Bombay Journal: City of Strong Hearts
On July 11, I was in Patna, considered India's most lawless city. It's the capital of the state of Bihar, which is in competition with neighboring Uttar Pradesh for the title of most lawless state. While I was talking to the local chief of police, his phone buzzed with news of the train bombings in Bombay that killed nearly 200. "Your city has been hit again," he said. He didn't have to say more, his look said it all: Just as well you're in Patna now.
How ironic, I thought. Patna is safer than Bombay. I'd been to Patna a year before, to cover the elections of this renegade state. Fear was everywhere during that trip. Fear was in the train carrying us from Delhi to Patna—complete with gun-toting guards to scare away so-called dacoits who could hijack the train and kidnap passengers.
Fear of kidnapping gangsters was at the airport. It was even at my hotel, fear that I could be kidnapped while local rowdies and crude, bullying politicians drank Chivas Regal in the next room. At political rallies, we ran away just after the speeches were completed—just in case locals recognized us as out-of-staters and potential kidnapping targets.
A few months later, Bihar got itself a new government, and the state is getting cleaned up. Children are going to school. Industry is thinking about investing. The police are doing a great job of imposing some semblance of order in the state. Kidnappings are no longer commonplace, and safety is no longer a dream.
I returned to Bombay from Patna the day after the blasts. My wonderful city of grit and resilience was already back to normal. The trains had returned to their schedules four hours after the blasts. There was no sign of blood at the stations—the carnage had transferred itself to the hearts and minds of those who lost loved ones or who were brutally injured. Still, with the pain still fresh, everyone went back to work without skipping a beat. That's the spirit that has given Bombay iconic status in India.
The nation publicly congratulated Bombay—the money and glamour center of India—for its courage, resilience, and never-say-die spirit. Everyone talked about what a tough time Bombay had had in these last three weeks—horrible floods when homes were swept away, people were stranded, the bureaucracy failed, and the trains didn't work.
They talked about how ordinary Bombayites came out on the streets to help their fellow citizens—how housewives served steaming hot tea and biscuits to passersby, how they offered shelter and warm baths to those living far away, how even destitute slum dwellers gave shelter to the stranded.
A week later, there were riots over the alleged defacing of the statue of a local political party leader's late wife. Supporters went on a rampage, burning buses and beating up everyone in sight. But Bombay quickly got back on its feet, and the nation applauded. What a city, the rest of the country said.
Then came the train attacks. From 6:25 to 6:36 p.m. seven bombs went off. Once again, Bombayites rallied. Housewives lined up tea and biscuits at the stations, offered food to the weary, gave their sheets to serve as emergency stretchers to take the wounded to the hospitals. They offered shelter to those living far away.
GHOSTS AND SURVIVORS.
Students in hostels opened up their rooms to women and children trapped in transit. Hospital staff and doctors worked for 48 hours to save as many as they could. Only Bombay, brave Bombay, could make a triumph out of a tragedy. The shock over, the work done, Bombay went back to its routine. Sturdy office-goers traveled the same trains at the same times. Everything appeared normal.
But I didn't feel normal. Nobody felt normal. Life went on, but something had changed. The city's confidence has been shattered. The carefree days are over. A sense of despondency now dominates. The atmosphere was eerie—as if the ghosts of Bombay's dead were hovering, refusing to leave for their last resting place, begging for restitution of their lives, begging to turn back the clock, begging for the blasts never to have happened. There was fear and a just little anger from those left behind. "There but for the grace of God, go I."
Then, over the weekend, the city began to mourn loudly for everything it had lost. There were candlelight gatherings, multifaith peace meetings where everyone talked about the existence of one creator and about humanity. And finally, slowly, the anger began to erupt. Enough is enough, people said. Why do we repeatedly have to endure this? Where are our protectors? Why is our Rome burning while they take fragrant tea and biscuits in their colonial mansions in Delhi?
The Times of India put a note on its front page pressing citizens to sign petitions protesting their abused state or to text message the paper: "Enuf is enuf." Executives say that Bombay, which contributes 24% of India's revenues, should stop paying its taxes directly to the government and impoverish Delhi until the politicians wake up. Put the money in an escrow account and don't give it up until they fulfill their promises.
Rumors of Pakistan being behind the blasts led to strange reactions. A semi-naked man walked around with a placard the day Indian President Abdul Kalam, a rocket scientist, arrived in Bombay. "Dear Mr. President," it read, "we don't need your sympathy, we need your missiles—use them!"
Top businessmen in the country say their biggest concern for India is not rising interest rates, but security. They should be worried. Al Qaeda's pattern is to destroy financial centers. Hence New York, London, Madrid, Bombay. Next up? India could be set back 50 years if Bangalore were bombed. The terrorists know that. "We have become a soft state, an easy target," one executive told me. "India is the low hanging fruit, easy to pick off."