SILENCE OF THE SPIRIT
By Sanjay Jha
In TEHELKA FW
I had just stepped minutes away from the Air India building after a leisurely post-lunch stroll when the bombs exploded. Death and destruction lay interspersed in a macabre heap, cars twisted into an incongruous piece of metallic architecture, and in flames. That was on March 12th 1993. Within hours, the gruesome serial attacks masterminded by Dawood Ibrahim were methodically executed , with deadly precision. It was planned devastation, the minds of malicious men burning the midnight oil, quite literally . It was to be a horrendous nightmare for Bombay ( as it was called then). The city and India seemed nonplussed, petrified, shell-shocked. Babri Masjid was in rubbles, India was financially bankrupt, Rajiv Gandhi had been brutally assassinated, and communal tensions were reaching dangerous proportions. Eighteen years later, a sense of déjà vu pervades amongst the denizens of a battered down city.
The next day following the bomb attacks in 1993 , our Bank of America staff recorded hundred percent attendance at Express Towers, standing tall alongside the famous Air India building where several innocent people had been killed less than 24 hours earlier. Few customers trickled in, not to withdraw cash but to satisfy curiosity perhaps, but our front-office client service representatives were smiling profusely, ready to make overseas remittances. I believe similar stories of Mumbai’s unflagging zest for life played out across the bustling metropolis. The great legend of Mumbai’s resilience was born. It was for real. A city impregnable in character, defiant in the face of adversity, was overcoming its grief with dignity. Poetic compositions flowed, and esoteric prose on its human endurance were recited. Spirit of Mumbai is unconquerable , said society columnists in their Espirit labels. They missed the point by a mile.
What many perhaps inadvertently overlooked was that beneath that bold exterior a mammoth fear had planted itself imperceptibly, which had ballooned like a gigantic membrane, enveloping its soul during the dreadful Mumbai riots earlier. A city that had always boasted of its insatiable commercial zeal, its astounding ethos of unflagging punctuality, the creative madness of Bollywood artists, risk-taking financial warehouse, and a cosmopolitan hue was suddenly engulfed in incendiary flames. Fear cascaded on creased faces, people huddled in narrow alleys discussing the furtive movements of erstwhile friendly neighbors. Hate filled the air. Suddenly Mumbai resembled a tormented mohalla on a murderous spree. No Shamiana of the Taj or Bade Miya of Colaba frequented by dapper suited foreign bankers , office-goers and the college brat alike would restore its ripped confidence.
The subsequent killings in local trains, Ghatkopar, outside of Taj Mahal hotel kept Mumbai’s appointment with death at intermittent intervals, a perpetual reminder of its vulnerability. People resigned to a certain inevitability given the impeccable manner with which terrorists attacked the city periodically, and got away unscathed. It was the three-day long internationally televised barbarous slaughter at Taj and Trident Oberoi ( amongst others such as CST railway station) that ultimately raised the terror profile of Mumbai . Everyone noticed. Terror tourism is now Mumbai’s magnetic draw. There are more people taking photos of the Wasabi restaurant on the first floor of Taj which saw some bloody exchanges, with their backs turned to the historical attraction of Gateway of India. I think now Mumbai is acknowledging its helplessness, in a pragmatic down-to-earth reconciliation to reality. Hence, the houseful boards outside theatres over the week-end. The anger that you see is transitory; it is subsumed by the emotion of surrender.
In the meantime, all that Bombay’s politicians changed about the city was its name; they called it Mumbai. They renamed the Victoria Terminus. And a handful of hard-core local voters did a crossover to their constituencies. It was day-light ruse , which assumed that the world is populated by gullible fools. When the economic boom happened, real estate rates skyrocketed, and corruption took center-stage. Politicians were so busy peddling in property transactions, Mumbai’s public infrastructure got totally neglected, reducing the city to a veritable decaying vegetable; clogged traffic, nauseating garbage dumps, insufferable healthcare and worsening slum conditions exacerbating its bursting seams. Delhi overtook its once perennial competitor.
Tragically , Mumbai’s woes aggravated and it damaged its own reputation for social tolerance, but this time it was not cross-border incursions to blame. We allowed our own poor country cousins from North India to be thrashed by local political thugs masquerading as our regional leaders. The city’s cognoscenti maintained a dubious silence. Shah Rukh Khan was prevented from releasing My Name is Khan by a new quasi-government behind protected fortresses. A city was held to ransom for pedestrian gamesmanship. I went through metal detectors at INOX theatre , not because of Pakistani insurgents but because of parochial patriarchs of our political system and their perverse ways. It was as sad a moment as 1993. We were doing it to ourselves.
As the evening of July 13th suddenly turned into one of misery, Bollywood’s staple-favorites emerged with clockwork preciseness from their woodwork , looking suitably agitated, uttering angst-filled prose to near- rehearsed perfection. Their prescriptions for solving Mumbai’s problems could create a nuclear holocaust. Everyone wants to annihilate “rogues” Pakistan, preferably an aerial attack with Manmohan Singh in the fighter pilot’s seat . Ridiculousness personified. The tragedy of the English speaking, Blackberry-Twitter class is that it has on-tap panacea for every problem. Usually its suggestions manifest a novel approach; if you have a headache, just cut the head-off. Practically all fell prey to the specious argument of how the US has prevented attacks since 9/11 but we have not. And even as Mumbai bled, two political heavyweights and former Chief Ministers of Maharashtra battled collectively to enthrone themselves on a cash rich cricket body of MCA.
India needs a desperate catharsis; almost all our vital institutions of a free vibrant democracy are currently suffering from low credibility. We are in a peculiar transition phase, often looking impatient , hurried, where even a momentary pause for reflection is deemed a state of paralysis. Worse, we are so self-obsessed we look at everything else with a jaundiced eye. Stroking negativism is our new national past-time, symbolic of a self-destructive streak or at best an inchoate society yet to discover itself. Despite recent successes, many Indians seem to lack faith. I know butterflies cannot fly in formation, but we must at least try.
In calm waters, every ship has a good captain, but leadership skills are really tested in moments of crisis and doom. After decades, in uncustomary circumstances perhaps, but Maharashtra seems to have found a good leader in Prithviraj Chavan. Chavan is calm-headed, candid, and seems to possess an unassuming, sensitive disposition. He even broke recent Congress traditions and promptly encountered media editors with cool aplomb, navigating them adroitly, but above all, with straight-faced honesty. He was relatively unknown and low-profile before coming to Varsha , and many confused his name with that of the valiant Rajput warrior Prithviraj Chauhan, a great fighter with a lion-heart who ruled Delhi many centuries ago. In the days and months ahead, Chavan will perhaps benefit by going back to history-books. As will Mumbai, giving it a sliver of hope.
Sanjay Jha is Co-Founder http://www.HamaraCongress.com