Friday, November 28, 2008

A City Under Siege

High temperature, no appetite, listless, subject to mood swings – all the symptoms of cabin fever. Being besieged is less glamorous than you think. I recall gloomily that “siège" is French for seat, and that about sums up our crisis so far - glued to the sofas, noses to the small screen. We’re becoming couch aloo.

On Wednesday, we drop my brother at the airport. “Last guest gone,” Monu smiles, edging the car back into the seething traffic, heading for home. “Old life starts.” He couldn’t be more wrong. Just as Michael’s plane is taking off, terrorists put the “bomb” back into Bombay, with co-ordinated attacks in ten locations across the south of the city. “Old life” goes on hold.

Thirty-six hours later, the National Security Guard’s still operating to “sanitize” the three remaining occupied buildings. It’s difficult to know what’s happening – the NSG has gagged the media, because terrorists are tracking operations via television, but that doesn’t stop twenty-four hour coverage of the events. Old footage is played in permanent loops, with live voiceovers, and the flashing strap-line “Breaking News” – you get blasé about being on tenterhooks, after the first twelve hours.

We’re told to stay indoors, until advised otherwise, although the attacks are centred miles away in South Mumbai. I try to rustle up a sock-knitting, bandage-rolling attitude, and am grumpily ironing (in thirty-five degrees of sunshine, Stoicism doesn’t come near the mark...), when I discover that a colleague has gone outside to shop. If she can, I can, I think, reaching for my goggles. I know going for a swim would hardly cut the mustard, with the Maquis, but it’s a small gesture of defiance. Also, if I have to stay indoors a minute longer, I am going to start making friends with the cockroaches...

The heavy iron gates in the basement are bolted, but the security guard smiles Good Morning, and lets me out onto the street. And there is Powai, with his wife and golden Labrador, going about his business. Everything looks normal – the road diggers are digging the roads, the vegetable-man’s sitting on his stall, selling custard apples and guava, and a woman’s chasing dust-heaps, with a whisk-broom, back and forth. The only difference, today, is the tuk-tuks at the side of the road. They’re gathered in their usual nest, like a pile of beetles, but their drivers aren’t sleeping, with their legs looped over the handlebars and their feet poking out into the fresh air. The men in khaki are poring over the news, six heads bent over one paper. Something’s definitely up.

I peer into every young brown face, looking for the telltale signs of Deccan Mujahideen membership. It’s tricky because no-one had heard of them until now, so they hardly have a signature look, yet. Rumour’s running away with itself, with a microphone in its hand. Pakistan’s mentioned, the LeH, but officials won’t be drawn into speculation, and are prioritizing saving lives over apportioning blame, for the time being. Good for them. The bullets don’t fly any thinner or slower, for knowing whose finger’s on the trigger.

Yesterday, Bhavika rings in the early morning. “Akanksha centres are closed today,” she says, “so I will see you tomorrow.” I find solace in her supposing we’ll all be here by then, to tackle our three times tables down in Mankhurd. In the event, schools are closed, today, too, although the Indian Stock Exchange is trading again, I note.

Monu checks in. “Sir, you want this car?” More than anything, I want to see him, breathing in and out, but have to concede that this is perhaps not a good reason to drag him across a besieged city, so he stays in Malad. I assume he was breathing, to make the phonecall.

They even nip and tuck the advert breaks, on CNN, so the coverage is unbroken. The drama unfolds maddeningly slowly, it’s more padding than news, but you can’t not watch it, in case.... Every hour, a new tag-team takes over as co-ordinating front-men, in the studio. They edge in, from the wings, rustling an important fistful of A4 sheets. The veterans slide off their stools, and include them in the conversation, “So give us an update on what’s happening at the Taj right now, Yogita...” Then, as the new team take up the narrative, the retiring team nod sympathetically, without taking their eyes off the newcomers, whilst moving, crab-wise, out of shot. Le roi est mort, vive le roi. Seamless.

Within the hour, registration numbers of terrorists’ vehicles are on screen (MH01 ZA 102 and MH01 BA 579, if you’ve that kind of a memory and you’re in the Colaba area) followed by numbers to ring with information. We also wake up to chilling and very real requests for blood donations, from St George’s Hospital.

There’s more gore on screen, than in “Saving Private Ryan”. A man’s bundled into the back of a car, his head lolling, the pavement behind him red. “Is he....?” I start to say. “He’s unconscious,” says Roland, firmly. They fold the man’s legs in, like tidying up a trailing sleeve, escaping from a suitcase, and slam the door. We both know he’s dead. In the next half-hour, we see him summarily despatched at least a dozen times, by way of screen-saver to the unfolding news.

In the first gun-battle at Cama Hospital, the Anti-Terrorism Squad loses three of its top officers. The screen splits into three, playing over and over the last footage of each of them, alive. Ironic, poignant, ATS chief Hemand Karkare is shown being fitted with a flak jacket and hard hat, which clearly did him no service. Additional Commissioner of Police Ashok Kamte was India’s answer to Bruce Willis. The CNN journalist reporting his loss was at college with him, and says he remembers ACP Kamte winning the record for eating the most bananas in a day (18), because he wanted to be a body-builder, before he decided to join the force. This irrelevant, irreverent detail is very moving, somehow. Ridiculous, frail, human. We see the officer in his combat hat and fatigues, addressing troops, then the screen flickers to his funeral, where this man of action is still at last, his stern face peaceful, framed in garlands of flowers.

The police recover bags dropped by the terrorists. Money, rounds of bullets, RDX and survival supplies. I’m charmed to discover that these boys are armed not only with AK47s, but with bags of peanuts, too. A local shopkeeper now comes forward, and says the terrorists bought Rs 50,000 worth of dried goods, a couple of days ago; as if they were laying in for a siege, in fact. Almonds for Vitamin E, apricots to keep them regular. We, on the other hand, without the luxury of foreknowledge, are living on what’s in the cupboard. Unless the situation’s recovered soon, we’ll have to resort to the goat cubes I bought in a fit of ethnic enthusiasm, months ago, and which I’ve had neither the heart nor the stomach to cook. They’re in the freezer, with half a tub of ice-cream we got in, when Jacob was in residence. Don’t worry about us, though. We’ve also got two bottles of Kingfisher and half a bag of Bombay mix, we’re sorted.