Wednesday, April 16, 2008

A Tale of Two Cities, Ten Years Apart

By Salil Tripathi

“Those who hated India, those who sought to ruin it, would need to ruin Bombay…”

— Salman Rushdie in The Moor’s Last Sigh (Jonathan Cape, 1995)

The twin bomb blasts that killed nearly 50 people in Bombay on 25 August 2003 were not entirely unexpected. Over the last two decades, India has had its share of extremist violence; ruthless massacres in Assam, insurgency in Kashmir, bombs in an Air India airplane that blew up over the Atlantic, and homemade explosives in buses, bustling bazaars, in skyscrapers.

Nor is Bombay an unusual target. It has been hit before, most spectacularly in March 1993 — when nearly 200 people died after simultaneous blasts hit the Air India Building, the stock exchange tower, shopping complexes, hospitals, and trains. Multicultural Bombay — the one city without a dominant regional culture, language or religion — lures those who hate the idea of an inclusive India.

There are few ancient monuments in the city — Bombay’s Taj Mahal is a five-star hotel. This practical, no-nonsense efficiency makes Bombay the preferred choice of multinationals setting up their Indian headquarters, in spite of obscenely expensive real estate. Bombay is also the home of the sassy and cheeky Bollywood, whose hundreds of forgettable films may not win awards at international film festivals, but make lots of money. Strike at Bombay’s bindaas (cocky) nature, and you rock India’s confidence.

Bombay is India’s face to the world — the star of the East with her face to the West — an energetic port where people come from all over to seek their fortune. It is India’s Manhattan: if you can make it in Bombay, you can make it anywhere. It has been bruised and battered, but it has shown its resilience, which comes from the strength of being the only truly cosmopolitan city in South Asia.

Such cities live on trust. Bombay is used to welcoming outsiders and strangers. Tourists travel in its motor launches to the Elephanta islands, traders deal in shares, bonds, gold, diamonds and commodities, tycoons set up businesses, shoeshine boys work hard and strike it rich, and starry-eyed girls come from the hinterland to make it in its tinsel town.

That historic openness creates vulnerability. The individuals who brought the bombs on 25 August claimed to be tourists. They hired a taxi, stepped off for lunch, asking the cab driver to return an hour later, leaving timed devices in the cab’s boot which went off at the appointed hour, shattering the area around the city’s landmark, the Gateway of India. Metal detectors could not have stopped those tourists; identity cards would not have spotted them. Indian authorities were quick to point fingers at Muslim extremists, naming two groups, one based in India, one operating out of Pakistan. No group claimed responsibility.

But despite the blow, Bombay did not tear apart. And that’s what sets Bombay apart from the rest of India. Contrast Bombay’s response to these blasts — a silent peace march — with what happened in Gujarat in February the same year. Then, at Godhra station, a Muslim mob, apparently provoked by Hindu nationalists in a train from Ayodhya (where they wanted to build a temple commemorating Lord Rama at the spot where a mosque stood till the nationalists razed it in 1992), set fire to the train, killing 58 Hindus. Gujarat blew up. In the ensuing pogrom, nearly 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, were killed. Police officers and constables stood by doing little to protect the innocent or arrest the rioters.

Back in 1993, after the bomb blasts, Bombay had responded differently. The virus of hatred, so prevalent elsewhere in India, had contaminated the city, and riots followed the blasts, forcing many Muslim families to leave the city. While the powerful local party, the Shiv Sena, whose activists had played a prominent part in the rioting, considered it a success, for many Bombay residents it was a matter of great shame.

But great trading cities cannot be exclusionary or ethnically clean. If America is the melting pot, Bombay is the tawa (a flat iron wok) where pao bhaji (a popular dish of buttered fried bread and curried vegetables) is cooked — the ingredients blending together to create a sizzling, spicy meal. Rushdie wrote: “Bombay, a relatively new city in an immense ancient land, is not interested in yesterdays… In Bombay all Indias met and merged… Bombay was central; all rivers flowed into its human sea. It was an ocean of stories, we were all its narrators, and everybody talked at once. What magic was stirred into that insaan-soup (the soup of humanity), what harmony emerged from that cacophony!”

Cacophonous: the polyglot Bombay is certainly that. It may be the capital of Maharashtra, the land of Marathi-speakers, but in Bombay, perhaps only a third consider Marathi as their mother tongue. Another third speak Hindi, and a quarter speak Gujarati. The real lingua franca is in fact Bollywood Hindi. Almost everyone — the Zoroastrian philanthropist, the Punjabi film producer, the Malayali clerk, the Konkani bookseller, the Jewish bookkeeper, the Anglo-Indian model, the Gujarati stockbroker, the Marwari wholesaler, the Marathi bureaucrat, the Tamil lecturer, the Bengali MBA, and the cab driver from Uttar Pradesh — understands Hindi and English. This absence of a majority, and the celebration of plurality, are what make Bombay unique. The city belongs to nobody, and to everyone.

That spirit is sorely needed in India, which both Muslim fundamentalists and Hindu nationalists are seeking to destroy. The Shiv Sena used to be a Marathi-first party, then after sensing the mood in India became a Hindu-first party. The 1993 blasts gave it the opportunity to harvest a collective anger. The riots that followed were an aberration, an outrage followed by temporary insanity. But they showed the fragility of the spirit under stress. When the Shiv Sena came to power, changing the city’s name from the urbane Bombay to the parochial Mumbai, it was a time of deep despair for those of us who love Bombay. As Rushdie wrote within a year of the blasts: “O Bombay… You were the glory of your time. But a darker time came upon you… For the barbarians were not only at our gates, but within our skins. We were our own wooden horses, each one of us full of our doom. We were both the bombers and the bombs.”

So far, despite having suffered from five blasts in the past several months, Bombay has proved resilient. It must remain so: India needs that fortitude.

(Tripathi, born in Bombay, is a writer based in London.)

Reprinted from The Wall Street Journal Asia © 2008 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

(From Urban Voice III: Bombay)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a writer, and what a love for this great city! If this is Volume 3, you have got excellent prospects.
-- Murzban F Shroff