Mourning Mumbai

Taj Hotel in Mumbai, August 2008

The last several days my thoughts have been focused on the tragedy in Mumbai. I have only been to Mumbai once, and I have no family blood ties to that or any other part of India. But sometimes a place or a culture captures you inexplicably, and that is what happened to me last August.

India is an enchantress for a certain kind of person (me), and Mumbai was exceptionally sprawling, chaotic and beguiling. The legendary Taj Hotel where we sat sipping tea and soaking in all that 19th century soigné charm is now under siege, the wide boulevards of Apollo Bunder cordoned off. I have only just begun to dig into the layered complexity of the Indian culture, but in that beginner’s mind sort of way I am still longing to go back and uncover more of its secrets. But this is so unsettling.

This posting from Amardeep Singh‘s blog is from 2006 and was in response to a previous terrorist attack in Mumbai. It is hauntingly appropriate in 2008 so I am sharing it here.

Sea Breeze, Bombay

Partition’s people stitched
Shrouds from a flag, gentlemen scissored Sind.
An opened people, fraying across the cut
country reknotted themselves on this island.

Surrogate city of banks,
Brokering and bays, refugees’ harbour and port,
Gatherer of ends whose brick beginnings work
Loose like a skin, spotting the coast,

Restore us to fire. New refugees,
Wearing blood-red wool in the worst heat,
come from Tibet, scanning the sea from the north,
Dazed, holes in their cracked feet.

Restore us to fire. Still,
Communities tear and re-form; and still, a breeze,
Cooling our garrulous evenings, investigates nothing,
Ruffles no tempers, uncovers no root,

And settles no one adrift of the mainland’s histories.

–Adil Jussawalla

This poem is really a response to the Partition of 1947, but I think it has bearing on the questions people are asking a day after a particularly horrifying terrorist attack.

Jussawalla describes a rootless island city that is in some sense cut off from the “mainland’s histories” — that is on its own. But that sense of detachment has its limits, as Bombay has also been the destination point for waves of migrants and refugees from the subcontinent’s recurring troubles. These immigrant Bombayites (or now, Mumbaikars) bring new life and energy to the city (“restore us to fire”), and also tie the city tightly to the mainland’s darker episodes (the other meaning of “restore us to fire”). Some elite Bombayites have historically been ambivalent about their connection to the mainland, and even today, there are people who talk about instituting a kind of Hong Kong-esque autonomy to Mumbai, to prevent its being held back by the mainland’s elephant slowness.

The idea of Bombay paying for traumas occurring elsewhere was probably true in the case of bombing and riots of 1993, which were triggered by the razing of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya, though it’s undeniable that local Muslim-led gangs and homegrown Shiv Sena thugs exploited that event for their own purposes. Something similar may be afoot now, if we assume that the bombers in yesterday’s Western Line attacks were associated with Kashmiri separatist militants.

And yet, through it all, though the trauma of the tearing and re-forming of communities, and the chaos of life in Bombay (even without terrorism), there is, as Jussawalla says, the reassuring constancy of a cooling sea-breeze, which “uncovers no root,/ And settles no one adrift of the mainland’s histories.” Rootless, and yet yet never detached — that’s Bombay.

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