Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Wednesday

Happy cities are all alike; every unhappy city is unhappy in its own way.

I got an opportunity to have lunch at the India Jones restaurant in the Trident Hotel yesterday. This hotel stands almost at the end of Marine Drive, arguably one of the most famous promenades in India; part of the quintessential Mumbai skyline. I am sure the view from one of its top floors would be awesome. The bright lights of the city, the criss-crossing of automobiles as they dart up and down the road, the shimmering moonlight in the sea. Mumbai is like a painting and yet not so, for it changes every instant, too swiftly for anyone to dissect or analyse how finely etched the lines are or how deep the brush strokes have been. Before you are finished admiring the picture, a new one comes up.

Later in the day I was walking down the promenade itself. Right till the end portion which juts out into the sea. Along the way I saw many people. All sorts of people. Groups of friends who were out to enjoy the cool breeze, Families who were there for a weekend outing, Couples seeking their own little nook in empty space. Essentially, like trains all running on their own separate tracks. At times they could pause and acknowledge impersonally the presence of one another. But there is never any intrusion. All are free to do their own thing.

On a Saturday evening, the world is buoyant. There’s a quiet enthusiasm which pervades the spirit of one and all. One can choose to reflect on a week well spent and look forward with enthusiasm to the coming future, which will bring with it happiness, good health and prosperity.

Not so on a Wednesday.

If there’s one day which I am unable to understand, it’s Wednesday. There seems to be no ostensible purpose for a Wednesday to exist.

Sundays are for preparing for the week ahead, planning for the things one has to do, the wars that have to be fought, the goals that have to be achieved.

Mondays are for groaning, for blues, for asking people how the weekend was, for just ‘making it through’.

Tuesdays are for shaking the overhang of Monday, for being pessimistic but somewhat less so, for hoping that the week will close fine

Thursdays are when the goals seem within sight, for planning for the weekend, for starting with the beginning of the end.

Fridays are when Saturday is almost at hand, the week has closed, missions have been accomplished, failed ones postponed.

A Wednesday, however, is neither here nor there. Bang in the middle. I never know what to feel on a Wednesday. If there was ever a vestigial day in the week, Wednesday is it. I prefer to just let Wednesdays slip by, without giving them too much thought or attention.

Last year unfortunately, one Wednesday caught the Universe by the collar and made it sit up and take notice. One nondescript little Wednesday, almost exactly a year ago.

I was sleeping at that time having come home from work. It was probably around 11 PM. In the normal course of things, I would have woken up in the morning the next day, gone on with my daily routine and life would have been utterly peaceful and monotonous as usual.

Exactly which vibration or flash of my cell-phone caused me to wake up I don’t know. I got up and looked at the screen. There were many missed calls and messages from an odd combination of people.

The messages spoke of Mumbai being under siege by terrorists. Armed men had infiltrated the Taj and Trident hotels, Nariman House, CST, Leopold Cafe and were holding the city hostage. Firing was on at all these locations. One did not know which other locations were affected.
I don’t remember what my first reaction was. I was quite groggy; Trying to wake up from the dream. After a few minutes of trying to wake up, I realised I was already awake. This was for real.

Everyone else was quietly sleeping in the house. There was no real point in waking them up. I was scared out of my wits, especially out of concern for my friends and office colleagues, many of whom worked in those areas. My office was within 2 kms of all the locations affected.

Frantic calls and messages followed. To just about everyone I knew. Thankfully, no one amongst those I knew was affected. A friend called from Hyderabad, the shakiness in his voice unmistakable. People simply did not know how to react. Anecdotes were told, of having passed by CST 15 minutes before the attacks started, of meetings scheduled at the Trident and cancelled, of deferred decisions to go to Leopold’s for drinks.

The nightmare continued the next day. Cautionary messages were floating all around. The media was enjoying itself thoroughly. NDTV in its coffee table bravado was asking survivors how they felt to have witnessed people getting killed around them. Aaj Tak I did not even dare to switch to. They would probably have declared that the terrorists were a bunch of brainwashed aliens who had landed on earth some 6 months back and linked it with the mysterious disappearance of some cows in Argentina.

