new Things I Ate in Cambodia: Terrorist Attacks in Mumbai: Goddamit

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Terrorist Attacks in Mumbai: Goddamit

Terrorist attacks have been getting more and more frequent in India of late, and the violence was ratcheted up to new extremes today. Mumbai, home of Bollywood, businessmen and some truly impressive slums is burning.

We have to put these things in personal terms, of course. I spent a little over a week in Mumbai, staying in a mid-range hotel a few blocks away from the iconic Taj, where terrorists are (as I write this) holed up with their weapons. Located on the water and within spitting distance of the Gateway of India, it's hard to imagine a more breathtaking hotel, its oh-so-Raj era dome towering over Colaba, recognizable from very far away indeed. (The view from the dome is, not suprisingly, spectacular.) My grandparents have stayed there many times and have told me about it: it did not fail to meet my expecations when I finally made it to Bombay.

I used to walk through the Taj five or six times a day to enjoy the powerful air conditioning and the bathrooms, which always featured an eternally smiling lady in a uniform: she would hand you a towel and a breath mint and send you on your way. I dressed pretty elegantly most days and liked to pretend that the attendants and residents of the hotel thought I belonged there: certainly everyone treated me graciously enough. I liked pausing by the display cases in that long marble hallway to look at the photos of celebrities and foreign dignatries who stayed and partied there: pretty much everyone seemed to have filtered through at one point or another. The cafe was one of the few places in Colaba open all night long and I remember me, my friend Aneesa, her sisters, and her cousins wandered in there just a little teeny bit drunk around 3 AM and drank coffee and slightly unnerved the wait staff: all in good fun. It's happy memories.

Which of course take on a new sort of poignancy while I watch the damn thing go up in flames. Not that I expected much from the Indian fire department.

I know, I know, it is a Symbol of Decadence put in rather disturbing juxtaposition with Mumbai's hideous and seething slums. The Taj is populated primarily by the super rich, the just faking it, and many a plump and slightly frightened looking foreign tourist. The terrorists are targeting Americans and Brits: if I were looking for good valuable hostages, it'd be the first place I'd target.

The terrorists also hit the Leopold Cafe, a disreputable but famous bar beloved by foreigners. Far as I could tell, the primary clientele was hairy Eastern Europeans and Brits with serious drug problems, but it always an interesting scene. The food was mediocre and overpriced as hell, but you couldn't beat the prices on cheap, adequately drinkable wine. I used to hang out in there, drink a couple of glasses of wine, and work on my sketchbook while watching the weirdos filter in and out. (I recall overhearing a really quite riveting discussion about how fun it is to do heroin on airplanes.) I am really trying not to think about what I'd have done if someone had decided to amble up with a machine gun. The cafe has been around since 1871 and is still packed solid every night: I hope it's got a future. I'm also thinking of the regular people who used to hang out on the streets around the Taj and around the bit of Colaba I stayed in: the crazy fruit seller, the weird Saudi guy who used to sell me fruity chewing gum and let me use his pay phone, the donkey cart guy and the groups of shuffling Parsi's who owned the corner restaurant. Never knew them or anything but they're part of the neighborhood.

The terrorist attacks happened at a bunch of absolutely iconic places in the city. The attacks on the airport make me sad: the domestic airport out in Santa Cruz is just plain beautiful and brand new, although the constant taxi-stand arm wrestle took a bit of the shine off the facility. I fondly remember my friend Saleem dragging his poor hungover ass out of bed at 7:00 in the morning to drop me off there. Due to Mumbai's nightmare traffic, the drive from Colaba to Santa Cruz always took roughly an hour and a half, but it was never boring: morning markets and rotting apartment buildings and horse carts and sports cars and the mosque on the island and the Cadbury's factory and the list goes on and on. The Nariman Jewish center is also under siege: Israel is (rightly) freaking out. Things are just getting uglier and uglier.

We can't let this sort of ugliness scare us and we can't let it give us permission to live in fear. I just wish it didn't have to happen to a place like Mumbai. I still hope to return next summer and I don't want to let this kind of bullshit intimidate me. Easier said then done.

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