Friday, 28 November 2008

This too shall pass, unfortunately

For the past two days I've been in a state of slight numbness, trying to keep track of what's been happening in Bombay while going about with work as usual. I worked there for a couple of years before moving to Bangalore, I have friends there, I spent a fair amount of time in and around Colaba, my dad used to take me out to dinner at the Taj or the Oberoi when he used to visit the city. Before me, my sister fell in love with the city, and since I do a fair amount of sibling hero-worship, that would have been reason enough to feel bad about what's been happening. For those around me that do not have that personal connection, this is just another in a series of attacks, to be followed on TV and discussed over coffee and then forgotten like the last attacks and the ones before, relegated to some dark corner of their memories by the time the next cricket series shows up. And I don't blame them for it. This is how we've come to live with the sadness around us. I am benumbed to the pain of those affected by terrorism in Kashmir or  in the north-east; I found Amit Varma's poems about farmers dying in Vidharbha mildly amusing. Ask not for whom the bell tolls, just hope that it stops by 10 o'clock so you can get some sleep. 

Which is why this particular attack comes as a jolt, set up to grab our attention no matter what. There's no going to sleep thinking that the bodies will be cleared up by morning and we can go back to the old tropes about the spirit of the Mumbaikar.  In an era where others out-sourced their work to us, we had out-sourced our willingness to think and form opinions to an increasingly shrill media, which followed the same pattern after each attack - day 1: gory stories of the attack; day 2 - everyone comes on TV saying that India will survive and we will work together; day 3 - the same people come back on TV to blame each other for what happened. Watching the news these last couple of days made me realize just how far we've let things slip in that regard: presenters getting almost orgasmic in their enthusiasm to talk about the latest details, politicians straining to stick to the sort of quotes that come on day 1 and 2 when they want to get started on the day 3 denunciations, Shobhaa De talking rubbish. It almost made me feel like throwing something at the TV. 

But that would be wrong, because the fault lies as much with myself and people like me. The sort of terror that was unleashed may not have been predictable or stoppable, but the apathy that lets us get by without facing up to its causes or consequences is something that we could have dealt with. I've lived in this apathetic state for a pretty long time, and I'm sure a lot of my contemporaries have too. I've had the right to vote for almost 8 years now, I've carried out that duty not once in that time. Which is why, it's our own fault. And yet, I was trying to make that change, as were others. I decided to finally get registered as a voter, and signed up online through to get the basic details of how to go about it. I got a mail on the morning of the 25th from the site, saying that they had already signed up one lakh visitors, making it possibly the fastest growing voter registration campaign in India. In a quieter, happier time,  I would have pointed out that this wasn't bad for what started out as a CSR exercise for a tea company. Right now, I can only point to the sad irony that the company that is sponsoring it is Tata Tea, whose parent conglomerate also owns the Taj Mahal hotel.


  1. You're right about the numbness. But that's only once you've left fear and relief behind. And this ordeal has been way too scary for numbness to set in so soon.

    The news is driving me nuts. Modi and Advani are in Mumbai trying to gain mileage. I am made to listen to Farookh Sheik and Rahul Bose on matters of National Security. And people are comparing it to 9/11!

    Jaagore is an excellent idea, isn't it? I signed up for my voter ID last month as well (not on the website...I stood in line!).

  2. hear hear. more than everything i feel guilt, because i, and people like me, are the ones who have the tools to fix this and we can't be bothered. jaagore was a brilliant idea, i hope it works. apathy is a very dangerous thing. and if we all decided to stop breaking the rules for a bit, whether it's bribing a cop to avoid a fine or putting on our cellphones BEFORE the seatbelt sign has been switched off, it might help get onto some sort of track. also, WHY are the news channels giving advani and modi airtime??? we really need some accountability for the media, this freedom of the press without the ability to sue swiftly and painfully is a bad thing.

  3. Murthy - The numb-ness was with regard to what everyone else feels. This must be tough on you guys. Hope you're alright. Indefatigable spirit of the Mumbaikar and all that.

    @mincat - I don't mind freedom of the press, what I want is education of it.Also, the government could do with better spokespeople and some media-savviness. That's where people like Modi and Advani score, because they know that on TV whatever the most erudite person says gets accepted as truth.

