The Boston that I knew

Those behind the Marathon bombings have not understood the ethos of this great American city, its diversity and the welcome it has extended to generations of students from across the world

Updated - June 10, 2016 08:49 am IST

Published - April 17, 2013 12:37 am IST

I never expected that Boston would be attacked. I never expected that men, women and even children who ran in a traditional race not just competitively but, more for the fun of it, would be attacked.

I never expected this in a hauntingly beautiful old city where I came of age, that place where people like me from all over the world gathered to gain knowledge. They came over the centuries to trade ideas, and they came to reinforce universal ideals such as freedom of speech and movement. They came to challenge one another’s ideologies, to be sure, but they did not come to assault innocent human beings.

They came, most of all, because Boston — one of America’s oldest urban centres — was forever young. And it was always understood that by coming to Boston, one was tapping into some strange elixir of youth — that one, too, would remain forever young, forever the keeper of good thoughts and good will. If Boston didn’t keep you forever young in heart and spirit, then which place could? If Boston didn’t teach you to overcome incipient hate and venality, then which place could? If Boston didn’t persuade you to keep your personal violence in check, then which place could?

After Monday’s bomb blasts during the Boston Marathon, my assumptions about the Boston that I knew at a different time and at a different age were suddenly called into question.

Vietnam years

Many decades ago, when times were politically fraught and global cultural tensions were on the rise on account of the Vietnam War, I attended a university in the Boston area. I had come from a relatively conservative background in Mumbai — then known as Bombay — where few students protested in those days. In Boston, however, I was at once struck by how strident students were about the war, how quick they were to defy authority, and how ready they seemed to protest against perceived excesses of the United States government in Southeast Asia.

There were, of course, the occasional acts of violence: throwing stones at policemen, a bank robbery or two by radical youths — these were called “people’s withdrawals” — and, of course, the widespread pamphleteering that had been in tradition in Boston since the 18th century, when American rebels fought for independence from the British. There were loud demonstrations in Boston Commons, and as a reporter for my student newspaper, The Justice , produced at Brandeis University, I covered many of the marches. I still recall the burning in my eyes from the tear gas pellets of anti-riot police.


But even in those days when a great nation’s foreign policy was being challenged domestically, there was nothing like the attacks on innocent people on Monday, when three people, including a child, were killed, and scores of amateur participants in the annual Boston Marathon were injured. If there was a compact among the protesters of my day in America, it was this: You do not assault your own. You certainly do not assault the innocent.

Is there any longer any such a compact? Times are different. Where once America used its forces to fight in foreign lands for causes that made little geopolitical sense — and it still does, although nowhere with the scale and intensity of the conflict in Indochina — now foreigners are militantly bringing their grievances to American shores. The events of September 11, 2001 are forever sketched in our collective memories.

I don’t know who was responsible for the attacks on the marathon on Monday. But whoever they were, I can say this: They were not people who understood the ethos of Boston, let alone imbibed it. If you had learned Boston’s history, its spirit of tolerance, its ethnic diversity, the warm welcome that it has extended to generation after generation of students from all across America and all over the world — if you grasped any of this, would you set off bombs that killed and maimed innocent people as they ran in a 116-year-old race on an overcast day in spring?

In the long hours since the Boston blasts, I spoke with classmates from my days in Boston. Some of them had been radicals themselves in our time, but later found themselves transformed into successful professionals and entrepreneurs and academicians. Life has a way of metamorphosing even the most vociferous young.

“Were we naive back then?” one woman said. “Were we naive to believe that by highlighting the good and condemning the bad, the bad would go away?”

My answer is that it isn’t a question of naiveté. We were young back then, and we believed what we believed. We believed that just as Boston would remain forever young, we too would hold on to our values and ideals throughout our lives. How were we to anticipate that the velocity of global change over the next four decades would be so terrifying, and so difficult to comprehend?

What was naive, perhaps, was our belief that what Boston taught us during those long-ago days of our youth was something also assimilated by others; what may have been naive was the assumption that others would not develop a different agenda in life from ours. Ours was an agenda of positive change, of uplifting of the dispossessed; theirs, as the Boston marathon tragedy showed, was one of brutality against the helpless.

But no matter what the vicissitudes of life, I am still glad that I came of age in Boston, and that it taught me what it did.

(Pranay Gupte’s next book, The Healer: Dr. Prathap Chandra Reddy and The Transformation of India, will be published by Penguin Portfolio in September. E-mail: )

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