Tuesday, December 2, 2008
My bare feet were being lapped by the warm Puerto Rican waves when my cell phone rang. I was walking along a sunny beach with my man and my baby, happy for the warmth and the time away. I had no idea what was happening half a world away. It was Lalit on the phone- one of my favorite Indians, the consummate partier, the creative film maker I had dated long ago. His voice was rushed and panicked. I could hardly make out what he was saying. Turn on CNN, he pleaded. Bombay is under attack.
When I lived there, the Mumbai of today was still Bombay. Hindu nationalists had made a push to rename everything that had been named by foreigners who once ruled them. They changed V.T. train station to Chatrapatti Shivaji Terminus, though the cabbies still took you to V.T. People laughed at bringing Mumbai back into the lexicon- they thought it wouldn't stick, but it has.
The city I knew ten years ago is not the same after a brutal siege by terrorists, thug criminals who took over parts of town where I spent most of my time. When I did get in front of a television, I saw the flames coming from the Taj Hotel, the place I went weekly for dinner, drinks or dancing. The place I put my parents up when they came to visit. The Oberoi, where many Ex-pat friends I knew lived (Kim & Raju stayed there for 9 months when they first arrived in the city) Metro Cinemas, where foreign films were shown and the Train Station that everyone has passed through at one time or another. The only place I did not frequent was Leopold cafe, favorite of Shantaram and the backpacker crowd and ironically, the Jewish Center. For three days these mad gunman shot at Indians and foreigners alike. They held off police and commando teams. They brought a free city to it's knees. Perhaps it was that freedom, the democratic openness of South Asia's most vibrant, multicultural capital that made it such a prime target. These men did not opt for the anonymity of suicide or car bombs. They wanted the up close brutality of armed combat.
I frantically emailed all my friends to make sure people were safe. Many of my friends not only frequent these places, some live only steps away from the prime targets. With grace and luck, it seems everyone I knew there survived, yet like the days after 9/11 here in New York, every one knows someone who was not quite so fortunate. One friend's sister was trapped on a train in VT with her children huddling on the floor until 3am. Others were locked down in their homes, listening to the gunfire wondering when it would all end.
I think the terrorists hoped to spark renewed cross-border hatred with Pakistan, but it has not worked. Pakistan has been quick to cooperate and denounce these acts. People I spoke with are angrier at India than at their old nemesis. They see is at a failure of their own government to keep them safe. The protests in the streets after the shooting finally stopped were for resignations within the government. Some have already stepped down. It remains to be seen what will come next.
I still had days left on the beach after I saw the images coming out of the city I once called home. I was in Puerto Rico to celebrate Thanksgiving with my family. It is the time of year Americans stop and think of all we are grateful for in the year that has passed. I am grateful that my friends survived this attrocity. I am certain that Mumbai will weather this storm too. I hope that even more people flock there now to support it's free society, to see it's vibrancy, to meet it's amazing citizens. Those who attacked it may have prevailed for a few days, but in the end, they will not win. Bombay and it's inhabitants will come back stronger and with more resolve to live as they have; freely and openly. My welcoming city will once again invite the world to it's shores. I hope it's not too long before I can return to Bombay. It is my special, other home. In the place where I was once jokingly called "Nancy Singh" I will go back to the Taj, back to Metro Cinema, Back to the Oberoi and give the city and my friends there a long, overdue hug.