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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.)

Mira Kamdar: Reflections on Mumbai — Arriving

I’ve become used to entering India via New Delhi, so it was a surprise to land in Mumbai and emerge into a nicer airport than the one I’d left 15 hours earlier in Newark, New Jersey. As in Newark, the now ubiquitous HSBC advertisements adorned the jet way, but the corridors were well-lit and freshly carpeted. There were no long lines at the ample row of stations at immigration where I was treated cordially, bags were delivered promptly, customs was a breeze with “Green: Nothing to Declare” channels. The airport I remembered from arrivals long past—with its fetid odor of malfunctioning air-conditioning, its dark red splats of betel juice in the corners, and its random groups of men loitering around in grimy khaki uniforms—was gone. Mumbai has performed a serious upgrade on its point of entry, becoming one more international airport against which Newark not to mention the dismally down-at-its-heels JFK (New York’s “Gateway to the World” and my usual point of leave-taking of the United States) unfavorably compare. But, clearly, the city is not stopping there. On exiting, there was construction everywhere. The taxi driver explained that additional terminals and parking garages were under construction. I’d picked up a bottle of scotch for my Mumbai hosts at the duty-free shop in Newark. I needn’t have bothered. One of the features of the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport is a gleaming duty-free hall through which one must pass between immigration and baggage claim with a far bigger selection of booze, perfume and chocolate than the cute little spot at the Newark Airport where I’d stopped. Cheaper too: I’d paid $37.00 for my bottle of 12-year-old Chivas in Newark, and was dismayed to see the same on offer in Mumbai for $29.00. As an old-time adopted daughter of this Indian port, I still can’t bear to call the city I have sometimes called home "Mumbai." For me, it will always be Bombay. Bombay is the name of the cosmopolitan, multi-cultural, live-and-let-live-so-we-can-all-make-a-living city that welcomed my Gujarati family in the early 1960s. Mumbai is the name of a city run by the criminal-political nexus of the Shiv Sena, the pro-Maharashtrian, proto-fascist party that has made life infinitely more difficult for anyone it deems a foreigner—e.g. anyone who is not a Maharasthrian Hindu. Hence the name of the new international airport, Chhatrapati Shivaji, the very same name that Shiv Sena has rechristened the fabulous old Victoria Terminus railway station. Apparently, there was a link between the martial hero of the Marattes and mass-transportation hubs which my reading of Indian history had not made evident. As two of the city’s most famous native sons now living in voluntary exile in New York, Salman Rushdie and Suketu Mehta, concurred during a panel discussion in which we all participated following the terrorist attack of November 2008, the target of the terrorists was Bombay, not Mumbai. It was to Bombay I had come because of that attack.

Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Brysac: God's Own Country

Kochi (Cochin)—In the 1990s, the wordsmiths in New Delhi struck upon “Incredible India” as the advertising shorthand for the world’s most populous democracy. Not to be outdone, Kerala’s rulers rebranded their state “God’s Own Country,” a slogan now seen everywhere. But three thoughts occurred to us after spending ten days traveling through Kerala:
  1. That the apostrophe should appear at the end of the first word, given the plurality of divinities in this intriguing state;
  2. That among these deities is the Marxist god that demonstrably failed the former Soviet empire; and
  3. That communism here has half-succeeded and half-failed in interesting ways.
Much has been written about Kerala’s quality of life, its achievements in literacy, health, and empowerment of women. But we found that God's Own Country is also vulnerable to mortal misjudgments and adverse external forces. As we learned in Mumbai, access to jobs is a major source of communal strife. In Kerala, the lack of jobs for educated citizens is an omnipresent challenge. Unemployment in the state hovers around 25 percent, depending on how and whom you count; roughly twice as many women as men are jobless. Moreover, Kerala has no industrial base. Workers are unionized and wages are high compared to neighboring Tamil Nadu. Land is in short supply and expensive; consumer goods are imported. Jumbo-sized billboards pepper the landscape; television commercials interrupt programming—a Mad Man’s delight. Print journalism flourishes, and people are well informed and opinionated. But in the words of a friendly critic, “Keralites know their rights, but not their obligations.” On our journey we have seen several attempts to mitigate the relentless consumer pressure on a weak economic base by promoting ecotourism, nurturing manufacturing cooperatives founded a half- century ago, and disbursing micro-loans to seed small businesses. The intentions are admirable; the limitations severe. Early on, we visited a popular tourist destination, the hill station of Ponmudi, nearly three hours by car from the capital, Trivandrum. But whereas the ancient Romans excelled at constructing ruler-straight roads, Keralites have produced what must be among the world’s greatest collections of hairpin turns (22 in the final stretch). On leveler terrain, public and private buses, trucks, motorcycles, bikes, auto-rickshaws, and cars hurtle through roads blocked by armies of pedestrians, cows, protest demonstrators, and the occasional temple elephant accompanied by his or her mahouts. A recent cover story from India Today noted that India has the highest number of road accidents in the world: by last count, 13 every hour, 114,590 a year.  Safety aside, public transport is sluggish, inadequate, and subject to periodic strikes. This infrastructure is palpably inhospitable to large-scale ecotourism. As a headline in The Hindu puts it, India is a country “Where the Pedestrian Is a Third-Class Citizen.” Sidewalks are a rarity in Kerala. 

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