Bombay bounces back
Sadhvi Sharma reports from the streets and stations of a city that remains resilient in the face of ‘hair-raising experiences’.
BOMBAY — An hour after the last bullet had reportedly been shot inside the Taj Mahal hotel, I walked through the streets of Bombay (as most of us Bombayites still refer to our city), to see how the people, noted for their resilience, were holding up. Shobha De, Bombay’s eminent newspaper columnist and author, had said lividly on a TV news show the day before: ‘Don’t even mention the word resilience to me again!’ So, were Bombayites feeling resilient – defiant and steadfast – in the wake of these terrible attacks?
This city has experienced terror and disaster many times: the bloody communal riots of 1992; the serial blasts in 1993; the deluge in 2005 in which more than 400 people drowned; the train blasts in 2006 that killed over 200 people; the intermittent bomb attacks of the past couple of years. Each time, the city has dusted itself down and got on with life, its inhabitants battling once more to get on trains, causing traffic jams, scurrying bravely through crowded streets. This time, though, the city has been quite slow to recover; however, the indomitable ‘spirit of Bombay’ is definitely intact.
On Saturday morning, the final bullet was shot in the Taj at 8am. I was at the Borivli railway station at the northern end of the city at the time. I had expected it to be deserted, considering that a terrorist emergency was still taking place. In fact, people were already in their starting positions to leap on to running trains, which is the only way to get a seat on a Bombay commuter train. The trains were not as crowded as normal, but they were far from empty. The mood was sombre; most faces were hidden behind a newspaper, which is a peculiar sight in a city where strangers do not shy away from talking to each other. It is only in Bombay that one hears the distinctive term ‘train friends’ – that is, people you meet on the train and commute with daily.
Bombayites get back on the trains.
I struck up a conversation with a woman sitting beside me. A manager at the Bank of India, she told me proudly that she had been to her office on all three days of the attacks. All of her staff had turned up, too, she said. These were scary times, she acknowledged, before quickly adding: ‘Bombay has had chilling and hair-raising experiences, but it just moves on.’ And just like that, the conversation moved on, too – to her daughter, her brother, the education system in Bombay.
At 9am I was at Churchgate station in south Bombay. The station normally carries 1.8million commuters a day. On Saturday it wasn’t as bustling and chaotic as usual, but the few hundreds who were there took typically busy strides, ignoring the heavy presence of armed policemen. Taxis were waiting outside the station. I asked my taxi driver if he had taken his vehicle out the day before – Friday, when there was heavy shooting in the city. He looked at me as if I had asked a really dumb question. ‘Of course I did’, he replied. He said he couldn’t afford to be scared, not when the people of Bombay were not.
Arriving at the British Council Library at Nariman Point, I was surprised to find it had been closed indefinitely. Another library member turned up, equally surprised. He was a trader at the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE), he told me, and said the stock exchange had been open on Friday. I asked him what brought him to a library just hours after commandos were exchanging fire with terrorists. ‘This is a new way of life for Bombayites, you live with it and move on’, he said nonchalantly.
At the Leopold Café, you could be forgiven for thinking they were making a Bollywood film. A crowd of onlookers stood on the street outside, gazing at the closed shutters of the 130-year-old café where the attacks first started. The street, popularly known as the Colaba Causeway, is a haunt for cheap junk jewellery, clothes, handicrafts, sold from both shops and makeshift stalls. It’s normally frequented by tourists, and it is typically very loud: you cannot acquire any item without haggling over the price. At noon on Saturday, however, almost all of the shop shutters were down.
The Leopold Café, a popular tourist hangout, reopened Sunday.
I found a shoe shop that was open. The salesman was getting ready for his first customers of the day, feverishly cleaning his windows. He was confident that within two hours, everything would be up and running. I found a clothes shop open, too. The owner, Prem, reclined in a chair. I said I was surprised to find his store open. ‘Why shouldn’t it be?’, he said. He told me he had worked even on Friday, and during the Bombay riots and the 2006 train attacks. ‘It’s a democracy’, he said. He asked me where I was from, and when I replied ‘Bombay’, he embarrassed me by saying: ‘You should know better. This city never stops.’
