Bombay, Mumbai, ‘Slumbai’, whatever we may individually choose to call it, has always been the uncontested winner of another title, “The city that never sleeps”. But, for once the citizens of this proud city were awake all night, not for work or play, but the sheer horror of the terrorist violence inflicted on its very being.
The loss of more than a hundred innocent lives can never be compensated, and I cried for the many people who would never come back home that night to their loved ones. But I also shed tears for the “Grand Old Lady of Bombay”, the Taj Mahal Hotel. In 2002, I was part of the team working to restore the historic stone work in the heritage wing, in time for its 100th year celebrations. The Grand Old Lady looked resplendent on her 100th birthday party in 2003, spruced up and ready to receive her guests. Today, as I hear grenades blasting through the monumental stairwell and see smoke billowing out of its lofty dome, it breaks my heart. One of the city’s most iconic symbols is burning, as if to symbolize the end of an era of carefree revelry, music and laughter. And, yet in its blazing fires, it still stood tall, with dignity, as if to remind the citizens, that come what may, we have to stand up to face this crisis.
It is not a random coincidence that terrorists have always picked on the most visible heritage buildings of the city as targets for their strike. It was the Gateway of India in 2003 and now the World Heritage Site of CST (Victoria Terminus) and the Taj Mahal Hotel. Because, what the terrorist wants to strike at, is not only the hardware of a city, but also its software, its most visible symbols, its icons. And what better way of scarring a city’s collective psyche than to target its heritage landmarks?
The metropolis of Mumbai is a complex matrix of the physical, functional and psychological realms that make up the intrinsic dynamics of its buzzing urban life. While the physical, infrastructural and functional realms are more tangible, what really defines the city’s spirit is its psychological space. This is made up of the city’s icons, its aspirations and the sum total of its public memories. Heritage structures inhabit this realm and therefore, inflicting a wound on a Taj Mahal hotel or a CST Station leaves us all more deeply scarred than we may consciously accept.
I salute the Taj Group’s resolve to restore every inch of the hotel, and it stems from the steely resolve of its founder Jamsetji Tata who built this magnificent hotel in the face of humiliation when he was turned out of the elite Watsons’ Hotel because of the colour of his skin. Today, let us all Mumbaikars, Bombayites, North Indians, western Indians, Maharashtrians and non Maharashtrians forget our differences and unite as one great mass of citizenry to prove to ourselves and to the world that we can rise from the flames and rebuild our battered city.
Abha Narain Lambah is a Mumbai-based conservation architect who has worked on many historic buildings in the city.