Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thoughts on Mumbai from Sydney

I woke up today to blue skies in Sydney and rolled out of bed with a receive-and-transmit section for my new Australia book already in my head. After a bit of writing, I logged on to the internet to find that unspeakable horror had been visited upon Bombay, known better known as Mumbai, while I slept, with places that I knew intimately targeted in an apparently tightly-coordinated series of terrorist attacks that at this writing have killed at least 80 people.

I lived in Mumbai - which I always preferred to call Bombay - for the first few months of 2007, and became quite fascinated the city, which was at once engaging intellectually and visually even as its pollution was often wretched for the health and the grinding poverty on display often brutal to the soul. Yet I have such fond memories of my walks around my old neighborhood of Colaba, of the chai I would have at a Parsi café in the Fort Area, with it great book stalls, and of strolling through the always-crowded Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly Victoria Terminus) as I would head to visit friends out in Bandra, or to the Dharavi slum for reporting work. Despite my keen awareness of the inequalities in India, and the not-infrequent scapegoating of religious and ethnic minorities that the chauvinistic Hindu right often engages in, I was never made to feel anything less than welcome there, and was greeted with great warmth and hospitality by my friends in the city.

And now I read that the Taj Mahal hotel, which I frequently walked by and in whose lobby I paused from time to time, has been turned into a place of slaughter, that, in Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, where I remember poor families with their belongings tied together with rags waiting to take a train and beggars asking for alms, people have been mowed down for some sort of obscene motive, for some absurd political or religious end. Could the weathered pages of the Koran or the Ramayana or the Bible or the Talmud ever condone such actions of cowardice? Is their God so feeble that he would approve of leveling an assault rifle at a defenseless person? Would anything that cowardly be worth worshiping?

I think of these questions, having confronted religious and political fanaticism in various forms in various countries throughout my career as a journalist. Though it is still early, I wouldn’t be surpired to find out that the perpetrators of this crime are cut from the same cloth of those who often (though not always) commit extreme acts in this context: impoverished, disenfranchised and poorly educated, heads filled with visions of glory and martyrdom by someone who always remains in the shadows, and does well to protect his own family from either slaughter or martyrdom.

I think of the people in the city - that panoply of faces from Maharashtra, Gujarat, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Sikkim, Kashmir and elsewhere that I met - as I sit here on this sunny morning in Sydney. I can still smell the channa masala and hear the clink of the glass of cane juice as a vendor scoops it out for a street boy to slake his thirst.

Bombay, meri jaan, I hope that you recover.


Mira Kamdar said...

Michael, thanks for this touching meditation on Bombay and how these attacks have affected you. I can't believe, 48 hours later, the horrible drama there is still unfolding. Mira

Michael Deibert said...

Yes, Mira, it was a terrible thing to happen to a wonderful city, and I am particularly sorry for your loss.

To all: Also please also read my friend Dilip D'Souza's first-person account of the Mumbai attacks in the Washington Post here: