The chronicling of terrorism in our lives poses special challenges for writers, journalists and even film-makers. How does one interpret terror attacks, especially in fiction? Can the enormity of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York or Mumbai translate well on to the comparatively minuscule canvas of the life of one person, a family or even many families?
Even a reportage-driven account of such events, shorn as it is of the fiction writer’s judgements, is difficult to pull off. How does one balance scale and depth?
Vantage point: An NSG commando takes position near Nariman House to fight terrorists. Satish Bate / Hindustan Times
But perhaps the most important—and humane—question is this: Is it too soon to explain? Are we even ready to investigate and understand?
This is a question that confronts both reader and writer.
Thankfully for 26/11 Mumbai Attack ed, a collection of reported essays and commentary edited by Harinder Baweja, one simple fact helps ease these crises of conscience: There is still no authoritative explanation of the events that rocked India with their brazenness more than three months ago.
Baweja, an editor with news magazine Tehelka, brings together several voices—mostly journalists—each one of whom picks up an individual thread in the story of the Mumbai attacks. So while TV anchor Rahul Shivshankar chronicles the events at Nariman House, magazine journalist Ashish Khetan describes the carnage at the two five-star hotels.
26/11 Mumbai Attacked is a book in two parts. The first half is a straight, factual narration of what happened at various places in the city on and from the evening of 26 November. The second comprises essays by names such as Julio Ribeiro, Bachi Karkaria and Baweja herself.
There is little to complain about in the first half of the book. The stories are narrated in reasonable detail and from several perspectives. The reporting is so shorn of ornamentation that the prose sometimes unsettles with its matter-of-fact tone: “What he did not anticipate was that there was one more terrorist hiding inside the Palm Lounge who had positioned himself along the front wall. As he stepped into the lounge the second terrorist opened fire. Major Unnikrishnan retaliated but he had lost the initiative. After heavy firing from both sides Unnikrishnan was killed.” And then the story continues without a break. Not even in the paragraph.
While the narrative is largely unemotional, the stories read one after the other give a vivid image of the chaos among the security forces that night. Police officers had hardly come to terms with one scene when reports flashed in of shots somewhere else.
Mumbai residents, as is their way, initially brushed off the news as stray incidents. And then the chilling pattern began to reveal itself. This wasn’t the faceless, random death of bombs or floods, but a clinically planned pogrom. A stunned city hunkered down for an ordeal that would go on and on for hours wearing thin its famed resilience.
Meanwhile officers scrambled, constables stumbled into war zones with World War II-era weapons, and the terrorists went about their business, their resolve reflected in transcripts of telephone calls they made to handlers:
“Handler: Aag lagi ki nahi? (Has the fire started or not?)
Terrorist: Nahi, aag nahi lagi. (No, the fire has not started.) Woh gadde-shadde… parde-warde… ikattha kar raha hun aag lagane waaste (I am making a heap of the mattresses and curtains for the fire).”
Which is where even the most stoic essay cannot suppress the tragedy of what happened in Mumbai. The terrorist, as he goes about killing and pillaging, speaks in the same language and even the same rhyming slang that countless Indian Punjabis do.
The book sours somewhat in the second half when reportage gives way to analysis. While there is nothing really wrong with the analysis, the essays slow the relentless, tragic momentum of the first half. And here, one must find fault with the scope of the book. One is left with the feeling that the first half of the book, on its own, would have left a deeper impact than the combined package. In film terms, it is like watching back-to-back shows of United 93 and Fahrenheit 9/11.
There are a few other minor quibbles with the book: It is woefully short of explanatory diagrams and maps. The only map in the book is vague and pointless. With so many people and locations involved, readers could have used some visual aids to help them along. The editing of some of the essays could have been much tighter—marring the otherwise well-paced narration.
Overall, Baweja’s book is comprehensively researched and earnestly put together. While it may not be the best book to emerge from the 26/11 attacks—there are many more scheduled for this year—it is a notable effort that shines with its sincerity.