A terrorist attack has a way of reminding you of your powerlessness. It galvanises certain people and professions, like doctors, nurses, policemen and firemen. It brings politicians, leaders of tactical forces and the state administration into the spotlight since the responsibility of fact-finding and blame-placing falls upon them. If you’re a journalist covering the culture and/or lifestyle beat, a terrorist attack renders you useless. The definition of “hot spot” changes drastically when there’s been a bomb blast–or three, as was the case last week–and your areas of expertise are considered frivolous. When a city has been attacked, it is assumed that the citizens have graver concerns than art exhibitions, revamped restaurant menus, music concerts, new films, book launches and the like. It is expected that coming face to face with terror will unsettle us and for a few days at the very least, the only thoughts we will entertain would be sombre, anti-terrorism ones. That’s the basic expectation with which every terrorist plot is conceived.
Today, a person’s safety is as precarious in India’s financial capital as it is in Karachi or Kabul. It isn’t as though everyday life comes to a standstill in those cities when a bomb rips through security cordons and marketplaces, and neither does it in Mumbai. Earlier, this ability to bounce back and follow a normal, unterrified routine was praised by one and all. This time, it’s the very thing that has unsettled many. When Mumbai Boss put up a post about a beer and burger fest on the day after, one Sarah Eapen left this comment on the Facebook page: “Absolutely insensitive update for a day like this, after what happened yesterday.” Which begs the question, what should be our response to a terrorist attack?
In 2008, in the issue that came out right after 26/11, Time Out Mumbai published a photograph taken by food writer and Colaba resident Antoine Lewis during that terrible weekend. It showed boys playing cricket on the rooftops of Colaba, unperturbed by the fact that Chabad House was less than a boundary away. It was meant to be an image of Mumbai’s defiance, not of foolhardiness or callousness shown by kids who couldn’t care less that commandos were being dropped on nearby roofs or that innocent people were being killed a few buildings away. A little less than three years later, Naresh Fernandes, who then edited Time Out Mumbai and is now the consulting editor, lamented the city’s soullessness in this blog post for The New Yorker. As an example, he wrote about how a few people were disgruntled when the 10pm show of Delhi Belly was cancelled on the day that bomb blasts killed 19 at Opera House, Dadar and Zaveri Bazar. Clearly for him, Mumbai’s stubborn determination to be untouched by the violence it suffers is no longer a sign of strength.
What the repeated attacks on Mumbai have achieved is a widespread sense of numbness. The only thing that pierces through this dark ennui is the pleasure offered by frivolous things like culture and recreational activities. In simple language, this means enjoying life as though nothing had ever disrupted the normal flow of things. Of course, this could be a callow but effective means of distracting attention from the brutality around you. But when the day after a bomb blast, we ask you to go out and have a beer, see an art show, attend a concert or watch a movie, we’re striving to create a sense of normalcy; one that doesn’t belittle the losses of the day before but rather makes a statement.
The point of a plot like what Mumbai witnessed last week is to make a statement that the security of a Goliath-like state can be compromised by David-esque terrorists. In the transcripts of the phone conversations that the terrorists had with their handlers during 26/11 in 2008, the handlers repeatedly said that this operation must strike fear into the hearts of all those who were in the hotel and those who were watching the siege on television. Every explosion underscores the fragility of what is considered a normal existence and is designed to push us closer to panic. Consequently, when you go to work the morning after a set of coordinated bomb blasts or arrange to meet friends for beer and burger at Woodside Inn, you are effectively doing what the Indian government’s intelligence department failed to do: foil the terrorists’ plan.Tags: Bomb Blasts, Deepanjana Pal, The Definite Article