On December 3, 2008, Sneha Athnikar (20), a student of Elphinstone College, left class earlier than usual to participate in a march that peaked at the Gateway of India’s colossal arch, opposite which the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower stood ravaged by the terrorist attacks of November 26.
On November 29 and 30, too, smaller crowds had gathered at the spot to light candles and pay homage to the victims.
At 7.30 pm on Thursday, Athnikar returned to the spot under a tree where she lit her candle last year. But this time, she offered two. “It was important for me to pay homage. The world needs to see Mumbai united and unbreakable,” said Athnikar.
That sentiment, though, did not translate into her voting in this year’s general or state elections.
In fact, that was what most of Mumbai’s electorate did. The public anger that seemed to rise after 26/11 did not translate into a movement for change. Only 43 per cent of Mumbai’s voters exercised their franchise in the Lok Sabha elections. For the Assembly polls, that number was 45 per cent.
As a colourless sunset made way for dusk outside the historic hotel, the feeling of déjà vu was unshakeable. The same excitable crowd, the frenzied Tricolour-waving, the same slogans, Mumbai was out again, waving and shouting its solidarity for those departed.
But was it really?
As evening fell fast, the crowd at the sea-facing thoroughfare grew exponentially, resembling a carnival minus the rides. No sense of sobriety prevailed. People laughed, yelled, pointed at the Taj and posed incessantly against the scaffold-ridden heritage wing of the hotel.
“I don’t think it accounts for anything me being here, but I was here last year too so I wanted to keep up with the tradition,” said Avantika Malhotra (21), a student of NMIMS college in Juhu.
Meenakshi Puri and her family of 12 from Amritsar had never seen the Taj before, which is why they reserved this evening of their Mumbai visit for the hotel. “We wanted to see the Taj,” said Puri, whose family was handed several flags and made to pose for cameras.
Not too far from this light-veined “homage” a stage was set up at the Gateway that lit up the mammoth arch in green and magenta. A multi-faith prayer and cultural programme was under way, from which choral music and readings from the Quran resounded.
Geeta Ved, a chartered accountant from Andheri, had decided last year to visit on this day all locations targeted by the terrorists. “Oddly, of all days, I feel relatively safe today because I know security is at an all-time high,” said Ved, bearing candles.
A group of students from LS Raheja School of Arts came there with a tiger-shaped Bobo doll. “The doll represents Mumbai’s spirit. No matter how much you hit us, we are built to bounce back,” said Kiran Mungekar (29), one of the students.