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Mira Kamdar: Reflections on Mumbai — After Tragedy

I remember returning to New York for the first time after 9/11. It was about a month after the attack. The media saturation that bombarded us all with real-time images and their infinite repetition had not prepared me to for the sight of the two still-smoking craters where the long-familiar twin towers had been, nor the smell of acrid smoke that clung to the downtown air. What shook me more were the candles and flowers on the street—in front of all the fire stations, of course, but also all around my East Village neighborhood and on sidewalks the length and breadth of Manhattan. Improvised posters with details of still missing persons clung to every light pole. The dead were omnipresent. They remained so for a couple of years. Only now, more than eight years later, have the signs of mourning dwindled down to the area around the site of the attack itself and an annual leaving of flowers and candles on the sidewalk in front of the plaques on every fire station listing the men who died trying to save people trapped in the Tower One or Two. The absence of any kind of similar mass outpouring of grief struck me on my first day back in Bombay after the attacks dubbed “26/11” (since they occurred on November 26, 2008). Where I was staying, there was absolutely no sign of the attack. As we drove toward the specific sites of the mayhem—the Oberoi, the Taj, the railway station, Leopold Café, Nariman House—there was also nothing. It isn’t until you get right up to these buildings where scores were slaughtered that you can see discrete signs of what happened, and even then you have to look. At the Leopold Café where the gunmen first opened fire, tables were packed, mostly, as always, with foreign tourists eating snacks and drinking cold beers. But there are bullet holes in the concrete wall and in the fractured plate glass window. Outside, on the corner between the two retro-style “Drink Coca-Cola” signboards that frame the café’s roof-line, there is a “Hang Kasab” sign posted by the benevolent-sounding Apna Welfare Foundation. (Ajmal Kasab is the lone surviving attacker whose trial drags on—to the frustration of many Mumbaikars.) At the Taj, there is scaffolding across part of the façade of the original building. Looking at it, I flash on the images of angry flames pouring out of the upper windows of the Palace building. One can no longer drive right up to the grand entrance on the semi-circular drive where tall-turbaned doormen used to greet you as you alighted from your car; instead, a barrier has been erected all around. Your driver (almost everyone who travels by private car in India is chauffeured) has to drop you on the street, near a small opening in the newly erected barrier directly opposite the Gateway of India. One then proceeds through a security checkpoint similar to the one through which one passes to enter the UN building in New York—a simple screening of handbags and cell phones and a walk through a metal-detector, far less onerous than the security imposed now for flights into or within the United States. The notion of hospitality, so exquisitely developed at the Taj, would be seriously compromised if guests, many of them fabulously wealthy, famous and/or powerful, had to take off their shoes and belts and submit to indecorous body frisks before they were allowed inside. Inside, the lobby is pristine, as opulent and quiet as always. If one knows the hotel, one notices that the Harbour Bar, where my friend the painter Natvar Bhavsar and his wife Janet invited me for a celebratory bottle of champagne after my book launch here in 2007, has been closed off by a temporary barrier that eats up part of the hallway. Only as you approach the Palace Wing, heading down the long corridor past Golden Dragon and Masala Kraft restaurants, past the shops selling expensive jewelry, do you notice a slight smell of smoke. Above you is where the carnage was concentrated. From below, the dizzying rise of the grand spiral staircase still culminates in a serene pale blue dome. The eye is trumped by the symmetry and calm beauty of this vision. Off the staircase, around the open gallery of polished wood banisters and marble halls on which some of the most luxurious hotel rooms in the world open, the hotel is still off-limits. On the first floor, the Sea Lounge is open again, restored to its former quiet elegance. For old time’s sake—I first came to the Sea Lounge as a child for an ice cream sundae, an outing I have never forgotten—my hosts Dilip and Ranjan Mehta and I ducked in for a drink. The stunning view of the harbor with its fishing boats and ferries bobbing on the viscous sea, of the crowds come to see the Gateway of India (erected to welcome King George V in 1911) is the same as always. Inside, there were few patrons. When asked, our waiter recounted how he survived the attack, pointing to where two terrorists approached the restaurant, and where, outside its doors, he saw them shoot a guest in the back. The Oberoi, where my cousin and her husband were killed when two attackers opened fire with automatic weapons on patrons of Tiffin restaurant, is still closed. Just as well, perhaps. I’m not sure I’m ready to see where they died. Apparently, they were waiting for their favorite table, chatting with friends at another table, and died instantly in the first hail of bullets. The friend they’d gone there to meet survived, ducking under a table just in time, then dragged out through the kitchen by a waiter. She was able to share the details of their last moments. At Chhatrapati Shivaji station, the floors have long been scrubbed of the blood of the scores of people killed and wounded there as they cowered among their belongings. Families wait among piles of luggage. Passengers hurry to and from the tracks. Life goes on, as it must, at the city’s main terminus. I did not go to Nariman House. It is also closed. I did see three [Lubavacher] Jewish men on the street near the Leopold Café, certainly come to Bombay for the anniversary of the attack that brutally claimed the lives of the young couple who ran the center there, sparing their toddler son found by his nanny clinging in tears to the body of his dead mother. We drove over to a wall opposite the Marine Lines suburban rail station. It has been covered with paintings commemorating the attack. There is a portrait of my cousin Reshma and her husband Sunil among the diverse artistic tributes. It is not exactly true to life but the couple is recognizable. It felt very strange to see them rendered this way, so publicly and so inanimately on the wall of a center for disposing of the dead. I could not connect this static image where they gaze out fixedly onto the passing traffic with the laughing, warm couple I knew. Near their portrait, is a panel that evokes Picasso’s Guernica. And that is all that remains visible of the attack that shook the city and the world a year ago. Soon, the Taj will be restored to its entire former glory. Leopold Café may or may not replace its shattered window. Nariman House is to reopen. The Oberoi too will reopen, all traces of the carnage expunged. There will be a few plaques. There will be annual ceremonies. And that will be it. The fact of the matter is that 166 people were killed or injured in this city of more than 13 million—far fewer than the 209 who were killed and the over 700 injured in the July 2006 attack on the city’s suburban rail system, far fewer people than die needlessly every year from hunger and disease in this country that ranks 134th on the UNDP’s human development index. In my aunt’s house where I am staying, a new large portrait of her daughter Reshma and son-in-law Sunil hangs in the dining room opposite the portrait of my uncle Rasik, who died of a heart attack a couple of years ago. Both portraits are garlanded with flowers. In Sunil’s parents’ home, where the couple lived with their two daughters, the living room is filled with photos of them, blown up to life-size. White flowers sent by family, friends, and business associates filled the room during the week of the one-year anniversary of their death. The public memory of 26/11 will fade but for those who lost loved ones, memory is all we have to sustain us as we too get on with life. Mira Kamdar is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute and the author of Planet India: The Turbulent Rise of the Largest Democracy and the Future of Our World (Scribner, 2008).

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