December 08, 2008

Mood is the message

This essay I wrote on the terrorism in Bombay has just been published.

Comments welcome.

There's also an essay I wrote for EPW on the terrorism -- "The Mood is the Message", you'll find it halfway down the page (PDF). I suspect it's similar to the one mentioned above, though I can't say for sure.

Comments welcome again.


Postscript: A comment here and a couple bits of email complaining that the links above don't work ... not sure why, but anyway, the essay is below. (Some of what's in it has appeared in this space before).

The Mood is the Message: Mumbai In a Time of Terror

The question a lot of us here in Bombay have is simple: what was it all for? I mean, we're sorrowful and angry about the killing, but we also would really like to know: what was it all for?

Ten young men train for months, learning about weapons and sea landings and elaborate guerrilla tactics. They pore over maps and data about the city until it's all committed to memory, so much so that they know the city like natives. They take a sea journey, commandeer an Indian fishing boat, kill the men on it, they arrive in Bombay. They spend the next 60 hours shooting, burning, throwing grenades and killing many more. They make no demands of any kind, they don't even seem to make an effort to contact authorities to state their grievances. They speak to the channel India TV, but it's a disconnected rant. And then they die, as they had to. Nearly 200 innocent residents of my city lie dead at their hands, many more injured.

We talk of the "senseless" killing of terrorism. Here it was, senseless in the extreme. How can you not ask, what was it all for? Yet there are no answers, apart from the generic "cause maximum terror."

And there were 60 straight hours of that maximum terror. The first few of those, especially, were frantic and surreal, as shootings and bombs were reported from all over the city. In CST, the vast train station. At the Leopold Cafe, beloved tourist hangout. In the two big downtown hotels that later were the focus of blanket news coverage. On Nepean Sea Road, lined with homes of the rich and famous. Outside the Metro movie theatre, where it actually happened on live TV: a police jeep sped past, shots rang out and the man immediately in front of the camera began screaming, blood spewing from his hand. In the suburb of Vile Parle, where a taxi blew up. There were reports of explosions, too, in Mazagaon and the more distant suburb of Borivali.

How did these terrorists assault the city on so many different fronts? Why?


What's Normal

Wandering through this city while the siege is going on, with all these questions coursing in my mind: as many people have commented, it's a surreal experience. To begin with, it's in the way ordinary things take on a different light. On the tracks at Grant Road station, halfway to town from my home, is a nondescript sign that says, in Hindi, "Khatra Kshetra", or "Danger Zone". It's meant to warn you not to walk on the tracks. Today, it seems almost weighed down with graver meaning. Today, it warns of random bullets and murderous grenades.

And even so, there's normalcy all around.

The men playing cards on the train, exactly as groups of commuters always do. The chaps standing in the doorway craning their necks to catch somebody's cleavage on a Bollywood film poster. The swarms of kids playing cricket. The two men sitting on incongruous blue swivel chairs on a major downtown road.

I pass all these people, and I wonder: they too must think about what I can't get out of my head right now. So is there a normalcy despite and during terror?

But of course, outside the hotels under siege, normalcy means very different things. Under a host of flitting dragonflies, cameramen are everywhere. Young women saunter about telling their cellphones that "Gunshots have been heard, an alert has been sounded." Barkha Dutt, our best known TV anchor, tells her phone that "the Prime Minister will not speak till the operation is over."

There's a commotion off to our left, and all the cameramen run over to get their shots. A muscular man beside me, wearing a T-shirt that reads "When I'm Good I'm Very Good, When I'm God I'm even Better", looks in that direction and says to nobody in particular: "Range-wale aa gayen." "The range people have come."

I think he means "Rangers", referring to armed men, and now I can see a contingent of Navy commandos striding into the cordoned off area. I don't think they have ever been called "range-wale", but everyone understands what the man means. But then he turns and points along the seawall, to several exhausted firemen taking a rest there. In Marathi, the local language, he tells a friend they are all from the Army. The friend, I imagine, will explain that they are not soldiers, but firemen. But instead he replies with one word: "Cover?" The muscular man says one word too: "Ho". "Yes".

I'm baffled as I stand there. Yet today, being baffled is normal.


What Happens To Us

Though there is seriousness too.

