Bambai Meri Jaan!4 min read . Updated: 25 Nov 2009, 09:47 PM IST
Bambai Meri Jaan!
Bambai Meri Jaan!
This is what did not happen.
In the days after Mumbai lay bleeding a year ago, there were no mobs going around looking for Muslims to kill. Crowds had watched the drama, transfixed; hundreds held candlelight vigils; but in the end, they went about their business. Mumbai, after all, is the city for business. It has little time for politicians: When they are not arranging sightseeing tours of scenes of crime, they are busy trying to keep “outsiders" out of the city. This is a city that cares for its cricketers and movie stars, businessmen and stockbrokers, not its politicians—it doesn’t need them; they can only do harm.
When politicians drive the agenda of cities, those cities erupt. Politicians divide people; they remind people of their narrower identities.
If you follow the perverse logic of India’s eye-for-an-eye riots, there was ample provocation in Mumbai a year ago. The terrorists were Pakistani; they claimed to be acting in the name of their religion; and they wanted to kill as many as they could, caste no bar, creed no bar.
The city understood instinctively the difference between the individual and the collective, between those from within and those from without. It did not pour its rage on its own.
That’s why Mumbai did not go the way of New Delhi in 1984, where two bodyguards who happened to be Sikh had assassinated Indira Gandhi. A great tree had fallen; someone decided the earth had to shake. Congress party workers, guided by some of their leaders, went around from ward to ward in the nation’s capital, looking for Sikh families, destroying property, killing people. A quarter-century later, those victims still await justice.
Nor did Mumbai react like Gujarat did in 2002. There, its chief minister failed to protect Muslims who had nothing to do with the burning of a train in Godhra, but who ended up paying with their lives because Hindus in Gujarat decided that the state’s Muslims must bear the collective guilt and face the punishment for what had happened in Godhra. When frightened Muslims sought help from the authorities, the police told them: “We have no orders to protect you." The chief minister thought this is what Newton meant when he described the laws of action and reaction. Seven years later, some Indians think of him as a potential prime minister; Americans have denied him a visa.
Why did Mumbai react the way it did? Is it the spirit of Mumbai, a phrase which has now become hackneyed, making many of its helpless citizens justifiably angry, because it implies that their city is an unthinking, callous robot going about its business unemotionally, as if nothing has happened, each time there is a terrorist outrage? Life is tough in the city: People get crammed in suburban trains for hours to get to work; when rains stop all transport, they walk. When there are bomb blasts, they think of different ways to get home. Ay dil, hai mushkil, jeena yahaan; zara hath ke, zara bach ke, yeh hai Bambai, meri jaan! (My heart, to live here ain’t easy, you got to push, to shove; step aside, be careful, this is Bombay, my love!)
True, there are dishonourable exceptions. If Bal Thackeray hounded “Madrasis" in the 1970s, the Sikhs in the 1980s, and non-Marathi speakers all the time, followers of his nephew Raj are busy beating up “outsiders" whose presence makes the city what it is, or was, before it was forced to retreat into this narrow identity called Mumbai. Scratch that, and you will find that old good bay, Bom Bahia, Bombay. It is an open city, as port cities tend to be: Salman Rushdie had astutely observed that the city’s map looked like an arm outstretched, yearning to shake hands. Many years later, in Maximum City, Suketu Mehta was to resurrect that image, describing the train picking up speed, arms reaching out to grasp the arms of those not yet in the train, who want to be lifted up and become part of the sea of humanity.
In any other city, that arm would have become a fist; in Mumbai, it took you in because, being a trading city, it valued human contact and interaction. And so the city welcomed all, and didn’t shrink, nor shirk. It encompassed the largeness of India. When asked about his identity, Sachin Tendulkar said he was a proud Maharashtrian, but an Indian first. When thugs tried to beat up an elderly Bohra couple in early 1993, Sunil Gavaskar stepped out and stood between the couple and the thugs—an act as courageous as facing Dennis Lillee without a helmet.
That’s the spirit of Mumbai that the Thackerays now, and those terrorists a year ago, have tried to destroy. They won’t win. A year later, we mourn those who died, and salute those who tried to protect them. And celebrate this multi-everything city. If only the rest of India were like that!
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org