As we chatted, a foreign tourist came in, looking through the different coloured clothes. An hour later, a few more shops and cafés were ready to ‘move on’, too, and opened their doors to the public. The majority, however, remained shut. The Olympia café, just across the road from the bloodied Leopold, was busy, with every seat occupied; but it was quiet. The owner also had faith in the city’s resilience, telling me that Bombayites were not ‘easily affected’.
By late afternoon, the streets were getting busier and busier, and the incessant honking of horns sounded glorious – for once. Couples and families strolled by the seafront, many only to get a closer look at the Taj and the Oberoi hotels from the other side of police barricades. Departmental stores had a smattering of customers already; grocery shoppers filled their trolleys; people dashed about with the usual sense of urgency. Returning to Churchgate, I could see that the station had regained its normal character: people were devouring street food and chattering cheerily, in between tannoy announcements that they should report any unattended articles. By the time I got back to Borivli, it was a scuffle to get off the train. The crowds had returned.
Bombay is clearly still reeling from last week’s shocking assaults. But people have a resolute belief in the city’s ability to cope, and like to boast about ‘the spirit of Bombay’. After the 2006 train blasts, the train services resumed on the same day and the stock exchange reopened the following day. In recent years, Bombayites have battled nature, poor infrastructure and terrorism to show unmatched solidarity, sometimes in ingenious ways: during the 2006 train attacks, for example, the slum-dwellers who live alongside railway tracks came to commuters’ rescue by using saris and bedsheets as makeshift stretchers.
A Bombay policeman chats
I have witnessed such solidarity and grit many times, typically during the period when the monsoon attempts to bring the city to a halt. A taxi driver will voluntarily wade through water to bring you biscuits, the only item he can afford; people pass around their lunch on stranded trains; drivers stop to offer lifts; shopkeepers distribute free drinking water. There is no lingering grief or doom-mongering. As I write this, I am told that Leopold Café opened its shutters for breakfast on Sunday morning, the crater caused by the grenade still gaping. The owner, Jehani Farhang, told the Indian Express that ‘Mumbai believes in looking ahead. Nothing can dent its spirit.’ The café was forced to close temporarily when uncontrollable crowds tried to get a peek inside, but still, it had made a powerful statement.
I sincerely hope that Bombayites show the same spirit in resisting attempts to thwart their personal liberties. As people emerge from the shock, their anger is palpable. Understandably, many came out on Sunday with placards demanding better security. The home minister has resigned and the chief minister has offered to follow suit. Columnists and celebrities have slated the government for failing to protect its citizens. One of the country’s leading broadcasters has suggested that the people of Bombay sacrifice their liberties and allow themselves to be ‘searched, researched and checked’; after all, he said, people in the US and the UK had allowed this to happen, in order to avert repeat terrorist attacks.
However, the much talked about ‘spirit of Bombay’ – the impulse to help fellow citizens and to show collective initiative and tenacity with complete disregard for caste, class or social background – cannot prevail in an atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion, where sniffer dogs, armed men and spying cameras take over the public space. Such a continually fearful climate can only undermine the resilient responsibility Bombayites feel for their own city and for each other. If the city welcomes a severe security clampdown, it may not be able to bounce back with its characteristic vigour next time.
Sadhvi Sharma is a writer based in Bombay.
Previously on spiked
Brendan O’Neill suggested the Mumbai attackers’ nihilistic ideas were born in the West – as illustrated by the terrorist attacks on London and Glasgow in 2007 – and wondered, in 2006, if Mumbai was targeted because it is modern. Tim Black reported on how vulnerability is the watchword of the ‘war on terror’ and listened to author Faisal Devji telling a London audience that bin Laden has a lot in common with Gandhi. Or read more at spiked issue War on Terror.
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