Letter From Mumbai
Mumbai: A Shaken City Revives
Champagne brunches are interrupted by bomb-sniffing dogs. Brides are frisked as they walk from their cars to their weddings. At the Taj Mahal Palace hotel—the epicenter of the attacks—guards are on constant alert, earpieces in place even when they're trading cricket scores. As I pass through the metal detectors there, I am frisked, questioned, and followed, my backpack and bushy beard ringing instinctive alarms. "We've got 500Â cameras all over South Mumbai, 29 patrol cars, 1,500 high-powered rifles," says Deven Bharti, a police official. "We've done a lot of things that are invisible."
Easier to spot are the physical reminders of the 60 hours last November when a band of 10 Muslim terrorists laid siege to Mumbai, killing 166. But the tragedy has morphed into a spectacle. At the Leopold Cafe—where the first shots were fired—foreigners jostle for the front tables, putting their fingers through the bullet holes still in the windows. Outside the Jewish Chabad House, the 107 spots where gunfire hit the wall are marked with red ink. In the lobby of the Taj, the house pianist plays Strangers in the Night and an American in a Bernie's Steakhouse T-shirt asks me, "Dude, this is where they killed those people, right?" Outside, a barefoot boy hawks the latest toy, a six-inch soldier crawling on his belly, cradling a rifle in his arms. "Bang, bang," the boy says. "Eighteen rupees, sir."
To an outsider, the speed with which the city has returned to normal may be disconcerting. But to those who call Mumbai home, the fact that the trains were running a day after the attacks, that the Taj reopened the next month, that the stock exchange has since soared—these all affirm the city's spirit. "People who live and work in the city of Mumbai, they've dealt with adversity before, with terror before," says Ajoy Misra, marketing chief for Tata Group's Indian Hotels, which runs the Taj. "It makes us tough. It gives us discipline."
As Mumbai has bounced back, though, so have its familiar divides. In the weeks after the attacks, the city mourned as one. Now, as before, the rich thrive and the poor barely survive. Late one night, I visit the Gateway of India, a classical arch built in 1911 to welcome King George V. The air on the Arabian Sea waterfront smells of garbage and salt. The sudden scratch and bright light from my cigarette lighter startle a policeman, who quickly grabs his ancient rifle. "We sleep here," he says, pointing to the sidewalk beneath the arch. Nodding toward the Taj, he says, "They don't even let us use the toilets in there."
Not far away, the wealthy throng Tote, a new nightclub so exclusive I can't beg my way in. I recognize a banker as he steps out of his Italian sports car. He manages to get me in the door, and soon his girlfriend is spraying us with Champagne. They're celebrating because his bank will represent Reliance Industries in its quest to buy chemical maker LyondellBasell for as much as $12Â billion. "You know what those f------ terrorists don't understand?" the banker says, his cheeks red from too much booze. "You can't destroy money. And that's what this f------ city is."