“Understanding the Mumbai Attacks” at Asia Society
Let me first start by formally announcing that the above title will be the last place where the Maximum City will be referred to as something other that Bombay – its proper and only name – in this article. But more on the reasons for that later…
I knew, while I watched the horrific events of November 26th unfold before my eyes, that I was witnessing history – albeit tragic and heartbreaking – in the making. But I could never imagine that just three weeks later I would be sitting in a crowded auditorium, listening to two men who, for me represent Bombay in all its glory, might and even controversy and polarity, try to make sense of yet another senseless act of violence against humanity. These two men are Sir Salman Rushdie and Suketu Mehta and they were joined in this discussion, on Wednesday, Dec. 17th, by “Planet India” author and sometime CNN commentator Mira Kamdar and BBC Executive Producer Rome Hartman. The crisp air of the NYC streets outside was soon replaced by the buzz of the intellects inside and the warmth of people of all backgrounds and cultures united by their love for the city of Bombay, all accounting for a night we will never forget. But without further ado, here are some of the highlights of the evening’s discussion, which took place inside the Wallace Auditorium of Asia Society, and was organized in conjunction with the IAAC and SAJA. Bear with me, as I tried to write notes as quickly as I could, but my inadequate shorthand didn’t stand a chance considering the speed of the brilliant minds gathered on the stage!
The evening’s tone was set by a somber slide show, before the talk started, of some touching images taken in the midst of the Bombay siege by photographer Andri Tambunan. The South Asian Journalists Association’s own Sreenath Sreenivasan introduced the panel of speakers by saying “It is not possible to fully understand such horror”, before Mira Kamdar confessed to having lost family members in the attacks. “My cousin and her husband were having dinner at Tiffin, inside the Oberoi Hotel. They were shot by the terrorists in the initial stages of the strike and for 48 hours, while the hotel was under siege, no one knew what had happened to them. When I heard of their fate, I realized I had to stop speaking on CNN, where I had been commentating on the situation. The attacks had become too personal, I could no longer be objective.”
Salman Rushdie, after reading an excerpt from his personal ode to Bombay, “The Moor’s Last Sigh”, went on to state that he would henceforth only refer to the city by its proper name, Bombay. He also pointed out that the current name of the train station at the epicenter of the attacks – Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus – has no real meaning to him and it will always be known as Victoria Terminus, or VT for short, to true Bombaykers. “These new names are the work of politicians” and hold no personal meaning to those who have grown up in Bombay. “In a sense, this was the Perfect Storm”, he continued, pointing to the deadly combination of illegal drugs in the terrorists’ systems, the delay in response by the Fire Department and the twelve hours of lapsed time between the start of the siege and the arrival of the Commandos from Delhi. Based in a suburb of Delhi and accustomed to escorting politicians around in armored trucks, the Commando unit did not have a dedicated plane in case of an attack happening somewhere other than New Delhi.“It was awful to watch as the pile of mistakes grew” Sir Rushdie stated, “Just that very evening, Indian Intelligence had alerted the Coast Guard of a planned attack by sea in South Bombay” but the Coast Guard supposedly had the threat checked out and dismissed it, only hours before the carnage began. And those who were there to assist the public, like the Indian Police Force personnel who were there on the ground just minutes after the attacks started, did not have the updated protective clothing which would stand a chance against the high velocity rifles of the terrorists. Which explains why the lives of three senior Police Officers in the Anti-Terrorist Unit were lost in the first hours of the attacks. Senseless losses, due to 20-year old bullet-proof vests.
Mira Kamdar took the audience on a short nostalgic journey of the Bombay of her youth, when she first arrived by sea at the age of three to meet her grandparents who lived in the city. “Everyone can find a home in Bombay”, she said. The descendant of Gujarati merchants who moved to and then fled Burma to settle once more in Bombay, Ms. Kamdar pointed out that the whole city had been turned into a “Soft Target” that night, including her cousins having a quiet dinner out. “The terrorists were robotic killing machines, they seemed to be reenacting a video game”.
Sir Rushdie added that “the terrorists were coked out of their minds” pointing to witness accounts that reported the men snorted cocaine before reloading and re-commencing their killing spree, several times.
Then it was Suketu Mehta’s turn to read from his book “Maximum City – Bombay Lost and Found”. But not before pointing out “I came back twenty-one years after deserting the city and it took me back in. It is a city that explains itself through narration” and it also accounts for 38% of all of India’s taxes. It has been the setting for bombs, floods and shootings and that’s just in the past couple of years. It is a city of 22 million inhabitants and the world wonders how the whole thing works, but it does. “When I moved back to Bombay, I found hope in the incredibly crowded suburban train system” and he went on to read from the “Adjust” chapter of this book: “Certainly, if you commute into Bombay, you are made aware of the precise temperature of the human body as it curls around you on all sides, adjusting itself to every curve of your own…” is his personal ode to the organized chaos that is the train system in his city.
