Last week the dastardly terrorist bombing of Bombay’s suburban trains brought global terrorism another step closer to the largest democracy in the world – India.
Bombay is a city very dear to me and my wife. We started our working life in Bombay and worked there for 5 years. Took the train from Andheri to Churchgate and back everyday. I traveled in the same first class coaches that seem to have been targeted by the terrorists. Life wasn’t all roses – the 3.5 hours total commute didn’t leave us much time to enjoy Bombay. But when we did we fell in love with it. We loved the theatre (Prithvi), restaurants (Samraat, Mahesh lunch home), movie halls (Eros, Regal). The heady mix of high finance and Bollywood. The professionalism at work. They all endeared us to Bombay. But most of all it was the people of Bombay.
Mumbaikars are an amazing lot. Everyone is very focused on their own lives – not a moment to spare. You have to just look at the uniformly high speed at which people walk from Churchgate to work to get that. Or the working women cutting veggies in the train. Yet, if there is someone in trouble, there will be a dozen people offering to help. Witness the scenes on TV during last year’s floods. The income and class distinctions in Bombay are stark, yet in the trains and on the road things are very egalitarian. They worship their Bollywood stars, but not glamour. Certainly not as much as say Delhi does. Bombay is very inclusive – it is an immigrant magnet within India. It is the capital of Maharashtra, yet its unofficial official language is Bambaiya Hindi. Like open source software, nobody can lay claim to it, yet it is spoken all over.
When I heard about the bomb blasts the shock quickly gave way to concern – for people in the great city but also for employees and friends. Our offices in India are in Mumbai and many of our employees take the very same trains. Fortunately, nobody was hurt. By late that night we had a full account of all employees. We kept a close watch on developments to decide what to do the next day. My gut told me that the next day would be back to normal. And so it was.
But even though I half expected it, it was no less surprising. Think about it. This is not one, but seven explosions – which should have crippled the train system. More than 200 dead and many hundreds more injured. The hospitals were overflowing. The police was quickly moving into high gear to get on the trail of the terrorists before it turns cold. There was always the possibility of communal rioting. All this was happening, but the next day Mumbaikars just go about their business as usual. Most of our employees turned up. Enough for us to cover the day’s work. (We do time sensitive coverage of company events). Out here in the US we saw TV interviews of school children nonchalantly saying that there didn’t seem to be any reason to not go to school!
If Bombay were a boxer, he may or may not be the champion. But you could never knock him out. He would go down to the mat once in a while, but would pick himself up every time, not by the count of 10, but immediately.
I was in Bombay during the 1993 bombing. And I was in the US during 9/11. Granted 9/11 was a much bigger act of terrorism – both in death toll as well as how telling the blow was, which is how a terrorist would look at it. 9/11 caused the American psyche a trauma from which it will not recover for a generation. Bombay moved on in a matter of months. And the same will happen this time.
The question is why? Why does Bombay (or maybe this is an India thing) have such a short memory for great tragedies? Is it because people don’t have choices so they have to settle with it? As in, they have to take the train if they have to go to work so what’s the point of fearing it. Or is it because accidents and acts of terror are so commonplace that you get inured to the idea? I am told, Israel is a bit like that. It may be so. But I think there is also a little bit of another thing – Mumbaikars don’t look back. Jo ho gaya so ho gaya. The past holds nothing for them. The future is where its at. The future is when the stock market will break all records. The future is when Sachin Tendulkar will help India win the World Cup. The future is when Amitabh Bachchan will make his greatest movie. They approach the future with the bright,shiny eyes of optimism. And that makes enduring the past that much easier.
Mumbai, a self-healing city, I salute you. Salaam Bombay!