Mumbai: Before and After – 5

07 Jan


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.

[Previously: Pakistan, the Indian Muslim, Politicians, Listicle]


Posted by on January 7, 2009 in Life, Personal, Politics


10 responses to “Mumbai: Before and After – 5

  1. Silvara

    January 7, 2009 at 6:44 pm


    I know what you mean. It’s a strange feeling inside – one that is almost feels guilty for caring so much now. It makes even harder especially when you were born and live overseas and people question you about why it is affecting you so much. It’s easier to get over when you’re so far away.

    I wonder – whether it is because a popular ‘icon’ of Mumbai was attacked, that just so happened to be associated with wealth that makes us feel this way. I don’t think it’s a conscious effort to care more now. We all have a connection to it somehow (by either having been there or even knowing where it is) that familiarity, that makes it more personal than a far away Kashmir.

  2. Nida

    January 7, 2009 at 6:52 pm

    Powerful post, Amrita! I agree with you and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with you having stronger feelings when one city (Mumbai) is affected vs. another (like Kashmir). I think its only human, and most Americans are guilty of the same. When the attacks on 9/11 occured, everyone in the U.S. acted quite differently than they do when there is a terrorist attack in another country. That was one basis for critism against the U.S. of course because people who were living in terrorism and war said, “Hey, what happened to you guys is awful…but welcome to my life”.

    I guess my point is, its natural for you to feel something hits home harder when it is either physically closer to home or even just closer to home in your heart.

    Great post, as usual!

  3. shweta

    January 7, 2009 at 7:31 pm

    Great writing Amrita. And I share Nida’s thought’s exactly. When there were problems in Punjab and the NE, it just didnt feel close enough- but then when there would be problems in Jammu, I’d stress out because of family. Why terrorism- when there is a natural disaster, stress levels automatically go higher if you have connections to that place. But that’s just 1 part of it. I am not sure about the whole rich/poor arguement. However, I do think that the attack has had stronger impact because it was the biggest ever in the financial capital, and it was in affluent places, which are normally considered safer than the average chawl. Instead of a rich v poor angle, I think of it more as a reality check of how prepared/not we are to combat attacks, and whether anyone is really safe.

  4. pitusultan

    January 7, 2009 at 8:04 pm

    Hmm. I haven’t felt all was right with the world since forever for the simple reason I am a Mumbaikar (albeit a Chicagoan for almost a decade now).

    While those 3 days of madness were horrible (and I was in India when they happened), they felt no worse than the riots (1992) with people being chopped up left, right and center or the several train blasts since.

    I still buy a second class train pass the moment I arrive in Mumbai simply because it’s the most sensible way to travel. Yet, my husband has been in a local train that was set on fire (he escaped in time thank god) and it could easily have been me in several of the train blasts that happened since.

    I also studied at Jai Hind College in Churchgate which means S Mumbai was ‘my’ ilaaka. I took dance classes at Electric House and visited Colaba all the time. It could have been me so many times!

    This time was no more or less henious to me. And I am not being facetious but I sincerely don’t ‘get’ what was so much worse about this attack (ok the siege was really different) than say, the post- Babri Masjid riots? They were planned as well as the ’93 riots, they killed tons of people, they demoralised the entire city. The only difference was that the targets were India’s swankiest hotels, not some 8:40 am ki packed Churchgate fast train.

    So yes, while I do belong to the privileged class, I do buy into the rich vs poor argument.

    It pretty much has always sucked to be a Mumbaikar for the simple reason that when anyone (homegrown or across the border) wants to create shit for India, the obvious target is Mumbai.

    And this is the number one reason why Mumbaikars should never support religious fanatics, because ultimately masjid tootati hai UP mein, marte hum hain :-p

  5. Orange Jammies

    January 8, 2009 at 12:00 am

    Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. For writing this for yourself. For being honest instead of “honor-bound”. And for looking your version of truth in the face and telling it like you see it. I’m going to link to this post at some point. (A-ping-ponging we go!). Hope that’s okay?

  6. apu

    January 8, 2009 at 12:43 am

    “I hope they use your skull as a serving bowl.”
    ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

    Now that I’ve finished laughing.

    Amrita, great piece. I think it is possible to recognise that class does enter the picture while at the same time not implying that the deaths of richer people are in any way less important because they are privileged. The way I look at it is, when “People like Us” die, yes, the media does tend to give it more attention – relatives of such people make for better soundbites etc. It is sad, but that doesn’t of course mean that the people themselves were unimportant.

