After the attacks

A Missoulian in Mumbai reflects on recent violence


Tuesday and Thursday evenings I take the Harbour Line train from Bandra Station to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) to teach a class in creative nonfiction at St. Xavier’s College. The Xavier campus lies between the Cama hospital and Metro Junction. In other words, on my way to work, I follow roughly the same path killers Ajmal Amir Qasab and Ismail Khan took in their raid of the city—before they began commandeering vehicles and doing drive-bys. I return to Bandra from CST on the 8:58 train. This puts me in the station 25 hours before Qasab and Khan arrived there on November 26; not a close call given what so many others endured, but close enough for me to take note of my good fortune.

On Friday, November 28, two days after the attack, I visited CST for nearly one hour, from about 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. When I approached a group of policemen seated at a desk by the entrance, they demanded to see a press credential before they would answer any questions. I showed them my Montana driver’s license and was immediately granted a tour of the entire crime scene and an interview with Shriniwas Mudgerikar, CST’s chief public relations officer. Following that I went to the grounds outside the iconic Taj Mahal Palace and Tower, where from corner windows on the hotel’s old wing two gunmen were holding out against a squadron of nearly 100 National Security Guard (NSG) commandos, several columns of infantrymen and scores of local Mumbai police. I remained at the grounds outside the Taj along with the rest of the media for just over two hours. The following day, once police secured the scene, they confirmed nine gunmen left 171 dead in the coordinated attacks.

CST, formerly known as Victoria Terminus, is an old English monolith with a clock tower at the center, rows of arched window frames and domes and spires all over the place. Winged lions holding staffs rest atop some of the spires; crosses sprout from others. Blackened by mold in its upper regions, CST’s exterior is still glorious. Evenings, when I’m returning from class, the station stands bathed in white light, like a star performer in a spotlight cast by the moon. It’s the train rides and especially these walks back to the station after class that have made me feel at home in this city.

That’s why I went back. There’s another reason, too: In the aftermath of something like this, everything you concede to the killers is a victory for them. Politicians can fight terror with guns and spies, but the rest of us have only our optimism and the will to return to our routines. And return we do. We come back in droves.

When I entered CST on the 5:09 Tuesday, December 2, the crowds had returned, 100 percent. The platforms were solid walls of people. Passengers began jumping onto the train for the commute back uptown while we were pulling into the station. Pressed back into my seat, I almost couldn’t disembark. The scene convinced me that I’d been right to be optimistic. I lived in a city of optimists. We were winning.

Then Wednesday the Railway Police discovered 8.5 kg of explosives in a red and black handbag that had been stored in the station’s parcel room since the attack. I’d been congratulating myself with a bomb ticking in the background.

The previous night, as I often do, I rode the train home with one of my students, a 21-year-old young man named Varun. He was in a surly mood. He told me that if I was going to write an article and I wanted to get the word from the street, that I might want to say that the people of Mumbai were tired of rallying with their good spirits. Most of them, he said, wanted to march into Pakistan with guns. Subsequent events and headlines have born him out. On Wednesday, over 20,000 people gathered outside the Taj hotel to call for action against Pakistan. The headline in Thursday’s Times of India: “Retribution, Not Resilience.”

Varun also informed me that the killers’ AK-47s had been designed to release six bullets per pull on the trigger, but that the CST gunmen were so well trained and attuned to their instruments that they could press lightly enough to release two bullets at a time, this while running at full speed and darting in and out of hiding places. In my tour of the station last Friday, the police gave me a standard review of the attack, moving me quickly and saying nothing that hadn’t already been reported. However, what I noticed at the time, and thought peculiar, was a decided lack of bullet holes. If Varun was right, there was so little damage to the walls because most of the ammunition had found its mark.

What do the explosives and the old evidence reconsidered do to my original case for optimism and routines? I say the best retribution is renovation. But I say renovate everything, not just the hotels. I saw gun barrels poking out of the Taj windows and heard grenades set off in the ballroom there. Exorcize the ghosts of the gunmen by refilling the ballroom with chatter and with music, but don’t forget the middle and lower-middle class Mumbaikar. Give CST’s interior the makeover it’s long needed. Reward the commuters’ persistence with something even more beautiful to look at. And do a better job of protecting them.

Joe Campana contributed regularly to the Independent before he and his family moved to India in 2007.

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