  4. over here in DC, the media is going on about how they cannot get information; a bunch of experts are saying this is going to cause war between india and pakistan, "two countries itching to launch their nukes" and - get this - the US needs to do something about the situation. someone called it "India's 9/11".

    some indian couple from california promptly called up and said will you please shut up we have been victims of terrorism for years and years, though no mention was made of kashmir or the north east.

    media has to be sensational if you're going to have competition between news channels. that doesn't bother me. what bothers me about this is what exactly do these people i.e the terrorists want to do. it appears from the news coverage here that they've achieved their aim - the white man is now paying attention. this is not like earlier attacks I feel in that it isn't vague terror that is being spread; this is almost like foreign policy of the crazies. i dont really feel anything, apart from a vague frustration, but i am worried whether this is going to get repeated elsewhere. there was a similar attack on a hotel in islamabad a month or so ago - i.e they were targeting americans/british people.

    will check out jaagore.


  5. not a time to say it jc but this is very well written. echoes what's been going on in my head. hearing other people till now making it a piece of angry gossip, i thought i was the only one who felt like this

  6. I agree with colours... this post really hit home.

    I feel guilty about my apathy too. I feel like I've decided that change is impossible in India, even though I haven't tried to do anything.

    This might piss off a few people, but I think the location of the atrocities is what makes this feel so different... the upper classes suddenly realize where it is they (/we) are living.

  7. Thanks, Han/Colours.

    Han I'd have to disagree that the attack was important because it targeted where the upper classes live (incidentally, there were shootings and grenade attacks at CST and the Cama hospital as well).

    As I see it, this attack was significant because of the following reasons:

    1) This was basically urban guerrilla warfare, as opposed to a bomb or a series of bombs - the uncertainty of when it would end meant that people could not start thinking in terms of going back to normal. In terms of casualties, the previous blasts in July 2006 took more lives, but by the next day normal life resumed.

    2) Since it lasted for so long, it showed just how inadequate our response is to such a situation (though the location brought it out in sharp focus)which means that we will feel less safe in future, and it also shows how inadequate our political leaders are in terms of being able to provide any true leadership

    3) The fact that it was so well-planned is scary. This was not just a small group out to get revenge with improvised explosive devices, this was a well-trained force out to kill in cold blood and gain as much attention as possible through the siege and the capturing of foreign hostages. It was almost like Beslan, in a sense.

    4)The Taj is an icon in Bombay, it's not just an elitist hotel. I spoke to a friend of mine in Bombay who put it this way - 'everyone in Bombay goes to the Taj at some point in their lives'. They may never take a suite in the Towers, they may never eat at Wasabi, but they will go to the Gateway of India and turn around and look at the place and know that it was built by Jamshedji Tata to spite the whites who kept him out of the Apollo Hotel. That is a matter of pride for most Mumbaikars, so attacking the Taj put a dent in that pride.

  8. Hmm. Perhaps you're right about the class thing. I don't know what to think.

  9. Pointed and well-written, that.

    I remember a couple of months back, when Christians were being massacred in Orissa, I attended a film screening in my department. It was about women in Afghanistan and their humanitarian plight.

    In the discussion following the film, the focus shifted to Orissa and the plight of Christians there; something that I had until then, only paid fleeting attention to.
    It struck me then, that I too belonged to the same community that those affected in Orissa did; yet, it didn't affect me much.
    A sheet was passed around after the discussion, in which I too added my email address. There was talk of a demonstration/action of some sort; nothing came of it. I never bothered pursuing it either.

    The fact is, there's more of a chance that I'd be in South Mumbai than in rural Orissa. Class alone may not explain that, but it does have something to do with it.

  10. to wanderer: nothing will come out of this either cos you will never pursue even the issue of South Bombay. whether its Orissa or Mumbai we will just complaint and not have the guts to do anything

  11. @wanderer: yes, there's a greater chance that you would be in South Mumbai, but that's not because you're upper middle-class (yes you are, even if you currently live as a poor hosteler). It's because everyone aspires/aspired to be in South Mumbai at some point.

    @colours: Ease up. Cynicism rarely helps. Trust me on that one.