Cry, my beloved Mumbai! It won’t be the same anymore (Comment)

November 30th, 2008 - 12:05 pm ICT by IANS  

Reminiscing of the Bombay of the good old fashioned gangsters of the 1980s with any nostalgia may sound gratuitously insulting today.The worst that the mob bosses then did apart from smuggling gold, VCRs and some drugs was to occasionally engage in internecine gangland murders. Crime happened every day but it largely stayed confined to the underworld. Rarely did it spill over to the streets and fatally co-opt innocent citizens.

Not that there was anything even remotely uplifting about the gangsters then, but seeing Mumbai from 16,000 km away stagger in the face of numbing terror strikes one cannot but think about how dramatically things have changed. The cold viciousness of terrorists and their brutally efficient execution make the gangland killings of yore seem almost benign.

“Apne dhande ka ek usool hai. Aam admi ko chhoone ka nahi hai,” (There is one cardinal rule of my business. Do not harm the innocent),” was how Karim Lala, an alleged hatchet man, once described the Bombay underworld’s code of conduct.

As CNN covered the multiple Mumbai terror strikes for a straight 30 hours almost to the exclusion of any other news since Wednesday morning, it became clear that the city had been altered forever. Even though it has had many terror bombings since 1993, there is something insidiously enduring about this one, especially when one looks at a bunch of trendily dressed lunatics wielding some AK-47 like bizarre bling bling and firing randomly.

Among the images that have stayed in my mind is that of a young terrorist in light khaki cargo pants, blue T-shirt carrying a blue duffel bag and an AK-47 walking into the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (VT) station.

Take the weapon away and the man could well be a wannabe movie star visiting the city to fulfil his celluloid dreams. That is the whole point of the new brand of terrorists. They do not even look the part in a city whose cinema has for long mastered the art of typecasting people.

It is tempting to believe that Mumbai may well reclaim its innocence of the 1980s despite such a grievous attack on its soul. However, a realistic assessment in the aftermath of the massacre would suggest something more disheartening. CafĂ© Leopold may reopen and bring back its customers, but they will all look over their shoulder at least once. The city’s well-heeled will return to their favourite watering holes at the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel and Oberoi-Trident but not without first anxiously surveying the coming-ins and going-outs. VT will begin to bustle tomorrow but will miss a heart beat every time an out of the ordinary noise is heard.

Having lived in and reported on the city from all angles some friends asked me how it appeared from afar and how different it seemed after the attacks. Those are hard questions to answer. One is not even sure if they have any answers at all.

Notwithstanding the impersonal nature of broadcast news, one point came across loud and clear - the city had suffered a blow far more debilitating than before. One is bound to hear all the eulogistic references to Mumbai’s great “resilient spirit”. This time though one got the sense that the city might have had enough of these attacks. It may well forsake its equanimity and choose to deal with the recurring problem of terrorism with much greater aggression.

There was something surreally normal about the way pigeons, startled by all the explosions, fire and smoke at the Taj on Wednesday night, returned at dawn to their familiar nesting corners. People could take much longer to return to their comfort zone.

(Mayank Chhaya is a Chicago-based journalist who previously lived and worked in Mumbai. He can be contacted at mayank6_@hotmail.com)

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