Mumbai Diarist

Jonathan Foreman
Too Busy for Self-Pity
Spring 2009

Mumbai combines the vitality and intensity of Manhattan with the glitz of Los Angeles. In spots it resembles Miami, thanks to its palm trees, its little-known treasury of art deco buildings, and its oceanside vistas (though its beaches are too polluted for swimming). The city also contains vast shantytowns and strange little fishing villages that evoke the poorer corners of Latin America; they seem barely touched by the twentieth century, let alone the twenty-first. What makes Mumbai unique, however, is not its ability to encompass wealth and poverty, or hypermodernity and medieval squalor, but its tradition of resilience in the face of calamity.

In the past, the city has bounced back from riots, floods, and terrorist attacks with astonishing speed. For example, in 2006, Islamists set off bombs on the city’s commuter trains, killing 209 people; the trains were packed the next day as if nothing had happened. After last November’s terrorist attacks, though, many locals worried that this time would be different—that the spirit of Mumbai might not survive three days of gunfire and explosions in the city’s heart, the evident inability of government to protect the people, and the panic stoked by 24-hour TV news coverage.

Yet revisiting Mumbai some weeks after witnessing the November sieges, I’m struck by the way Mumbaikars seem to have refused to let the attacks disrupt their way of life. The Taj and Oberoi Hotels were primary targets of the killers—I remember seeing the flames from the Taj roof leap into the night sky—but both hotels reopened in less than a month. The Chhatrapati Shivaji railway station (still called Victoria Terminus by most people) was back in service within three hours of the assaults there.

On my arrival, I immediately went to Leopold’s Café, which was hit with grenades and machine-gun fire that killed six patrons and two waiters. It was overflowing, as ever, with a mixed crowd of Bombay boulevardiers and foreign backpackers. They seemed unfazed by the bullet holes visible in one of the front windows, deliberately left unrepaired by the owner.

New stories have emerged about what went on during the attacks. Many reveal the courage of strangers, like the sidewalk merchants who rushed onto the blood-splattered train station platforms to help the wounded only seconds after the terrorists left. No one makes a big deal about these stories. Apparently Mumbai is a city too busy for self-pity or self-dramatization.

My Mumbaikar friends do say that the city’s typical exuberance hasn’t returned. Moreover, many of the regulars at the superb restaurants in the Taj or the Oberoi, whose sense of belonging to the highest echelon of society was linked to the special treatment they received in such places, have not yet gone back. It is not fear that keeps them away, though many here believe that other terrorists are waiting to assault new targets. It is a distaste for having a good time at places where friends or relatives were gunned down or blown up. For their part, the chefs and staff have made it clear that they are not yet ready to cater to noisy celebrations.

Every evening on the pier outside the Taj, vast throngs from every part of Mumbai gather just to look at the hotel that has become a symbol of a city’s grace under pressure. It’s a strange tourism, perhaps similar to that which brought so many to Ground Zero, though here the crowd is mostly cheerful, not hushed. Some people eat ice cream or buy fresh peanuts from enterprising boys. Others negotiate rides on victorias, the horse-drawn carriages that ply the area for tourists. A surprising number are devout Muslims. There are young couples on dates and gaggles of schoolgirls. A man in a jacket and tie points out scorch marks from the hotel fire to his son, riding on his shoulders.

Over the buzz of the crowd, I hear hammers tapping behind the plywood screens covering the part of the facade under repair: builders are working 24 hours a day so that burned-out bars and restaurants can reopen. I wonder if the sound they make is the sound of victory over terror.

Jonathan Foreman is writer-at-large for Standpoint. He was formerly a film critic and war correspondent for the New York Post.

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