30 April 2009:
I had forgotten to remove my name from the old voter’s list and onto the list where I am currently staying. Result? I had to drive to a different polling booth and vote. So with the enthusiasm borne of one fed-up with the status quo and (like most) expecting to find solidarity with others, I went to my voting centre bright, enthusiastic and early (ok, my version of early) at 9:30 am. It was in an old municipal school in a nondescript location opposite a roadside slum (as are most things in Bombay!). I was encouraged by the number of people lined outside the centre. There were volunteers all over to tell you your number on the list along with the booth number to go to within the centre. This was part of the election commission’s promise to ensure that the entire voting process take no more than 80 seconds from the time the citizen enters the centre to casting his/her vote. I took 30 seconds…I went to the booth, confirmed my existence on the list, got my finger nails unnecessarily slobbered by ink, voted and was out – all in 30 seconds….why? I was the only one voting in that booth!
The story would be the same in various booths around the city. The newspapers the next day were full of headlines about how the voting percentage dipped below 50% in Bombay when in violence-ridden Chhatisgarh, over 55% of the voters braved the heat and bullets to vote. The expectations were high – – – after 26/11 and in spite of it, Mumbai was still apathetic! The nation was aghast. I was surprised, but it was not unexpected.
26 November 2008:
I get a call from my mum who is almost in hysterics around 10pm – did you see what is happening in Bombay? Turn on the TV right now? What? I ask. Terrorists in Bombay, she answers. Not again, I think – but then again, how bad could it be? Plus these things are usually over in a few hours right? Wrong. Like most people in India, I was glued to the television until it was time to go to work. At work, I logged in to any news site streaming free live news to get information. I frantically called/messaged friends I knew who worked with the media and who I knew would be reporting to find out if they were still alive. My boss asked me to do something, I nearly said, on a day like this? how can you ask me to do anything? (Thank God I didn’t or I would have been unemployed right now). This went on for three whole days during which I got news from friends, ex-colleagues, and acquaintances who managed to get out of those places where the violence was happening within minutes to spare, people whose family members were trapped in the locations (and some whose family members died as a result). By the time this mess was over, one terrorist was caught alive, some were killed and the city was scarred in a way that other terrorist attacks were not able to achieve. The news channels predictably spoke about whether politicians relied too much on Bombay’s spirit while the politicians predictably crept into their hidey-holes only to emerge out of them when significant security was available. Buoyed on by the mass media, candlelight vigils were held in various places throughout the country. The night they held a candlelight vigil in Delhi, I drove to India Gate and saw the protesters, but could not bring myself to join in. I drove back home and did the best thing I knew to do at a time like this – – I went home to walk the streets of Bombay.
5 December 2008:
I reached Bombay and visited a few people I knew. The first was a friend who worked in the Kalaghoda area of Bombay – an area smack in the middle of the route between VT station and the Taj Hotel. She reached home that day, but spoke of how everything was quiet and how the roads were erringly clear at the other end of Bombay. Another friend who worked for the media had stayed in the office for two days – it was, of course, breaking news time. The concern here was personal – colleagues she worked with regularly were in the direct line of fire. She spoke of whizzing bullets, gun shots and a general sense of chaos. A third friend who also works with the media could not meet me that day. She was visiting two camera-men who got shot while she was reporting. Another friend told me of how he left the Taj the shooting began. He had to meet someone for a meeting an hour later but “didn’t feel like it” and so cancelled; he missed the shooting by 1 hour. One of my students’ father died a little away from one of the hotels; she was not answering any one’s calls.
A few of my students decided to get together for dinner for a celebration of sorts; they had originally planned to go to Leopold Café, but at the last minute decided to go to a restaurant in the Metro area of Bombay. They normally travelled Bombay’s Central Railway trains back home; but on the 26th, they felt lazy and decided to take a cab home. They heard the shots as they were nearing GT hospital and thought a car’s tire had exploded and carried on their merry way….thankfully!
I also met my mother’s old school teacher, Ms. H, who happens to be a Jew. Ms. H is a character; her hair is shock-white and has been for as long as I can remember. Bombay has had a small, but significant Jewish community even before Independence. Those numbers dwindled post-Independence when they moved to Israel and to other parts of the world in hoards. When asked why she did not choose to move, Ms. H said, I am an Indian first, a citizen of Bombay second and then, a Jew. The legend goes thus: as long as Ms. H stays in Bombay, there will be a flourishing Jewish community here! She lives in an old building in Bombay that looks like it has not been renovated since the day it was constructed. Entering her flat is like entering 1950s Bombay, the construction and the furniture. Her TV is of the old wooden type housed in a wooden cabinet with sliding slated doors. She even has an old single-door steel GE fridge in which she keeps biscuits and snacks (she doesn’t cook). Her life consists of giving tuitions which fund her various trips abroad to see family and friends, and attending plays and musical reviews. Her friends include her ex-students and their children and their children! And, of course, she has her links with the rest of the Jewish community in Bombay.