Suketu Mehta then provided some explanation as to why Bombay as a city was singled out this time, quoting from his recent piece on a literary blog: “Bombay is the Golden Songbird. The terrorists wanted to kill the songbird. The city is all about money, transactions. And it is the home of profane dreams. Like its film industry, known as Bollywood.” He went on to say that when he was in Lahore for a visit, he walked into a video shop to find some locally made films and was only shown the latest Hindi blockbusters by the shop owner. “The terrorists hated the idea of the city’s indiscriminate openness. Everyone can come and make it there. Bombay is a pleasure-loving city.”
Soon, the conversation turned to a blame game. Sir Rushdie blamed the duplicity and hypocrisy of Pakistan in their reaction to the attacks, pointing the finger at India’s neighbor for being brutally incompetent and then brought up how the country’s current President – Mr. Asif Ali Zardari – was once labeled as “Mr. 10%” because of the kickbacks he demanded while his wife, the late Benazir Bhutto, was Prime Minister of Pakistan. He also brought up that although the sole captured terrorist in custody has confessed to being a Pakistani Punjabi and having been sold into Laksha-e-Taiba by his father, who has also confirmed Kasab is his son, the Pakistani government does not publicly admit to him being a citizen. Then Ms. Kamdar blamed the Indian Government, and its knee-jerk reaction with the POTA-inspired Unlawful Activities Amendment Bill, which was passed on the day of the discussion. She called Draconian Anti-Terrorism Laws obsolete and unnecessary and the wrong response in this situation. Sir Rushdie again reiterated the need for “a Coast Guard who can guard the coast” instead of more laws on the books that ultimately don’t help in saving lives, when the water is right next to the Taj Hotel and fires can’t be put out because the Fire Department can’t get to the scene. He also said that the Pakistani elite has a growing resentment of the success of India and that they have a syndrome like that H. L. Mencken quote on Puritanism: “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
Suketu Mehta blamed the ISI and said it “should be declared a terrorist organization”, and, for the sake of Pakistan itself, it should be banned. Since the conference was simulcast on the web, the Council General of Pakistan then joined in by email for some blame as well: “We the people of Pakistan share the grief of our Indian neighbor. Terrorism is a world problem. We have been hit hard by it as well, but have not been as quick as the Indians to point the finger.” After which, Mira Kamdar conceded that Pakistan has never been treated as a country by the US, but as a battlefield. Salman Rushdie jumped in to mention that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said that in 75% of all the world’s terrorism, the road leads to Pakistan, while on her recent visit to Pakistan, Condoleezza Rice had informed the government of the country that if they do not ban these groups – like LET – Pakistan will be declared a terrorist state.
When it came to solutions, alas, the distinguished panel was not as outspoken. Mr. Mehta pointed out that India is a country where “the poor vote” while the middle and upper classes simply stand back and allow their politicians to run the country for them. But in order for things to change, this mentality has to change. Sir Rushdie said that Bombay must be given the right to defend itself, without having to wait for outside forces – from the North – to come to its aid. “Bombay is efficient. It has power, local power”, he continued. But Ms. Kamdar was given by Mr. Hartman the last word. She remembered her slain cousin and her husband, she talked about the 13 year-old whose whole family was slain on the platform of VT and who was not told of his newfound tragic fate while in the hospital, and spoke of the Rabbi and his wife, who were killed in the siege at Chabad House and now appear to having been tortured as well.
Throughout the evening, I was reminded of that old proverb “if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem” and could not help but wonder if the panelists felt as I did. Yes, I sat in the presence of brilliant minds, yes I heard facts that would have taken me days to research online, yes I was privy to some clever conjectures about what to do with Pakistan, the Indian Armed Forces and world terrorism in general; but ultimately, even Sir Rushdie had to admit that if one were to resolve the issues of Israel and Palestine, create an independent Kashmir with the consent of both India and Pakistan and recall US occupation from all Arab countries, the terrorists who have been trained to be killing machine – and find happiness only in the afterlife – would not turn their guns into gardening tools and become farmers overnight. Something poignant and sad, but the fundamental truth of an evening spend in the pleasant company of some interesting people. And really, that is all it turned out to be…
Photo of the Taj Hotel courtesy of Lorenzo Tugnoli/AFP/Getty Images