Tales were told of the difficulty in flushing out the terrorists. How they were dodging the NSG, defying death to the point of torturous frustration. Generously helped the magnanimous news channels which were broadcasting each and every move of the official forces in exclusive-scoop enhanced detail.

It was a perplexing experience for everyone involved. The city knew how to handle bomb blasts and bandhs. A bunch of men in random locations firing at will was a tougher proposition to tackle.

I remember chatting with one friend over the Internet, who was subjected to the sounds of gunfire for two days at a stretch, being a Colaba resident. Two days of non-stop gunfire, of uncertainty, of panic, of not knowing what the next shot would signify. We were all just praying for it to end as soon as possible. Solace and comfort seemed very distant indeed.

The terror continued on the next day. I did go to office, it being the last day of the month which typically is a busy time for me. Most banks (with whom I have to interact as part of my work) were operating out of emergency locations with minimal staff. In the afternoon, there were rumours of some terrorists escaping in a van and going towards CST again. Our office doors were shut. Once things were clearer, we were told to leave.

There was an uneasy silence all around, whether real or imagined I do not know. Perhaps I was projecting my own emotions on to my surroundings. It was not the silence of fear, or helplessness however. It was the silence of rage.

As one of the most famous Mumbaikars wrote on his blog then: "As the events of the terrorist attack unfolded in front of me, I did something for the first time and one that I had hoped never ever to be in a situation to do. Before retiring for the night, I pulled out my licensed .32 revolver, loaded it and put it under my pillow, for a very disturbed sleep,"

And as he clarified later, it was not fear which made him do it. It was a realization that he was alone when it came to protecting himself and his family. The inept system did not care, could not handle or be responsible for the safety of citizens, ordinary or extraordinary.

A system in which the Chief Minister came for a grand tour of the affected places along with one of his film director cronies once the terrorists were done with their ravaging. One in which the Home Minister of the country stood guilty of not taking intelligence warnings seriously and allowing hundreds of lives to be lost. One in which a regionalist political party breaks furniture and attacks offices at will, but was nowhere to be seen when it’s beloved city was under attack by national enemies.

And sadly, one in which we still have not fully learnt our lessons. Just a few weeks back I heard a statement by the current Home Minister, who stated in some context related to terrorism “I assure you all that we will give a fitting reply if there were any other untoward incidents in the future”

I see a flaw in his line. A very fundamental flaw in the mindset of the system, which tells me why Mumbai in particular and our country in general have been victimised again and again. Will. The problem is will. It shows that we are always waiting for something to happen and then responding to it. This approach cannot prevent damage and loss of life. When it comes to terrorism,the entire state machinery and intelligence must be directed at the prevention of such attacks rather than cure.

How? How does one tackle the modern terrorist, whose outrages make no sense and are purposeless? How does one reason or negotiate with such people, who, like the Joker in Dark Knight, just want to watch the world burn?

The answer comes from the movie itself. Bruce Wayne, when he is rendered helpless by the web of terror weaved by the Joker, talks to Alfred, his trusted friend philosopher and guide. Earlier in the movie, Alfred had mentioned a bandit in Burma, a bandit who was killing local government emissaries and stealing precious stones just for the fun of it. A bandit like the terrorists of today.

“The bandit in the forest of Burma, did you catch him?” Bruce asks.

“Yes”, says Alfred.

“How?” Asks Bruce.

“We burned the forest down.”

Subsequently, Batman catches the Joker by “burning the forest down” – by infiltrating every cell phone in the city and modifying it to act like a sonar device which can give a fix on the Joker’s location.

So that’s what needs to be done. Every nook, every corner, every store, every bus, every railway station, every computer, every vehicle needs to be “burnt down”. That is the only way.

Holistic cures will take a lot of time. Reforming, understanding root causes, removing poverty etc etc Too much time. They may eventually succeed, but enough damage would have been done by then. Because the problem is large, widespread and already at hand. There is an army of people ready to blow up at a moment’s notice. There are states which are failing.

Yes, privacy is a concern. State interference is a concern. Human rights are a concern. But compared to the price to be paid for such terror, its pie in the sky.

So let us all burn the forest down. By all means. Lets us get our boring, purposeless Wednesdays back again.

For I do not think we have the strength to bear another such Wednesday.