SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Once upon a city...

ARUNDHATHI SUBRAMANIAM

Will Mumbai remain Mumbai, still celebrating an irreverent inclusiveness? Or will it give way to ghettos of gated silences?

Once upon a time I lived in a city called Bombay — and Mumbai and Bambai (the word “and” wasn’t yet taboo then).

As students, my friends and I would shop along Colaba Causeway, traipse into Leopold Café for a drink, wander into the Taj bookshop to browse in AC comfort, even treat ourselves (if we were feeling rich) to something at the coffee shop. Many would go off afterwards to catch local trains home with the jaunty air of Mumbai-ites who’ve always known that sanity and mayhem aren’t mutually exclusive. Visitors could never understand it. But we knew that the city — for all its fissured histories — was ours and it was safe. Precarious, yes. Crazy, yes. And safe.

Comfortably numb

I now watch TV in silence. There’s a strange comfort in statistics, in the odd abstract noun. Phrases like “global terror” and “extremism” make me none the wiser, but they help insulate the raw, twitching nerve-fibre of fear. Soon there will be the adrenaline of outrage, and that will be a relief. It will help to shake a fist, even if I don’t know who it must be shaken at. Ineptitude or illiberalism? Apathy or zealotry? The devil or the deep sea? (The sea, of course, having eerily turned more than just metaphorical in the past few days.)

Someone sends a group email entitled, “Mumbai, we will not be divided”. On auto-pilot, I sign. Someone else proposes a public rally at the Gateway of India. I sign. Someone from Colaba writes of how he cowered all night, as the glass panes of his home shattered around him. Someone else says she heard it on the news before she heard the gunfire on her street. She mustered the courage to offer sanctuary to three terrified Taj residents at her door — an Egyptian, an Arab and an Indian. I read of Sabina Saikia’s last sms to her husband: “They’re in my bathroom”.

And so it gets closer. Before you know it, you could be a heap of text messages, pathetic, supplicating, blindly terrified. The final squawk, the last horror is all your own.

The city survived January 1993. It will survive November 2008. Whatever “survival” means. A functional stock market? Another exuberant Ganeshotsav? Another star-studded Page Three soirée? Of course, it will all happen. We will probably seek more desperate refuge in the world of trivia than ever before. But how does one even begin to think about the whimpering, impotent terror hardening into rage, hardening into glazed-eyed hatred — all encoded in the city’s DNA in a matter of hours?

How close must it get? Will there be time to grieve each gutted biography? Or barely enough time to turn around for the next onslaught?

A white curtain at a Taj window flaps inanely in the ocean breeze. And we know what we’re really witnessing is the great pulsating, inclusive world metropolis withdrawing steadily, perhaps irrevocably, into ghettoism, into forbidding gated silences. A city that understood like none other the unifying preposition, and, retreating further and further into either-or, us-them.

Once upon a time I lived in a city called Bombay…

Arundhathi Subramaniam is a poet and cultural critic based in Mumbai.