When I went to see her, she ordered pizzas for the two of us and sat down to talk. And talk she did; the rabbi and his wife were well known and respected members of the Jewish community in Bombay. She described their son as delightful. She had met them only the week before for dinner. When the unspeakable happened, she said that the entire community was in shock. “I have roamed the streets of this city without fear since I was a little girl and today I feel a real threat. Our community has always felt safe in India, why now?” Why now indeed. Very unusually for her, she had stopped going out in the evenings unless she was sure of a ride home. Even trips to Marine Drive for her favourite kulfi ice-cream were down to a necessary minimum.
My Muslim neighbours from the place we previously stayed at are lovely family of six – father, mother, grandmother, and three boys. The youngest was not yet two when they moved opposite us. With two older brothers who were at least 7 years older than he was, he ended up spending all his time in our house going home only to sleep. He was my little brother; he was also a HUGE pest. He would be under my feet every chance he got, making me grateful that I was an only child! But he was also incredibly sweet and gentle for one so young. As he grew up he had a brood of cousins, all younger than he was, who were placed under his care. At the tender age of 8, he never said a word as his cousins crawled over him, hitting him and biting his ears (which would stick out of his head in the most adorable manner). The little pest grew up and decided that hotel management was the way to go. When I spoke to him before the new year of 2008 he was excited about starting the first of his two internship placements. Apparently this is what students in a Hotel Management course do – they serve in the hotels as banquet staff, waiters, housekeeping etc., learning as they climb up from the bottom rung. He was going to be serving at the Taj on New Year’s eve. For those three days in November 2008 when the phones were not working, all I could think of was where was this boy and why was he not answering the phone. The news reports of young boys in the Taj (students like the little pest) who shielded guests from the bullets (sometimes with their own bodies) kept playing on and on in my mind. Selfishly then, I prayed that he would not be one of the brave ones. Finally, one day before I left for Bombay, I managed to speak with him. My first thought was – Thank God he is alive! He told me how, that day, without telling his mother where he was, he went to volunteer with Saifee Ambulance Service. He was outside the Taj for two days serving coffee and sandwiches to people as they came out, helping them to the ambulances and accompanying them when necessary. My second thought was, how soon could I go to Bombay and murder him for his madness? I couldn’t stop shouting at him, you could have been killed! His classmates and friends were inside, he said. He couldn’t sit and do nothing.
8 December 2008:
I walked my old college route – Metro, via Xavier’s past the BMC office and VT station, down Fountain, under the stone arches of what is now HSBC and Standard Chartered Bank, behind the old Bombay University Campus and High Court, past Kalaghoda and the Prince of Wales Museum, down the road towards the Taj and finally stopped at the Gateway. It was a route we walked many many times as students because we couldn’t afford cabs or buses if we were saving up for a movie. All along the route (and increasingly as you approached Taj), there was security cordoning off parts of the road. For the first time I saw a police battalion at Gateway (with guns). The Taj was boarded with white boards and the whole place was erringly quiet. Even the tourists who had come prepared with their cell phone cameras somehow kept to a low murmur. The city, it seemed, was taking stock…licking her wounds; her people were playing a waiting game to see when, as is the case with most people in Bombay, could they get back onto the local trains without fear … back to the business of living in Bombay.
30 April 2009:
This election, India votes in five phases. Voting day in each phase is a local holiday to enable people to go to vote anytime from 7am to 5pm. In Bombay, rather than a full day’s holiday (do you know how much monetary loss that will turn into?), the city’s firms allowed their employees the freedom to come in a little late after having voted, or leave a little early to go and vote. At the booths, there were good – disucssions regarding the uselessness of the politicians (a fact in Bombay), where money flows into every willing pocket and the people succeed in spite of it all, so who do we vote for? Decisions about who to vote for, it seems, were being made right into the polling booth! There were also those who stood in the lines (a significant number) who said they were going to go in and NOT vote for anyone. Then there were those who did not vote – What is the use? they said, the roads will remain the same, the transport system will be non-functional and the cost of living will remain high. Terror, it seems will not decide the [non-]vote in Bombay, basic services and amenities will.
Two days later, I flew back to Delhi; the results will be declared on 16th May.