MADRAS, India — A day after maximum terror struck India’s financial capital, Bombay, the city of 17 million people was back on its feet. Even London took four days after last July’s explosions to get over the shock and trauma.
On July 11, a series of seven bombs ripped apart Bombay’s suburban railway coaches and platforms in different places during the peak of the evening rush hour, killing about 200 people and injuring 700. But the next day the city appeared perfectly normal with schools, colleges and offices marking full attendance. Trains were running on the devastated stretch, rails having been repaired in record time, and planes were flying in and out on time.
Acting as a barometer of this normality was the Bombay Stock Exchange. On Wednesday, the Sensex jumped 315 points to the highest close in two months, thus conveying resilience. Although the stock market was bullish partly because of the excellent half-yearly results of one major information-technology company, the fact is that fears of a steep slide were misplaced. Foreign investors poured money in last Wednesday, rubbing shoulders in solidarity with the people of Bombay. The stock market seemed to scream, “The city cannot be cowed.”
Often called “Magic City,” Bombay is one of India’s most professional centers with a group of people whose fortitude has been tested time and again. No other city in the world has had to face serial bombings on the scale that Bombay has in the past 15 years. In August 2003, explosions at the historic Gateway of India killed 52 people and wounded over 150. Serial bombings in 1993 were the worst that independent India has ever seen: Bombay lost 300 of its men, women and children.
Every time tragedy hits, the city gets back on its feet, dusts the ashes off its spirit and goes back to helping those bereaved and in distress. A recent Reader’s Digest survey that said Bombay was the least polite and courteous of the cities studied could not have more off the mark. Obviously, the surveyors did not understand the metropolis and its citizens.
One saw an unmistakable sign of Bombay’s humane heart July 11, when thousands of ordinary people came out of their homes and offices to rush the injured to hospitals, trace the kin of the dead and offer food and water to those stranded in shock and grief. Long lines of people could be seen outside hospitals waiting to donate blood.
This is Bombay’s remarkable helping hand that writer Suketu Mehta pointed out in “Maximum City,” which was short-listed for the Guardian First Book Award. Let us take one paragraph from the book that so rightly demolishes the Reader’s Digest conclusion.
Mehta writes: “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.”
Such camaraderie never stops or wanes, much like a circus, which goes on night after night, day after day. Most poignantly brought out in a Bollywood film, “Kal, Aaj Aur Kal (Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow),” by legendary actor-director Raj Kapoor, this concept of ceaseless show is presented as being akin to Bombay, which never says die, and continues with the show of life.
The city is at its plucky best in times of crises. Salman Rushdie, often described as Bombay’s best chronicler, wrote in “The Moor’s Last Sigh”: “Those who hated India, those who sought to ruin it, would need to ruin Bombay.”
But the metropolis refuses to let anybody do that. Home to many multinational companies and to all those millions of people whose dream is to make money, Bombay lives not by the dictum of any dominant culture or faith or even language, but by the courage of its conviction. Move ahead fearlessly, and if a fellow traveler slips, a hand must be extended to steady him.
It is this remarkable attitude that has seen Bombay emerge unscathed from terror-induced disasters. Many analysts believe that the city’s 1993 serial explosions were a dress rehearsal for the attacks that followed a decade later in London, Madrid and New York. While these cities stumbled or even buckled under such frightening terror, Bombay stood unshaken, its wonderful plurality offering shelter to just about everybody. Whether it is to one who shines shoes, hawks food, sells gold in a plush shop, executes huge corporate plans or acts in the glittering movie world, Bombay makes no distinction.
It is perhaps this strength of fellowship that frustrates the perpetrators of a crime like that of July 11. There was no communal flareup, which could have torn apart the amity between India’s Muslims and Hindus and given terror groups a chance to recruit hundreds of men and pave a fresh road to pursue evil.
Bombay has stopped them.
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