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What They Hate About Mumbai

New York Times

My bleed­ing city. My poor great bleed­ing heart of a city. Why do they go after Mum­bai? There’s some­thing about this island-state that appalls reli­gious extrem­ists, Hin­dus and Mus­lims alike. Per­haps because Mum­bai stands for lucre, pro­fane dreams and an indis­crim­i­nate open­ness.

Mum­bai is all about dhand­ha, or trans­ac­tion. From the street food ven­dor squat­ting on a side­walk, fierce­ly guard­ing his lit­tle busi­ness, to the tycoons and their dreams of acquir­ing Hol­ly­wood, this city under­stands mon­ey and has no guilt about the get­ting and spend­ing of it. I once asked a Mus­lim man liv­ing in a shack with­out indoor plumb­ing what kept him in the city. “Mum­bai is a gold­en song­bird,” he said. It flies quick and sly, and you’ll have to work hard to catch it, but if you do, a fab­u­lous for­tune will open up for you. The exec­u­tives who con­gre­gat­ed in the Taj Mahal hotel were chas­ing this gold­en song­bird. The ter­ror­ists want to kill the song­bird.

Just as cin­e­ma is a mass dream of the audi­ence, Mum­bai is a mass dream of the peo­ples of South Asia. Bol­ly­wood movies are the most pop­u­lar form of enter­tain­ment across the sub­con­ti­nent. Through them, every Pak­istani and Bangladeshi is famil­iar with the wed­ding-cake archi­tec­ture of the Taj and the arc of the Gate­way of India, sym­bols of the city that gives the indus­try its name. It is no won­der that one of the first things the Tal­iban did upon enter­ing Kab­ul was to shut down the Bol­ly­wood video rental stores. The Tal­iban also banned, wouldn’t you know it, the keep­ing of song­birds.

Bol­ly­wood dream-mak­ers are shak­en. “I am ashamed to say this,” Amitabh Bachchan, super­star of a hun­dred action movies, wrote on his blog. “As the events of the ter­ror attack unfold­ed in front of me, I did some­thing for the first time and one that I had hoped nev­er ever to be in a sit­u­a­tion to do. Before retir­ing for the night, I pulled out my licensed .32 revolver, loaded it and put it under my pil­low.”

Mum­bai is a “soft tar­get,” the ter­ror­ism ana­lysts say. Any­body can walk into the hotels, the hos­pi­tals, the train sta­tions, and start spray­ing with a machine gun. Where are the met­al detec­tors, the ran­dom bag checks? In Mum­bai, it’s impos­si­ble to con­trol the crowd. In oth­er cities, if there’s an explo­sion, peo­ple run away from it. In Mum­bai, peo­ple run toward it — to help. Greater Mum­bai takes in a mil­lion new res­i­dents a year. This is the prob­lem, say the nativists. The city is just too hos­pitable. You let them in, and they break your heart.

In the Bom­bay I grew up in, your reli­gion was a per­son­al eccen­tric­i­ty, like a hair­style. In my school, you were denom­i­nat­ed by which crick­eter or Bol­ly­wood star you wor­shiped, not which prophet. In today’s Mum­bai, things have changed. Hin­du and Mus­lim dem­a­gogues want the mobs to come out again in the streets, and slaugh­ter one anoth­er in the name of God. They want India and Pak­istan to go to war. They want Indi­an Mus­lims to be expelled. They want India to get out of Kash­mir. They want mosques torn down. They want tem­ples bombed.

And now it looks as if the lat­est ter­ror­ists were our neigh­bors, young men dressed not in Afghan tunics but in blue jeans and design­er T‑shirts. Being South Asian, they would have grown up watch­ing the paint­ed lady that is Mum­bai in the movies: a city of flashy cars and flashier women. A plea­sure-lov­ing city, a sen­su­al city. Every­thing that preach­ers of every reli­gion thun­der against. It is, as a monk of the paci­fist Jain reli­gion explained to me, “paap-ni-bhoo­mi”: the sin­ful land.

In 1993, Hin­du mobs burned peo­ple alive in the streets — for the crime of being Mus­lim in Mum­bai. Now these young Mus­lim men mur­dered peo­ple in front of their fam­i­lies — for the crime of vis­it­ing Mum­bai. They attacked the lux­u­ry businessmen’s hotels. They attacked the open-air Cafe Leopold, where back­pack­ers of the world refresh them­selves with cheap beer out of three-foot-high tow­ers before head­ing out into India. Their drunk­en rev­el­ry, their shame­less flirt­ing, must have offend­ed the right­eous believ­ers in the jihad. They attacked the train sta­tion every­one calls V.T., the ter­mi­nus for run­aways and dream­ers from all across India. And in the attack on the Chabad house, for the first time ever, it became dan­ger­ous to be Jew­ish in India.

The ter­ror­ists’ mes­sage was clear: Stay away from Mum­bai or you will get killed. Crick­et match­es with vis­it­ing Eng­lish and Aus­tralian teams have been shelved. Japan­ese and West­ern com­pa­nies have closed their Mum­bai offices and pro­hib­it­ed their employ­ees from vis­it­ing the city. Tour groups are can­cel­ing long-planned trips.

But the best answer to the ter­ror­ists is to dream big­ger, make even more mon­ey, and vis­it Mum­bai more than ever. Dream of mak­ing a good home for all Mum­baikars, not just the denizens of $500-a-night hotel rooms. Dream not just of Bol­ly­wood stars like Aish­warya Rai or Shah Rukh Khan, but of clean run­ning water, humane mass tran­sit, bet­ter toi­lets, a respon­sive gov­ern­ment. Make a killing not in God’s name but in the stock mar­ket, and then turn up the for­bid­den music and dance; work hard and par­ty hard­er.

If the rest of the world wants to help, it should run toward the explo­sion. It should fly to Mum­bai, and spend mon­ey. Where else are you going to be safe? New York? Lon­don? Madrid?

So I’m book­ing flights to Mum­bai. I’m going to go get a beer at the Leopold, stroll over to the Taj for samosas at the Sea Lounge, and watch a Bol­ly­wood movie at the Metro. Stim­u­lus doesn’t have to be just eco­nom­ic.

Suke­tu Mehta, a pro­fes­sor of jour­nal­ism at New York Uni­ver­si­ty, is the author of “Max­i­mum City: Bom­bay Lost and Found.”


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