought accompanying the emotion that it could not withstand even a first volley of simple questions. Why should we not reclaim the democracy we spent hundreds of years fighting for rather than deciding to stop participating in it? Where are the leaders to replace those we want sacked now? Where were we when they got here? Why do we want to go into full-fledged war and make 26/11 a regular day in the life of the city? And what do we talk of when we say Mumbai?

In the absence of genuine political thought honed over a lifetime, all that is left to engage with in a crisis is information and platitudes. The public’s outrage over a film director on site and some politician’s callous remark were justified but entirely distracting from the bigger picture of the maze we are trapped in.

School children in support of Mumbai.The sentiment for the police force could not endure when they were bound to harass you on the streets just a couple of days later and the good-bad boundaries between the army and politicians, were leaky if not entirely irrelevant.

The police and army are but state actors, as are the politicians. The system works as it does on the whole and without any disrespect to the martyrs of our forces, the championing of the army when it comes in to rescue us without an understanding of its role in Kashmir or the north-east is sickly sentimental.

The terrorists are the bad guys and nothing justifies their act. But they are going on about avenging Kashmir and there isn’t enough public debate anywhere in the city about where their cause is being grown and cultivated, and if any of our resources are actually irrigating it.

The ‘spirit’ of Bombay is attacked by a couple of young boys over two days and we begin to talk of it like a watershed, without wondering why the in the past riots, blasts, Sena and MNS offensives were not turned into watersheds. But then it is infinitely easier to light a candle in Apollo Bunder and abuse Pakistan, for it is not coming to throw stones at your shop establishment anytime soon. Raj Thackerey is, and so the Johars and Bachchans are free to make earnest sounds about 26/11 once they have brokered shameful peace with the everyday threats to the fabric of this city.

The irony of the fact that artists, actors and filmmakers are lighting candles instead of committing their art to the crisis of the nation, is telling evidence of their questionable intent. When revolutions were brewed to free this country or affect change in the highly agitated world of the 60s and 70s, across borders, artists, intellectuals, lawyers, doctors, businessmen and the working class joined the struggle with all they had to give. For struggle is not a weekend leisure activity, it is a fight to finish, beginning with oneself.

Last year in December, entertainment sections of the city’s dailies were abuzz with calls from PR agencies asking scribes to take quotes from their celeb clients about the tragedy. One year later Saif and Kareena are selling Karan Johar’s latest product to the city by scraping at its fast healed wound; cooing “Mumbai hum nahin bhulenge aapki Kurbaani. Suniye Kurbaan ke gaane…”. Spicing up the mix is the promise of ‘intimate scenes between the couple.’ Post 9/11, terrorism might just be the new Punjab of Bollywood. 26/11, like all things Bombay, has also taken on the golden hue of glamour.
There are other wars being fought in this country, wars not on TV yet, wars that will not sell the music of any film. And 26/11 cannot be understood outside of them. But it can be felt even now, as a gash that came so close to the city’s steely jugular, it excavated it’s heart out.

Bombay is the life of our dreams, whatever their merits, and 26/11 mattered because we saw it burn. Even if the only genuine response we could muster were tears we cried for strangers that night and the sense of belonging we felt to a place, which is in fact, too many entangled cities at once. But streaking the dark clouds of our portent failures is the resolution with which we held out against potentially communal turbulence in the aftermath (despite the irrational 9/11 comparisons by the media).

There is something to be said for a city that may not have learnt how to build a better future yet, but has learnt not to destroy indiscriminately. The terrorist’s victory is not in the murdering, but in making murderers of us. It is not in the panic of the moment but in the fear that abides. And in that Bombay stands unvanquished.

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