The shock of that particular afternoon of March 12,1993, still persists. Outside the iconic gleaming Air India tower, there was complete chaos. Portions of the building were on fire. Frantic people, caught unawares by the deadly explosion on the ground floor, fell over each other in running outside to safety.
The bomb had ripped apart an international bank branch. Its impact had ripped floors above. Going into the scene – the first-ever serial bombing attack on a major city anywhere in the world – was traumatic, but nothing could have prepared young reporters for the horror of a particular scene.
Opposite the AI tower, a lightly affected large tree provided a vantage spot to see terror unfold – till one looked up and saw an arm sticking out between branches, fingers intact, holy thread around the wrist in place, two rings – one that ought to have been a wedding ring – still in place. Just moments before, it must have belonged to a son, a husband, a father.
Some corpse would have been cremated or buried without an arm. For, though the police and fire brigade extricated as many body parts as they could from across Mumbai that day, there was no way to match and return those parts to make the dead whole again; there were 257 dead in an afternoon when 13 bombs went off in a coordinated fashion. Nearly 1000 were injured.
Mumbai – and India – were shaken as never before. That people inimical to the idea of India, to the idea of Mumbai, could avenge real or imagined wrongs by targeting innocent civilians in so reprehensible a manner, was sickeningly audacious.
That a city such as Mumbai could be made to stop, however, briefly, was a triumph for the devious masterminds; that it picked up courage and the badly-hit Bombay Stock Exchange resumed operations on Monday, as if after a regular weekend break, was emblematic of times to come. The AI building was repaired.
Just as the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus was cleaned of body parts and blood tracks after the 26/11 attack in 2008, and the Taj and the Trident-Oberoi recommenced operations.
Twenty years after Mumbai – and all that it stood for – was first attacked, five years after 26/11, eight years after the deadly suburban train blasts that killed 209, a series of blasts of a lesser magnitude across the two decades, and living as we do with the perpetual threat of being the target of some madman’s fanatic project to prove his or his radical outfit’s cowardice, it seems terror has come to take permanent residence in the city.
“The (26/11) attack appears to have been designed to achieve an array of political objectives…Given that the terrorists seek to maximize the psychological impact of the attacks, we can expect that future attacks will aim at both large-scale casualties and symbolic targets,” stated a RAND Corporation paper on the 26/11 attack.
There may be more body parts, more blood, many more injured. The famed spirit of the city will take another beating. There will be temporary disruptions and a deepening of our permanent anxieties.
But the idea of Mumbai will survive repeated assaults. Mumbai, as it’s often said at exclusive conclaves, is India’s Wall Street, Hollywood, Paris and Milan tossed together. Mumbai offers freedom, rewards aspirations, promises anonymity, makes some dreams come true.
Its cosmopolitanism is ebbing, its tolerance often wears thin, its compassion has become a rare guest, its apartments are unaffordable, its streets are choked, its leaders are a disgrace. Yet, its very existence makes it possible for millions to dream.
On 26/11, just metres away from the horrific bloodbath at CST, a train load of people had arrived from north India, some to take in sights of the city and others to strike root. They did not want to take the next train back home. They spelt hope. At the most testing of times, in a strange way, it was a re-affirmation of the idea of Mumbai.