I wrote this post last year after the terror attacks on Mumbai. I have been back since and loved every minute of it. Today, I post this letter again, in memory of all those we lost but will never forget. On this day before Thanksgiving, I think we should all reflect on how much we all have to be thankful for.
I was not born in Mumbai nor did I grow up there. I have never lived there for longer than a few months at a time. And yet, as a writer, it is the destination that I have written about the most. I have written love stories in yearning for the city’s seafood, I have written essays on my Mumbai-based idols, I have written pieces on how to shop in Chor-Bazaar, the Thieves Market, what to order at the Taj and the craziness of the fish markets. Mumbai has given me inspiration, it has given me dreams, life-long friends, a zest for learning the local language so I could understand all the bad words being hurled around by street kids, and it gave me the love of my life – my husband.
What is it about this city that makes everyone who lives there call it “Amchi Mumbai” (My Mumbai) and what is it about this city that makes people like me lose their hearts somewhere between the street food vendors and the glamorous shopping arcade at the Oberoi? The short answer is the people. They have a spirit and a love of life unlike I have ever seen. They have a determination to make their city thrive, no matter what.
It takes a lot to shake that determination and break that spirit. Last week, a group tried to do just that.
It was a horrifying ordeal for me as I know it was for many people who watched in stunned disbelief as this city of dreams burnt. I could barely believe what I was seeing or reading. This was an experience unlike any other I have ever had, including the terror I felt when I saw the planes hit on 9/11. This time we were being assaulted by information from all angles. It was not just the TV: my phone rang incessantly with text messages coming in, friends and strangers were posting updates on Twitter and my Facebook status page became a lifeline as I waited for friends in Mumbai to update their status to say that they were okay.
Learning via a friend’s Facebook update that an admired Indian food critic died while hiding under her bed in the Taj Hotel was horrid, but even more chilling was reading that her last text message to her family and friends said “They are in the bathroom.”
An American friend updated her status to say, “On 9/11 we were all New Yorkers, today we are all Indians.” A respected writer from London whose work I adore posted how he was grieving for the city of his birth.
Twitter messages went from being “Where are you?” to “Kill the bastards” to “local hospitals needing blood.” An Indian superstar, Amitabh Bachchan, posted on his blog that for the first time in his life, he slept with a loaded revolver under his pillow.
I kept obsessively reading the updates; where were my chef friends? I recalled with much joy the hours that I have spent at the Taj and Oberoi hotels. While it is true that a lot of tourists stay here, these places are also social nerve centers of the city. The coffee shops of these restaurants were typical places to meet friends, have a meal, and hang out at when all the other places in town shut down for the night. They are not just commercial establishments; they formed a critical part of the identity of the city.
I don’t know the how or the why they came but I can tell you why they chose Mumbai – it is India’s nerve center, much like New York City is to the US. There have often been comparisons made between the two major metros: they are the financial capitals – NYC has Wall Street, Mumbai has Dalal Street; they have major populations – Mumbai was 14 million at last count; they are melting pots of cultures and languages; they are home to major food establishments and businesses; they are cities where dreams come to build a life; they are places where even wanderers can find a home. There are differences: Mumbai is also the host for India’s movie industry, has strong religious undercurrents, and yet Mumbaikars are equal opportunity devotees and the Lord Ganesh offers his blessings to one and all, religion not withstanding; and monsoons still define the way of life.
Like NYC, it is a city that is known for it’s resilience – people dust themselves off and get right back to work after harrowing incidents, often saying “What is the choice?” Perhaps it is this spirit that the terrorists want to break. If they can break Mumbai, all the others will fall.
My 9-year-old watched the horror unfold along with us. After about an hour or two of listening to us ramble on and on about the terrifying ordeal and how hard thing
must be there, he simply said, “Mom, what are you going to do to help? We are so far away, what can we do?”
Amazing, isn’t it, in all our wisdom all we did is to complain and cry and shake our heads at the horror of it all. And it took a 9-year-old, to shake us out of it. So to answer his question, what am I going to do? I am a writer. My job is to write. So my pledge is this – I will continue to write about this city of dreams as it not only survives this massacre but rises up to become even a stronger and greater metropolis.
I don’t use this spirit of the city as an excuse or a cliché – it is what it is. There is no denying it is true but this time, I hope we learn not to use the spirit of the city as an excuse not to do anything at all.
There is another side that I am seeing this time that I had not seen before – usually after attacks like these there is a hatred towards the Hindus or the Muslims or whoever is the off-flavor of the day. This time the anger is targeted at the government. The young people who I know and identify with are asking what the government was doing when all this was going on. In my opinion, this is radically different from what has happened before. There has always been a marked indifference towards the government with the people’s attitude being that the government was a burden they had to bear and that it was something that was thrust upon them. This time, I see a difference, and I hope that it takes momentum and that the bright, young Indians who can make a difference step into the political scene.
And in the true Mumbai spirit and style, the last update I got was from a Mumbaikar-friend based in NYC, “Monica, check out that travel website I told you about, they are offering amazing deals to Mumbai – want to go?”