Time and again over the past 15 years, Mumbai has been brought to its knees: by communal riots, by bomb blasts, by a freakish flood. Time and again, Mumbai has picked itself up, and got along.
The phrase ‘the spirit of Mumbai’ is as much a truism as a shorthand to describe this process of being able to, like a boxer, absorb punches, hang back on the ropes and come back swinging one’s fist, shaking the blood out of one’s eyes. Why do the terror attacks of November 26 — and the response it has drawn from Mumbai — seem different?
After each of the previous calamities, the people of Mumbai could at least begin to guess why what had happened, had happened. In this instance, there was as much shock and outrage as bewilderment.
No one can tell why exactly this occured, and if it will again.
Gunmen on a killing spree, and then, laying siege to three locations and holding out for 60 hours against the elite NSG? What next? When?
This anxiety has bred a deep sense of vulnerability, and of fear. Perhaps never before has Mumbai felt so acutely its own fragility.
Mumbai is a city in love with its self-image. It seems to have little patience for those who don’t share its awe for what it represents: Its sense of self-importance, its considerable wealth.
The November 26 attacks violated what Mumbai feels it stands for. That is why the sense of defilement was keenest at the hit on the Taj Mahal hotel — more a monument than a hotel, symbolising, wealth, power, self-advancement; it embodies the idea of Mumbai.
The most glorious institution of south Mumbai — the most self-absorbed part of the most self-absorbed city in India — was under attack. The resonance of that was undeniable; its effects, inevitably, unprecedented.
Mumbai is a glittering exemplar of India’s success story in the 21st century. But it is also a city of immense contradictions. Nowhere in India is the gulf between the metropolitan elite and those living below the poverty line as pronounced as it is in Mumbai. Nowhere is the urge to cross over from the side of the underprivileged to the other as consuming.
The business of making money drives Mumbai, and always, after every catastrophe, sends it back into the ring like a battered but determined boxer.
That has happened in the month following the attacks. But there is something else this time around: a sense of defiance, of outrage, anger, a call to action. The opening of the Trident and the Taj hotels on December 21 symbolised that. So does the gaining groundswell of citizens’ movements. Someone needs to be held accountable. Something needs to change.
In our special section in today’s edition, we try to capture the emotions that underscore the narrative of the month following the attacks. How people are surviving, how they are coping with loss, their altered sense of themselves and trying to rebuild their lives, little by little. How anxious children are asking what Mumbai did to deserve this. How those in power have responded. How things have changed. Have they, really?
A month is nothing in the history of the world. It’s too soon to tell what exactly has conclusively changed. But the pages that follow will show you how Mumbai, bleeding and angry and trying to come to terms with being invaded, is beginning to get on with the business of getting along, with going on.