A New Yorker finds a resilient Mumbai, at least on the surface

A New Yorker finds a resilient Mumbai, at least on the surface
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First Published: Thu, Jan 01 2009. 08 30 PM IST

In tune again:A man plays the piano at the Taj Mahal hotel after its tower section reopened in Mumbai. Arko Datta / Reuters
In tune again:A man plays the piano at the Taj Mahal hotel after its tower section reopened in Mumbai. Arko Datta / Reuters
Updated: Thu, Jan 01 2009. 08 30 PM IST
Mumbai: The flight to Mumbai was late, and it was nearly 2 am when we stumbled into the car our hotel had sent.
Walking out of the airport, my girlfriend and I were bathed in klieg-like lights shining down on what appeared to be an endless sea of people crowded behind a police barrier—families waiting for relatives, drivers searching for passengers, vendors and beggars, policemen and businessmen, and every other form of Mumbaikar humanity. Or so it seemed to us.
In tune again:A man plays the piano at the Taj Mahal hotel after its tower section reopened in Mumbai. Arko Datta / Reuters
That’s your first impression of this sprawling city of 16 million—the feeling that there are people just everywhere, spilling into streets, crowded into tiny storefronts, filling up giant slums, even milling about international airports at 2 in the morning. Shanghai and Beijing may have more inhabitants, but they don’t feel like this.
We arrived there three weeks after the Mumbai terrorist attacks, a horrifying three-day ordeal in which at least 183 people were killed and some of old Bombay’s most notable landmarks, including the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower and the Oberoi hotel, were left looking like they had been through a war. Which, of course, they had been. After beginning their murderous spree at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the terrorists had moved through the fashionable streets of the Colaba district, finally holing up in the two hotels, where they killed guests and staff indiscriminately, and then settled in for a 60-hour siege.
I have been trying to remember what New York was like three weeks after 9/11. Had the mood brightened visibly? Were we starting to get our bearings back? Were we telling jokes again? My memory is that the return to normalcy was still in its early stages—that we were still traumatized, still looking back on the events of that awful day almost obsessively. It was impossible to walk down a street in New York City and not see photographs of missing people or wreaths and memorials at fire stations.
But three weeks after these attacks, Mumbai wasn’t like that, at least not on the surface. Although the newspapers had already labelled the attacks 26/11, you didn’t hear the phrase very often in polite conversation. Nor did you see the kinds of instant memorials—the candles and wreaths and signs—that have become so common in the West when disaster strikes. Life was already back to normal, or close to it. “For you, 9/11 was a once in a lifetime event,” one businessman told me. “We have bombings once a month.”
The primary way you felt the events of 26/11 was in the heightened security: the dogs sniffing your bags as you entered the new Four Seasons hotel; the pat-down as you went through the metal detector at the hotel entrance; the soldiers, everywhere, behind embankments, their high-powered rifles at the ready. Some of these measures had been around for a long time, but others were new, a reaction to the attacks.
I had lunch one afternoon at the Taj Lands End, a high-end hotel under the umbrella of the Tata group, which also includes the Taj Palace and Tower. It was like a ghost town. “Before the attacks, this lobby would have had a lot of people in it,” said my lunch companion, Jerry Rao, a well-known Indian entrepreneur. “Now...” His voice trailed off sadly.
On my first day, when I asked my driver how the city was feeling about the attacks, he shrugged. “That’s over,” he said. Later in the morning, seeing that I had a free hour to kill, he decided to give an impromptu tour. He drove me past the majestic, damaged Taj—beloved by Indians because it was built by the great Indian industrialist, Jamshedji Tata, 105 years ago, as the first luxury hotel in the city that booked Indian as well as white guests. It looked desolate and sad, its lights off, inaccessible behind the police tape.
We drove past the already reopened Leopold Café and Bar, where several people had been killed. “Look down there,” said my driver. “See that white building?” I craned my neck. That was the Nariman House, where a rabbi from Brooklyn, Gavriel Holtzberg, and his wife, Rivka, were killed.
Later that night, after a dinner with some new friends—a transplanted investment banker and his family who lived in the same neighbourhood—they decided to show us the sights before taking us back to our hotel. For the second time that day, I was driven through the attack areas. They had become the new tourist sites for visitors.
Our last day in Mumbai was a Sunday, 21 December. We had discovered that the Taj was going to reopen that afternoon. Somehow, we managed to get an invitation.
Beforehand, we spent several hours on a walking tour of the some of the city’s grand boulevards. Our walk took us finally to the towering Gateway of India, a huge arch at the edge of the harbour that is one of the country’s most enduring symbols. To get to it, we had to walk through yet more metal detectors as police watched carefully. “This is new,” whispered our tour guide.
The Taj sits just a few hundred yards from the gateway, and we began to make our way there for the afternoon ceremony. More sentries, more metal detectors. But finally we entered a beautifully restored lobby where waiters moved effortlessly among us, offering cold coffee drinks or orange juice. You could not tell that just three weeks earlier, this place had been in tatters.
“There has been a lot written about how the affluent classes have suddenly woken up because it was their watering holes that were attacked,” said Anand Mahindra, head of the auto manufacturer Mahindra and Mahindra Ltd. “It would be hard to argue against the idea that that’s what made this different.”
The Taj, more than anyplace else, was always associated with “making it” in India, where even now, it is still the place where the wealthy meet to shop and eat and socialize. On this day, though, the Indian elite had come to pray and pay homage. Here, finally, it felt like New York after 9/11. In a corner of the lobby, behind a new sheet of glass, was a piece of art, called “The Tree of Life,” which had survived unscathed. It had been moved to the lobby. Next to it was a plaque listing the names of the 31 people who had died in the Taj during the siege. All around the room were remembrance books where guests could write their good wishes.
Large parts of the Taj—especially the original structure—are still not open and won’t be for months. But the newer tower section, with its 200 rooms, was ready, as were sections of the old wing, which holds the hotel’s five restaurants and its upscale shops. We stood in sombre silence as the Indian national anthem was played, followed by a lengthy series of prayers representing five faiths including Zoroastrianism, the original faith of Jamshedji Tata. Then, the speeches, each more heartfelt than the next. “We can be hurt, but we can’t be knocked down,” said Ratan Tata, the grand-nephew of Jamshedji, and the current head of Tata. He sounded like Richard Grasso reopening the New York Stock Exchange after 9/11. The elite cheered. A few minutes earlier, there had been a procession of every employee who was on duty that fateful night; many had bravely gotten guests out of the hotel alive. We applauded as they walked through the lobby. Nobody said a word. Afterward, the Taj served a formal tea.
We left the Taj an hour later, and walked into a beautiful Mumbai evening. The sun was just setting. My girlfriend decided to walk toward a stone wall that separated the street from the Arabian Sea, a stone’s throw away. But before she had taken 10 steps, she was stopped by a police guard. No, he waved, you’re not allowed to go any farther. She stepped back sadly. She asked if she could take a picture of the hotel. He conferred with a colleague and nodded yes, gravely. Under the watchful eye of security, we pointed our camera at one of the Taj’s grand old turrets and snapped away.
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First Published: Thu, Jan 01 2009. 08 30 PM IST
More Topics: Mumbai Attacks | 26/11 | New York | India | Terrorism |