Broken Bodies, Defiant Hearts in Bombay

The quiet confidence of India's commercial capital has been shaken by the latest bombings, but its indomitable spirit will prevail

By Manjeet Kripalani

At about lunch time on Aug. 25, two powerful bomb blasts hit Bombay, India's commercial capital. One was a few yards away from the famous Gateway of India, a national monument built in 1911 to commemorate the arrival of King George V, who had sailed from England to visit the jewel of his empire. The other was in Jhaveri Bazaar, the jewelry district in the crowded innards of Bombay. Nearly 40 people died and more than 100 were injured. The bombs, carried in ordinary black and yellow public taxis, detonated almost simultaneously. Traffic was diverted, the roads were cordoned off, and the city's police and municipal commissioners quickly arrived to assess the damage.

The bombings were likely carried out by the same Islamic terrorists who took credit for bombing a Bombay bus filled with commuters in July. And general assumption is that the Aug. 25 blasts were the work of the same terrorists who claimed to have bombed a busy railway station earlier this year, blowing up part of a crowded McDonald's. The Bombay police have arrested some suspects in that earlier blast -- but there are clearly more out there who are willing to put a crude bomb into a suitcase or in the trunk of a taxi.


  The strikes are a huge obstacle to the progress of the ordinary working stiff looking for a better life, and these acts also are curbing the confidence of a country just starting to see some economic buoyancy. "They are trying to destroy India's economic success, its IT success," growled a fellow reporter who was also on the spot of the bombing, near the Gateway of India. "They can't stand to see this gain." Yet the spirit of Bombayites and the bonds that hold this city together will prevail.

Bombings and assassinations in Kashmir are political and all too common. Strikes on India's Parliament in New Delhi are attacks on the country's soul. Attacks on Bombay, though, like terrorist attacks on New York City, are aimed at shattering the economic base of a nation. Bombay contributes more than 30% of India's taxes and revenues. It's the country's center for business, entertainment, technology, and textiles, and it is also home to the country's biggest, busiest port and airport.

After the Aug. 25 bombing, the stock market immediately dropped 103 points, then another 70 points -- and this on a day when shares had been rallying on news of a drop in short-term rates by the Central Bank. Sure, the market was overheated, what with all the good news of late -- a bountiful monsoon season, good corporate results, a housing boom, perhaps peace with Pakistan. Savvy investors were expecting a correction this week. But not like this.


  At Jhaveri Bazaar, the bombing was gruesome. It's an area dominated by the Gujarati community -- staunch, devout Hindus from neighboring Gujarat state, who are the businessmen that grease Bombay's wheels. The area is old, commercial Bombay, filled with small businesses, venerable temples, little shops, loads of curbside hawkers, hand-cart pullers, and hundreds of people walking or cycling on the streets, jostling with cars and yes, yellow and black taxis, for space.

The narrow streets are a fire hazard, lined with old, decrepit but once-beautiful buildings, few of which are safe for habitation yet are overcrowded with three families to a room. It's the essence of a city of 16 million that survives with a smile and a whistle. Today, the fire trucks couldn't pass through the narrow streets. The crowds of passersby were rescuing the victims and recovering the bodies. And there were many more deaths than near the Gateway of India.

Opposite the Gateway of India is the elegant, century-old Taj Mahal Hotel, owned by India's Tata group. The two-inch thick glass windows in the hotel's ground-floor shops and restaurant were shattered, as were the first-floor windows and those on the structure's stone turrets. In a flash, the hotel's management was out on the street, watching out for their staff, ready to lend a helping hand to the police. The Taj caters to the well-heeled tourist and the fat-pocketed businessmen. We will not be intimidated, said K. Krishnakumar, the hotel's chairman.


  He certainly won't. Krishnakumar ran Tata Tea, the Tata Group's tea company, for many years from Assam in northeast India, and "Iron Man" Krishnakumar boldly faced the terror of militants who tried to intimidate the company into leaving by killing its managers. Tata Tea survived and prospered to buy out Tetley and become a multinational company. No, Krishnakumar and the Tatas will certainly not be intimidated.

Yet tourists may be intimidated, foreign businessmen will be intimidated, ordinary commuters could be intimidated. This is not Bombay's first brush with terrorism. In 1993, after Hindu fundamentalists pulled down a mosque in north India, grisly riots followed. Bombay's underworld with Muslim terrorist connections placed a powerful bomb in the city's stock exchange, killing hundreds in an assault on the symbol of the city's economic success. Bombay came to a standstill.

Now, 10 years later, the bombs have begun again. The attacks at the Gateway and at the Bazaar were a warning -- and perhaps a retaliation against the tragic killings of hundreds of Muslims in Gujarat last year. When these things happen, everybody knows it doesn't help India -- it only strengthens the hands of the fundamentalists among the Hindus and the Muslims.


  Bombay wallahs are prepared for things to get worse. As I walked back to my home, just two streets away from the Gateway of India, I encountered traffic snarls knotting the city's main drag, Colaba Causeway. People made way for me, as I did for them. The harried traffic policemen were stoic and patient. I saw a school bus filled with young students block the rest of the road as its driver tried to make a tough turn. On any other day, the bus driver would have faced motorists climbing from cars to vent their rage. Today, they allowed the bus to pass.

Bombayites are not known for their politeness. But when they are preparing themselves for worse to come, the city turns kind to its own.

Kripalani writes for BusinessWeek in Bombay

Edited by Beth Belton

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