A couple near me asks a man who's chatting with them -- the wife nods her approval of this particular question -- "Minister mare kya?" "Have any ministers died?" When the man shakes his head to say no, the husband goes on: "Minister ko marne do, aatankwadi band!" "Let a minister die, and that'll be the end of terrorism." The wife nods some more.

Yet are things really that simple? Their words come back to mind only minutes later, when a senior state Minister actually arrives at the scene. Over rushing cameramen with TV cameras held high -- there are advantages to being six feet tall -- I see several stern men with drawn guns trotting past. Following them is a white Ambassador -- the ancient car that's still the choice of Ministers -- that sweeps around the bend and stops. The Minister, RR Patil, emerges -- a short man with a moustache and a permanently quizzical look. Herded by his escorts, he disappears to confer with the men in charge of the operation. Later, he walks over to the media, setting off a feeding frenzy of cameramen and journalists, Barkha Dutt somewhere in there. I can't get within 20 metres of him. Later, a journalist who was pressed up next to him shares what he said: five terrorists killed so far, one captured, may be 10-15 more inside.

Press briefing done, Patil settles into his Ambassador. Escorts trotting again, he sweeps around the bend, towards the Taj Mahal hotel. As he goes, I count. In a time of violence, when we all feel greatly insecure, our minister RR Patil must feel even more insecure. He's making his way through our city in a convoy of ten -- that's right, ten -- cars filled with armed cops, led by three more on motorcycles. The trotting officers, I guess, must be part of the circus.

Moments like these: in my mind, I try hard to square them with hours of bloodshed, confusion and sorrow. I can't, and I imagine many others can't. And that may be why the couple thinks their innovative thoughts about ending terror using Ministers.

But if there are odd scenes, and people treating this as one big new circus come to town, plenty of us are also staring uneasily up at the hotels. As I stand there doing the same, I cannot help the thought, and it comes to me again and again. How easy it would be for one of these terrorists to peer out a window high up there, point his gun at us and squeeze the trigger for long minutes, watching as his tiny missiles mash their way into their targets -- the muscular man's formidable chest, or my puny arms, or Barkha Dutt's short cropped head.

And in fact, that's just about what happens, sometime during these tense hours, at the Taj. One terrorist there leans out and shoots at the crowd. A photographer and one or two others are wounded.

So I stand there, but frankly, I'm terrified. Yet today, that's normal too. Maybe we don't stop to think about it, but that kind of feeling is what these ten men set out to create, here in my city.


We Voyeurs

At a nearby building the next day, crowds surge from here to there, like some clothed and hairy wave. Hostage coming out of that exit? Run over there. Distraught relative emerging from this one? Leap over the flowers to get back.

After the end of the horrific ordeal at the Trident, hostages from the hotel -- dead and alive -- are being brought to this building.

One exit is for vehicles to take them away. Curious onlookers press in to such a degree that they have a hard time getting through. The first car I see is a SUV that barrels through the crowd and up the ramp, waved on by a burly man who is helping families with the whole process. He shouts angrily at bystanders and by sheer force of personality clears a path for the SUV to pull in and drive out again with its sad load.

The other exit is through a small lobby where there is a collection of grieving relatives waiting for news. Each family has sent in somebody, and every now and then a distraught person emerges with whatever they have learned, and the sorrow ripples outwards from them. Two hostages, pale and trembling, are led away by parents through thronging onlookers and photographers and cameramen running after them, alongside them, backward in front of them. Twice there's news of a dead hostage, and the family stands shattered and crying, onlookers crowding around and photographers with long lenses contorting their bodies for their shots.

A young woman in blue jeans and a green top stands there, taking photographs of this sorrow with a tiny camera. After a few minutes, a woman from one of the families walks over and berates her. "Why are you taking photographs, for God's sake? Don't you have any human decency? And you're a woman, you're not even a man!"

The young woman looks abashed, for several seconds. Then she resumes taking pictures. A while later I see that she has handed her camera to a friend and is actually posing for a picture, green in front of the grief.

The man standing right next to me speaks into his phone. "Look," he says, "I desperately need you to get me someone high up in the police who can get me in to check out the dead bodies." I can't believe I heard this. Is this the level of voyeurism we're getting to? So I turn to say something angry to him. As I do, a weeping woman buries her face in his shoulder. This is one of the affected families. Just in time, I bite off my words.

