"Those who hated India, those who sought to ruin it, would need to ruin Bombay." —Salman Rushdie, "The Moor’s Last Sigh" (1995)
They keep doing it, attacking the city of my birth, with sickening regularity. In 1993, weeks after a Hindu mob destroyed a medieval mosque in Ayodhya in northern India, terrorist groups struck in Bombay (as Mumbai was known then). Those simultaneous bomb blasts at strategic locations claimed some 257 lives, hitting the city’s passport office, the Air India Building, and other landmarks. It was like a dress rehearsal of the kind of coordinated bomb blasts that hit cities like London, Madrid, and more spectacularly New York, later.
In 2003, a bomb blast near the Gateway of India in Mumbai killed 52 people. In July 2006, seven synchronized bomb blasts in the city’s suburban trains killed 209 more. Then, on November 26, 2008, a bunch of Pakistanis daringly attacked two luxurious hotels, the city’s crowded main railway station, and a Jewish house, killing some 166 people, laying a siege that lasted three days. And now, one more time, a few hours ago. At the time of writing, three crowded locations have been attacked, and 18 people have died, 131 injured.
Many of the suspects in these attacks have been Muslim, and Indian intelligence has blamed Pakistan for inspiring and encouraging such violence. The attacks of 2008 showed how the attackers were from rogue groups in Pakistan, allegedly linked to the country’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence.
It is hard to divine the rationale of terrorists, but it is easy to see why India’s commercial capital continues to get attacked. It is an open city, an island surrounded by sea, and being a trading city, it welcomes outsiders. Its success shows India at its best—a polyglot city that always aspires, where people celebrate upward mobility, where the narrow divisions that separate people matter less, because it values commerce above religion, language, caste, or creed.
Such attacks are meant to provoke a reaction: the extremists would like Hindu mobs to go out attacking Muslims, creating a wider, deeper crisis in India. Other cities have succumbed to such instincts (and Mumbai too has, in 1993). Delhi did in 1984, after two Sikh bodyguards assassinated Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and in the retaliatory rioting that followed, thousands of Sikhs were killed. Then in 2002, after a Muslim mob allegedly torched a train compartment, killing 58 Hindu activists, Hindus in Gujarat hit back, killing hundreds of Muslims.
The 1993 exception apart, Mumbai has avoided that destructive trap. And as we now see, equally remarkably, hours after the blasts with blood still on the streets, the city has sprung back to life, because life goes on in Mumbai. Buses have continued to run, taxis are available on the streets, trains have kept their schedule, and drivers are offering rides to strangers stranded in the city. Take a moment to follow hashtags like #Happy2help and #Mumbaiblasts on Twitter, and you will find heart-warming stories, of individuals connecting with one another, offering help—blood, food, a bed for the night, a ride home, becoming town criers helping to locate missing people—spontaneously. The city keeps taking these blows and, in spite of the repeated attacks, continues to maintain its innate sense of decency.
After the bomb blasts of 1993, the city’s residents tended to joke: "It takes more than Semtex [the type of explosives used] to shake Sensex [the city’s stock-exchange index].” Subsequent blasts dampened the spirit somewhat, even as the rest of India began trotting out those old clichés about the city—its
resilience, its spirit. Mumbai took those compliments well initially, but now its residents are tired and angry, even though their stoic courage remains undimmed. Is it resilience or resignation, some have asked now. Is it courage or callousness, others have wondered. What will shake Mumbai out of its ability to accept blows?
Mumbai doesn’t retaliate perhaps because it is a practical, trading city. This is where money talks and equalizes relations. It is a city on the sea, open to the outsider, willing to do a deal with the one arriving from distant shores. It doesn’t want to miss any opportunity to make a buck, and that buck has no color, no creed, no faith, and no language.
This obsession with success, and money, also means withdrawal from politics. In parliamentary elections the year after the 2008 attacks, in South Mumbai, the elite constituency that bore the brunt of the violence, voter turnout was abysmally low. It was as if the city’s wealthy and elite opted out of India’s political process. (South Mumbai is possibly India’s most prosperous constituency.) They thrive in spite of the politicians, just as other residents of the city survive despite the politicians. This city’s heroes are cricketers, Bollywood stars, businessmen, stockbrokers, and entrepreneurs.
With its face to the west, Mumbai has been India’s most outward-looking, cosmopolitan city. It welcomes the newcomer, who blends in, and finds a job within days of arrival. However squalid the surroundings in the slum may be where he finds his home, he goes to bed dreaming of a better tomorrow. And the city judges him depending on his ability to be commercially useful. There are visible income disparities and inequalities, but people keep voting with their feet, and coming to the city.
Such cities live on trust. In Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, the magnificent biography of Mumbai, the New York–based author Suketu Mehta describes a scene familiar to many: “In the crowded suburban trains, you can run up to the packed compartments and find many hands stretching out to grab you on board, unfolding outwards from the train like petals ... And at the moment of contact, they do not know if the hand that is reaching for theirs belongs to a Hindu or Muslim or Christian or Brahmin or untouchable, or whether you were born in this city or arrived only this morning. All they know is that you're trying to get to the city of gold, and that's enough. Come on board, they say. We'll adjust.”
Some think that has changed. They point out the young leaving the city for other places—Gurgaon, Bangalore, Pune. They talk of the rise of chauvinist political parties, the Shiv Sena and its rival, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (Maharashtra Reformation Army). They remind the nostalgic that the Shiv Sena succeeded in changing the city’s name from the internationally recognized Bombay to the parochial-sounding Mumbai. They highlight how Muslims and other minorities, like working women who are single and meat eaters, find it hard to rent an apartment from conservative owners who discriminate against them with impunity.
But it remains a city of intertwined lives, because no singular culture dominates the city. It is a place of pluralities, not majority. That prevents it from being torn apart. Great trading cities relish hybridity. And Mumbai is the tawa (a flat pan) where pao bhaji (a popular dish of buttered fried bread and curried vegetables) is cooked, the ingredients blending together to create a sizzling, spicy mishmash of a meal. Rushdie, the city’s finest chronicler in fiction, wrote: “Bombay, a relatively new city in an immense, ancient land, is not interested in yesterdays. In Bombay, all Indias met and merged. Bombay was central; all rivers flowed into its human sea. It was an ocean of stories, we were all its narrators, and everybody talked at once. What magic was stirred into that insaan-soup (the soup of humanity), what harmony emerged from that cacophony!"
It is a fragile city—but it doesn’t disintegrate.