Friday, 28 November 2008

Mumbai under attack

Having lived and worked in Mumbai for a while you can not imagine how surprised and shocked I was when my London home phone rang last Wednesday. I just came back from work and was considering whether I should go to the gym or join my friend for a movie. Then my phone rang and it was my old friend Rohan, who lives in North-Mumbai. ‘Turn on your TV, you are not going to believe this’ was old he said. When I turned on the BBC I saw the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai’s posh Colaba area was attacked. The impossible had happened.

Ever since I had arrived in Mumay, this hotel is a place I came at least one a week, to meet friends for drinks, to use their excellent business centre or travel agency, to have a bit in their nice ‘Golden Dragon’ restaurant or zip a Long island ice tea in the Harbour Bar, which was India’s first licensed bar in 1903. It’s the hotel where I stayed with my family last Christmas and the place where I first went on a date after I had moved to Mumbai. I attended weddings there (right), business events and birthday party's.
'What’s happening?’ I asked Rohan, being in a state of complete disbelief. But before he could answer another reporter appeared in front of a very familiar restaurant, café Leopold’s. ‘Gunmen opened fire at the crowd less than two hours ago. More than 70 people have reportedly been killed across town.’ Leopold’s! A place I will always remember, treasure and love. I took my friend David there, had a crazy time with my friend Joseph when he came over from London and many, many nights I came down for their cheap beer and enjoyed the tourist gossip. To see that place smeared with blood and the smell of death, it is surreal. These things do not happen in Mumbai, India’s biggest city and commercial capital. And certainly not in the posh deep south of Mumbai, Colaba. The West End of Mumbai, the Manhattan of India. The Taj, the Oberoi or Leopolds, places where you meet friends, lovers, tourists, businessmen, royalty and the Bollywood A-list. They were safe havens, vibrant, alive, cosmopolitan. Watching the sunset at the Dome bar, a beer at Leo’s or a dance at Polly Esther’s, and going in between places by foot or a short rickshaw drive. No security, no guards, no metal detectors. Suddenly that does not seem so logical anymore. Strolling the streets of Colaba at 3 am, like I did dozens of times, was one of my favourite activities, since the climate encouraged me to live at night.
After having seen the images on TV and Rohan had explained me the facts, I admitted to myself I hated this happened after I had left Mumbai. As a journalist you feel a natural desire to follow and analyse the news, if not to be part of it. But that feeling was not there for long. next day, on Thursday morning, I had my Australian friend Richard on the phone. He has been living in Mumbai for three years and has seen it all. ‘It’s different man, I have never seen this before. You can feel it,’ he says ‘Nobody goes out unless you have to and all the tourists seemed to have disappeared. And this time it seems to be targeted at us.’ He confirmed what the newspapers were saying; the captors were looking for people with American and British passports. Nevertheless, random Indians were attacked too. The extremists had opened fire at CST Station, formerly known as Victoria Station, in the heart of the city. In the station hall (below) several people were killed and hurt by a rain of bullets. ‘I think things will change man’ Richard continues ‘the next couple of months will be full of hostilities. Hindu’s versus Muslims, Indians versus foreigners, Maharashtra’s versus North-Indians, and so on. I am not gonna walk around drunk in public anymore and Michiel, I am afraid I will have to stay in Bandra and Colaba all the time.’

I am afraid Richard is going to be right. I remember I visited the Indonesian Island of Bali shortly after the second bombings in 2005 and the island was completely empty. Not that I think 19 million people will suddenly disappear, but it is expected that American, European and Australian visitors especially the backpackers and expats’ families, will prefer to stay in other parts of India (like Goa or Agra) or even other countries, and they will avoid Mumbai in the near future. His second point I was not too sure about. Last Wednesday and Thursday not only westeners, christians and jews died, but also hindu's, muslims, sikhs and buddhists were among the victims. It would be naive, however, to think no more relgion and state originated riots and killings are going to take place, not to mention the risk of attempts by certain certain political movements, the local right wing party Shiv Sena in particular, to exploit the current situation and try to gain political benefits.
I guess I was lucky to have lived and worked in this vibrant, lively city in a time I could roam around freely, did whatever I liked and mingled with people from all walks of life. Seeing all these familiar streets and buildings on TV makes me miss Mumbai with all its people in it more than ever, but at the same time I realise I am lucky to be far, far away in a safe London.