Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Mumbai Meri Jaan

It’s a week on, and, although you couldn’t say things were the same, they’re making a good job of trying. The Leopold’s open, and thronged with defiant Mumbaikars. The Taj is cordoned off, but determined to rebuild. I can’t help smiling.

When they dig a road up, in Mumbai – usually before the tarmac’s set – to lay the cable or water-pipe, which they forgot in the first place, they then pat all the debris back in the trench. Well, except for this little pile here, which they leave in a tidy heap at the side of the mended road, to show where they’ve been: MMDC’s calling-card. For about four months, it weathers by attrition, and cows sitting on it, and dogs seeing if there’s anything to eat, under it. By then, it’s nearly time to dig everything up again.

So, clearing-up and rebuilding south Mumbai will be fascinating. They don’t need mementoes, there’s enough stored digitally by passing Kumars and curious Guptas, to paper the Taj inside and out. The Mumbai Mid Day carries a photo of people, taking pictures of bullet holes in the walls at CST station, with the caption “Titillation” – journalistic double jeopardy: clearly it’s not ghoulish, taking a photo of other people being ghoulish.

Even in leafy Powai, feeling’s running strong. This morning, a demonstration passes the foot of our building, with marching soldier cadets, waving banners and chanting, followed by ranks of uniformed school-children, in their ribboned plaits and snowy-white bobby-socks. There are candle-lit vigils, and the ubiquitous flowers-tied-to-railings. I’m still moved by posters on roadside billboards, with cameos of the dead framed in golden laurels, to applaud the mighty fallen and inveigh against evil. I’m duped, because I can’t read the small print. Let’s face it, in Hindi, I can’t read the foot-high capitals, either. The whole campaign’s condemned as party political inanity, capitalising on tragedy, as parties fall over themselves to out-mourn each other, or to be seen to out-mourn each other. Civic tenderness degrades into tastelessness.

The only thing necessary for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing.” Edmund Burke, quoted in Mid Day, to launch their campaign of resistance: “Don’t stay Mum-bai!” I think it sounds more like an inducement to mass exodus, but they’re trying to urge everyone to have a voice. “Don’t stay mum – speak up!” Resilience is essential to survival, but picking up “old life” is not enough. “... that’s what cattle do after being attacked by leopards – go back to grazing.” I don’t think the world’s in danger of not knowing what Mumbai thinks, in these troubled times.

The Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, the BMC, is rewarding all firemen who participated in rescue operations, to help NSG commandos during the attacks, with two pay increments, plus two months’ salary, in hand. Bravo.

Mumbai Police only have one speedboat, I’m stunned to discover. In case you’re forgetting, this is the Mumbai which is built on a series of islands, with more water-front than Venice – THAT Mumbai. The one-boat police flotilla has no searchlight, no siren, no wireless set, and no night-vision binoculars. What, I hear you ask, have they done with the £4M handed over in 2006, labelled, Speedboats for Mumbai Police?

I have a theory: the Police probably spend most of their money on text-messaging. We get so many from them, I’m beginning to think we’re on their Best Friends listing. During the Ganpati festival at the end of September, they send us this: “For Ganesh immersion day: 1. Come early. No fire crackers on beach. 2. Entry on beach only for the car with Idol. 3. Drivers to remain in car.” Frankly, this worries me, more than reassures me, and I cast about for bubbles of riotous behaviour, but Monu says everyone gets the same message. At Diwali, in October, the Anti-Terrorist Squad send us this: “Be alert Mumbaikar! Look for any suspicious object and inform police on 100. Do not believe in rumours. Do not accept any article from unknown person. Join hands with the police in fight against terrorism. ATS.” At Diwali, the streets are littered with unexploded fireworks, and shells of spent crackers. It sounds like Beirut, at ground level – every street-dog and dead rocket looks suspicious, what do they want us to do?

Today’s offering from the police is hopeful oil on self-inflicted troubled waters. “False rumours are being spread thru SMS of possible attacks on schools and hotels.” - I know at least one lady, who keeps her children out of school, because of it - “We assure all citizens, city is absolutely safe. Pls don’t panic, nor add to rumours.” Quite tricky, this last, because there’s still only one topic of conversation, over every cup of masala chai, round here, how could rumour not be getting fat on it?

Rumour should be classified as a weapon. On Friday, in the middle of the siege, CNN abandons live action at the Taj, the Oberoi and Nariman House, to report fresh firing, at Victoria Station (CST). People glued to their televisions ring their nearest and dearest, in transit, and pandemonium breaks out, on the trains and the quays. False alarm. CNN apologizes for scaremongering.

So, what are you doing, tonight? If there’s nothing on tv, come and make a stand for peace. “Walk for Mumbai” starts at six - indomitable citizens are invited to meet at the Gateway of India, to march for peace and harmony, for not giving in, and for carrying on in spite of everything. The “I want my Mumbai back” rally is opposite the Taj, at the same time. You don’t need to decide which one to go to, you’ll already be at both, because opposite the Taj IS the Gateway. The ad can’t be accused of subliminal brain-washing, it says simply, “If you give a F***, then walk!” (To be fair, the asterisks are included, and it is a half-rhyme, technically... It comes quaint, though, from a nation of English-speakers who happily lay their tongue to words like “thrice” or “misfortunate” or “lest” in everyday speech.) You are asked to wear white, and a “Mumbai Meri Jaan” t-shirt.

Mumbai Meri Jaan’s a film, released a few months ago. Based on the 2006 serial blasts on Mumbai’s suburban railway network, it’s almost too pertinent. The lives it follows, coping with the aftermath of the attacks, are ironically those of a journalist, a policeman, a businessman and a coffee-vendor. I ask Monu, what “jaan” means. “Life,” he says. Then, at the next traffic lights, he says, “Jaan mean, you know...... love.” Life and love, in one word, how apt. I look it up, when I get home, and find it also means spirit, understanding, strength, essence – even wizard. I tackle Monu on the economy of language, the next day. He laughs and shrugs. “This is Hindi!”

So, Mumbai Meri Jaan – I love Mumbai. Mine’s a Medium, please, and a Large for Mr Roland.