Does the attack on Mumbai hold more meaning because the targets this time included people of privilege?
More than a month has passed since Mumbai was held hostage by gunmen who seemed to have no end plan other than to create maximum mayhem. As we slip into 2009, India has successfully held elections in its part of Kashmir, bombs have gone off in Guwahati to usher in the brand new year and business is back to the repulsive norm.
In the usual course of things, this means it’s time to let what happened in Mumbai go. Bygones are bygones, after all. As far as I can tell, however, while the initial fervor has understandably died down (adrenaline does come down eventually), we’re so far in no danger of forgetting what took place. People are still writing about it, reacting to it, talking about it. Not just Indians, either: there are casual mentions to it on posts dealing with the Israel-Gaza conflict, people refer to it when discussing Obama’s reactions to world crises, etc. More than 30 days later, Mumbai is still simmering in people’s subconscious.
Of course, this might be because of all that talk of impending war between India and Pakistan. The threat of nuclear warfare, especially one that threatens to derail American interests in that region, isn’t one that people are inclined to take lightly.
But while that might explain the outside interest, why hasn’t Mumbai completely slipped off the radar amongst Indians as is usual in these cases?
[I recognize that's an odd question - "Hmmm, why are you all such decent people? There's something fishy about you having a heart. Shouldn't you be moving on by now?" But that's the world we live in.]
A number of explanations are on offer, propounded pretty much within hours of the siege, but the one that I’d like to examine today is the one with which I’ve been grappling ever since I ran across it on OrangeJammies‘ blog: privilege.
It’s back. The you-have-means-and-are-therefore-less-deserving-of-sympathy argument. The deeply erroneous assumption that the better off care only about their immediate environment and don’t move a facial muscle when the lower economic stratas are impacted. It makes for a good social justice essay. And probably acts as a feel-good, oh-I’m-so-uniformly-fair kick.
You know a meme has spread far, when it’s even turned into something of a literary feud.
But the more I thought about it, the more conflicted I felt. On the one hand, I’ve always felt this kneejerk antagonism towards the rich is a bit dated. It’s one thing to rail against the injustices of capitalism but I’ve never actually run across a good reason to root for poverty, genteel or not. And the notion of the “noble poor” makes my stomach churn. Not because I don’t think a poor person can be noble, but because it reeks of patronization –
“There, there, poor people – you’re starving on the streets, your kids are malnourished and dying of some ridiculous disease like scurvy, and last night you fought with a large rat to get at the delicious leftovers in the neighborhood dumpster, but hey! you’re noble! I think you’re just a dandy person!”
Really? When was the last time you looked at a kid at a traffic signal and wished your kid could trade places? After all, it’d give him a stellar character. It’s even worse when someone in a position of privilege starts talking on behalf of all the poor, downtrodden folks and the resentment they must be feeling – it smacks of “remember me when the revolution comes, poor folks! I was your friend!”
I hope they use your skull as a serving bowl.
But on the other hand, I am a person of privilege. If you’re reading this blog, chances are you fit the definition as well, shocking as that might be to some amongst you. But me? No ifs and buts here. I know it for sure. And that brings its own share of confusion.
There’s a deeply lefty part of me, for instance, that’s sitting here, scratching its head and saying: “But – but am I allowed to say that? I’m sure I’ve oppressed someone, sometime, somewhere.” And there’s that Angry Brown Woman in me who finally had to stop watching CNN for her own sanity, remembering what it felt like to watch the coverage and see a very Indian tragedy being led by the news of all the Western casualties – she wonders if that is an applicable parallel?
Westerner in Mumbai attacks: Amrita :: Coverage of Taj attacks: Person with Low-income?
I don’t know. I suspect I might never know to my complete satisfaction – people like OJ, I think, have a clearer handle on the issue because she is a real live Mumbaikar and this was an outrage perpetrated on her city. But I am not, nor have I ever been anything of the kind so my voice lacks authority.
What I do have, however, are some very pleasant memories of that city. Which leads me to my explanation for my reaction to Mumbai: familiarity.
Any and every attack on one’s country and fellow citizens is shocking and upsetting, no matter who the perpetrators or what the cause might be. There is no part of the country that is “okay” to be attacked. And yet the scale of our reaction to these attacks is very different. As a lot of people have pointed out, some of them on this very blog, the Mumbai attacks, while shocking, are not unprecedented in terms of style. They’re been all the rage in Kashmir for quite a while now, for instance.
So why haven’t I ever felt quite as strongly about those attacks? They too were outrages perpetrated against Indian citizens on Indian soil and dealt with by the Indian army.
Short answer? Because I don’t feel about Kashmir the way I do about Mumbai.
If you do, then good for you, but I don’t. I’m very sorry, but there’re certain parts of India of which I’m more fond than others. These tend to be places that I have visited or places that I intend to visit someday. Kashmir, thus far, is not on that list. I feel like a traitor for saying that because it’s Kashmir, you know, and I grew up in an age where you had to be rabidly invested in Kashmir’s status in the Indian union, but that’s precisely why I have such different feelings for Mumbai vs. Kashmir.
I’ve never felt pressurized to feel one way or the other about Mumbai. It was just another city, a cool place maybe, but just another place in the country. You could talk about it without getting punched in the face or starting a heated political debate, your allegiance to it didn’t automatically involve supporting a war with your neighbor, you weren’t accused of being “un-Indian” or a traitor if you didn’t agree with the other person’s views on it, you didn’t regularly wake up to find that more people had been blown up there and how you should stay away because the people there hate you. You didn’t get copies of foreign magazines with maps of Mumbai stamped “Indian territory” or whatever the hell it was that the Government liked to stamp maps that showed Indian Kashmir as anything less than whole.
Mumbai was simply Mumbai. Like it or leave it. It was. It has a place in the popular imagination, you see it in every third Bollywood movie, it’s the city you’re most likely to visit at least once in your lifetime (note: absolutely unscientific assertion).
I should point out that this is equally true of other places with less charged connotations attached to it. I don’t feel the same way about Guwahati as I would about Darjeeling. And I’d feel terrible if I learned something bad had happened in Leh.
I don’t think I’ve ever looked at a terror attack and thought: “oh, the little people got blown up. How sad. Next!” But I have found myself skimming past articles about attacks on places with which I have no personal connection. I wouldn’t say I was completely unaffected (I’m not quite that blase yet) but I certainly didn’t feel the emotions I did when I saw Mumbai under attack.
I wish I did. But I don’t.