    I think it is important to avoid both extremes.

  7. M

    January 8, 2009 at 11:41 am


    well made point about connection to a place, but IMO, priviledge certainly played some role in these attacks being taken more seriously by the govt. When other countries are drawn into the picture because of attacks on their citizens, it seems to shake up the status quo. But, like Apu, I agree that this doesn’t make the death of the rich/foreign any “better” than those of the poor…

    That said, I am not sure Mumbai is in still top of the news for anyone but Mumbaikars – from conversations with family in MDS and BLR, it seems like life is very much back to normal…in fact, Mumbai attacks didn’t really impact anyone in MDS – they were far more worried about the cyclone that caused problems there. Which again goes back to your connection theory, so not sure I am adding anything here.


  8. ravi

    January 8, 2009 at 7:09 pm

    I left India in 1986 and have been in the US since. I grew up in Bombay and now I can truly say, that any act of terrorism in India, by that I mean ANY PART-not just Bombay, makes me mad and angry.

    What makes me angrier, is the inability of the Indian govt to do anything. Maybe in my next life, I’ll be born as an Israeli-a country that has pride and the guts to kick these mad terrorists back into their deserving hell holes.My Israeli friends and colleagues concur that I’d make a great Israeli :-).

  9. Amrita

    January 9, 2009 at 2:27 pm

    Silvara – it reminds me of that age old line of rejected lovers: why don’t you love me, why do you love him/her instead? There is no real explanation for it, it just is.

    Nida – thanks 🙂 This wasn’t an easy post to write because this isn’t how I’m *supposed* to feel so it’s nice to be met with understanding rather than rotten tomatoes!

    Shweta – if we can do that, see it as a test of our defences and learn from it, as you suggest, then I think I would feel more at peace with what happened.

    Pitu – I’m a delhi-wali, tell me about it! 🙂 I don’t think class can be completely eliminated, no. The terrorists were apparently very clear that they wanted high profile targets and were apparently looking for some minister in particular. And they knew what they were doing with the foreigners. So they basically set the stage and they wanted class to be part of it.
    As for what was so different, I think it was the fact that we’re used to smash and grab jobs. Bomb blasts in quick sucesssion, suicide or whatever, and then you pick things up and move on. But this was played out on live TV, the hostage drama was going on and it became an Event of sorts. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is now a meme in Mumbai of “where were you on 26/11?”

    OJ – thank YOU for making me think about this issue. And of course we can play the pingback game! It’s so much fun! Should I have asked permission before linking to you btw? I don’t think I sent any crazies your way but if I did, I’m sorry. I thought you were finally out of hiding 😀

    Apu – that’s a good way to put it, thank you. Wasn’t there a reporter killed in Delhi a while back and people couldn’t stop reporting on her death? It’s like that… it sounds like something out of a communist manifesto, but the bourgeouisie and the petite bourgeouisie really do drive the fate of nations.

    M – everything adds a little to the bigger picture, never fear! 🙂 I think eventually people are always more consumed by that which affects them personally. That’s why I instinctively sneer at people who say things like “we’re all mumbaikars now” – now we aren’t. We care to one extent or the other, and we can definitely empathise but we’re never going to completely inhabit someone else’s space. And so we can never know what it means to be them exactly. Which is why I don’t fault people for moving on, as long as we don’t forget them in the process. And I don’t think we’ve forgotten them the way we forgot, say, the Jaipur blast victims of the IISc shootings in Blore.

    Ravi – i don’t know how that feels so I can’t really comment. Most of my family who were either born there or migrated there a half century ago feel the normal amount of shock and anger, i think, but I don’t think they and I feel the same amounts or in the same manner.
    And while I admire the efficacy of the Israeli army, I don’t think they’ve actually managed to solve anything so I’d rather India didn’t take any lessons from them on tactics. Training and weaponry is another matter entirely.

  10. ravi

    January 10, 2009 at 10:33 pm

    Just a point: I am talking about the country of ISRAEL as a whole and NOT just it’s army.

    INDIA and INDIAN POLITICIANS have no guts or honor, personal or otherwise. The last time we had any guts was when Mrs. Gandhi led us in 1971. I am no supporter of the Congress or the Italian idiot or her spoilt kids, by the way.

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