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11.28.08

Mumbai Memoir

An Indian scholar and journalist reflects on the open and secular and trusting society his parents knew, and hopes that, in spite of the attacks, all Indians will too.

There’s a major square in South Mumbai—a busy intersection, really—that mirrors the open, secular and trusting society that India has always been.

In and around the square, there are small haberdasheries run by Hindus and groceries owned by Muslims; there’s a Parsi fire temple; there’s a Catholic church; there’s a theater that exhibits brash foreign films, and another one that features Bollywood fare. There are tiny eateries that offer everything from samosas to sandwiches. There are cobblers parked on pavements; there are tailors perched on the patios of dilapidated but crowded tenements, and there are bookstores and magazine kiosks.

This square, like many others across this metropolis of nearly 20 million people, is a microcosm of Mumbai, India’s commercial capital and its most cosmopolitan and ethnically diverse city. I like to think that this square is Mumbai’s crossroads; I even like to think that this square is India’s crossroads.

The age of confrontation is here now, perhaps irreversibly so. I fear that there may even be communal violence, undertaken in the dubious cause of vengeance. Who knows?

I like to think these things not only because the square—called “chowk” in the Marathi language that’s widely spoken in Mumbai—is named after my late mother, Professor Charusheela Gupte. She was a Marathi and Sanskrit scholar, a writer, and a social activist who championed the cause of literacy for dispossessed children and of economic opportunities for women, particularly in slums and in the rural regions surrounding Mumbai. During her long lifetime, she witnessed the transformation of India from a colony of the British Raj to an independent democracy. She spoke up for people who had no voice in public discourse, nor the means to speak truth to power, not even the opportunity to advance beyond subsistence. She spoke from her heart because she herself had risen from poverty to reach the highest levels of intellectual and social attainment.

My mother is long gone now, but I like to think that the square named in her honor by a grateful city still resonates with the spirit that animated her life—the spirit of openness, secular and trust that resides in the hearts of most Indians, regardless of their faith or ethnicity.

The square that’s named after Charusheela Gupte is not very far from the carnage that’s severely testing that spirit in Mumbai right now. My mother would have never anticipated that terrorism would strike the old and hauntingly beautiful city she loved; had she been alive, I know she would have rushed to Mumbai’s hospitals and densely populated neighborhoods to comfort those who have been brutalized. My late father, Balkrishna Gupte—a lawyer and banker—would have surely accompanied her, for it is also in the nature of Indians to demonstrate that extending a helping hand to others traditionally starts with lending unconditional support to your own spouse and family members.

I belong to a different generation, of course. My parents gave me the gift of a privileged upbringing, a gift that flowed from their sweat and sacrifices. My own privilege has been that of seeing a wider world where technology has brought societies closer; my misfortune has been that this world is more cynical, more competitive, more terrifying and more unforgiving than the one my parents inhabited. It is not that communalism and ethnic friction were nonexistent during my parents’ lifetime. But the global clash of civilizations, and the venom and hatred that are concomitant today, simply didn’t exist in the world that they knew. They would have been saddened by the clash, and even though they were both informed and knowing citizens—and certainly not naïve—I know they would have been surprised by the events of the two decades since their demise.

I’ve lived a different life from them, to be sure. In my own journalistic career spanning four decades and virtually every continent, I have been a witness to that clash. And now I am seeing it come suddenly and brutally to my home, to my native city of Mumbai, where the soundtrack of my childhood was the cacophony of myriad lilting languages; where the visuals were those of Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs and Christians and Jews and Parsis and Buddhists greet one another warmly during their feasts and festivals and in everyday life, too; and where the ambitions of my youth were predicated on cooperation, not confrontation.

The age of confrontation is here now, perhaps irreversibly so. There will be continuing speculation and conjecture over the next many months about the terrorists who held hostages in Mumbai, who hit at the heart of India’s commerce, who shut down an entire city, who drove people to panic, who killed innocent men and women. There will be endless debate about the perpetrators’ motives and malevolence. I fear that there may even be communal violence, undertaken in the dubious cause of vengeance. Who knows?

But this much I know: India will always be an open and secular and trusting society. It may be forced to become a more wary one on account of the exigencies of our time, and indeed the culture of laxity concerning matters such as security that make India so vulnerable is going to have to be injected with more discipline and stricter measures to ensure public safety.

Those are technical issues, however. All nations need to protect themselves in their self-interest. But I talk here about matters of the heart, of an enduring spirit that embraces everyone, regardless of covenant and communion and community. I speak in the hope that our mutual suspicions will be lessened, I speak in the hope that our rhetoric of blame will be softened, I speak in the hope that Indians never abandon the essential elements that have characterized our vast land for millennia—tolerance and understanding.

I speak in the language that Charusheela and Balkrishna Gupte spoke in their time, in the language they would still have spoken despite the drama that’s shredding the fabric of Mumbai’s society. I am their son, and I like to think that their spirit lives in me. I like to think that it is a universal spirit, that its essence is no less true today than it was in their much simpler time. My parents believed that while people may have been born to different cultures, they were joined by the bonds of the soul. I subscribe to that belief, and I invite everybody to share it, now more than ever before.

Pranay Gupte, a veteran international journalist, editor, author, and media consultant, is Director of Special Media Projects in the Executive Office of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates, and Ruler of Dubai.