And it's about then that I think something that I eventually find myself thinking at every scene of great disaster and sorrow I've been at. Sure, I feel contempt for voyeurs like Ms Green Top. But what makes me any different?



Two days after the end of 60 hours of horror, I wander downtown again. This is now definitely a new tourist attraction. Huge crowds throng the Gateway of India plaza in front of the Taj, though a large part of it is still cordoned off and patrolled by armed men. There are icecream and snack and drink vendors, people taking photographs in every direction. Camera crews are all over the place. One anchor with a British accent tries to tape a segment where he begins "Indian security experts tell us ..." but for some reason the camera keeps failing, or he stumbles over his delivery. So like a stuck record, he says those few words again and again.

Various groups have gathered for their own remembrances. Many light candles. There are two people from something called "The Way To Happiness", lighting flames and handing out books that say happiness lies in safeguarding and improving the environment. Others put up posters expressing sorrow and resolve. "Terrorism kills people," says a scribbled note in green on one, "but not the unity of Mumbai."

There is also anger. Palpable anger. A large crowd gathers around a man who, with a finger held aloft, shouts heatedly about how we should get rid of our politicians, or at least take away their security cover. A man listening shouts back that the government should give weapons to us "aam janta" ("common people") and we'll drive back any terrorists who dare to attack us. In a pointed comment on the widespread belief that the police is poorly equipped, another man responds to this saying: "Haan, haan, lathi se ladho!" "Sure, sure, fight them with sticks!" Somebody else manages both anger and sadness in his voice as he mentions the names of the three police officers who, with about a dozen other constables, were killed by the terrorists: Vijay Salaskar, Ashok Kamte and Hemant Karkare. "Why did they die?" he demands.

With feeling running high like this, I'm a little surprised there isn't more anger directed towards Pakistan, from where the lone captured terrorist says they all came. Maybe there are other spots in the city where people are spewing abuse at Pakistan. But here and now, most of it is reserved for India and our leaders. I wonder about that. I wonder if it's because people have grown used to fingers pointed across the border over the years; but after this outrage, they are well and truly disgusted with the failures of those we elect to rule and protect India.

Perhaps that's why we have already seen two Ministers resign from their posts, and a third likely to follow soon. One of those two is the very same RR Patil, the man with the ten-car convoy and the trotting guards. To my knowledge, this is the first time after a terror attack -- and we've had so many -- that Indian politicians have accepted responsibility and resigned.

It's one good outcome of all the anger. But it's also being channeled in different directions. Triggered by this attack, I know of efforts to call for police reform, to denounce hate speech, to take TV channels to task for their coverage, and more.

But there's more than just those things. For too many Indians, our hostile relationship with Pakistan translates into suspicion of Indian Muslims. Every time there is terror in India, the suspicion overflows again, fueled by insinuations from any number of Indian demagogues, driven on by our ignorance about the way our own neighbours live.

Yet this time, after these 60 traumatic hours, certainly there are whispers and insinuations, but ... perhaps I'm just being optimistic, but this time, my sense is that there's a degree less suspicion. That we are starting to tire of demagoguery. That we want answers and accountability and governance from our Indian leaders, and security in our Indian lives. That we recognize that this was an attack on us all, and thus we're all in this together.

About Rwanda, Ryszard Kapuscinski once wrote: "What strikes you most [here] is its deep provincialism. Our world, seemingly global, is in reality a planet of thousands of the most varied and never intersecting provinces. ... For most people, the real world ends on the threshold of their house, at the edge of their village, or, at the very most, on the border of their valley."

In a Mumbai still recovering from horror, I get the fleeting feeling that we want more than just our thresholds, or provinces that never intersect. Maybe we're starting to yearn for the feeling of community with those around us, community regardless of religion or language, community that is, in the end, our best guarantee of safety.

And if we are really yearning like that, it might just be the silver lining to 60 very black hours. Then the question "What was it all for?" might just yield an unexpected but very welcome answer.


Yamini said...

Hi Dilip,
There is a problem with the link. It doesn't seem to point to your article, unless I am missing something here.


Dilip D'Souza said...

Yamini, I don't know what the problem is. Both links work fine. First is to a Polish magazine, so the article is in Polish. Second takes you to a contents page from where you can click to my article (PDF).

Anyway, I'll append the article itself to the post shortly.

Yamini said...

Thanks for appending the article. The second PDF link actually did work for me eventually.


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