Mumbai reader reflects on last week’s terrorist acts

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, December 3, 2008

Mumbai coffee companion Raj Patwardhan is a familiar presence at the virtual coffee table of this column. He was one of the first people to come to my mind as last week’s horrendous events in India unfolded.

Terrorists had laid siege to the heart of this city of over 16 million people, killing nearly 200, wounding thousands, and leaving landmark buildings in ruins.

When I e-mailed my concern to Raj, he responded that he and his wife were safe. They live in the northern suburbs, and he works even further north. His wife, however, who is employed by a bank “very close to those hot spots in South Mumbai,” was prevented from going to work last week.

“Although schools and colleges are closed, as are the business houses in South Mumbai, generally the life in central and north Mumbai is peaceful, though tense,” he said the day after the onset of the crisis.

Of the heavily-sealed focal points of the siege, however, he added: “The terrorists have killed the top head of the Anti Terrorists Squad and a few more expert heads in the police department, apparently with intent to create panic and chaos.”

But at the time, he was optimistic that order was about to be restored. When things continued in a bad way, though, he sent me a follow-up letter on Nov. 28 with more detail:

“I very much appreciate your concerns. You are right; the situation is extremely tense in South Mumbai, especially concentrated around the two premiere luxury hotels, Taj Mahal and Oberoi, a few hospitals, and the major railway terminus.

“Security has been beefed up with army, police and specially trained commandos. Some headway has been made in rescuing some of the hostages and guests staying in those hotels, but you can imagine how difficult the task is to find a handful of terrorists hiding somewhere in about 800 hotel rooms.

“It is a matter of real intrigue how the terrorists managed to get into those hotels with so much arms and ammo. Surely, this is a well-planned and strategized attack, and since this is not the usual suicide bomber attack, I believe that this operation could be to create panic and chaos and to shake up the security forces to create cracks in the security for something worse. I pray and wish it’s not that.”

Then this Monday, with the terrorist actions ended and this week’s column under way, I received a third e-mail from Raj, more reflective:

“When lives of innocent human beings are terminated mercilessly, the accounts are very heart rending. It creates turmoil within the political parties, and after an initial spate of rumours and contemplation, over a period of time the true picture starts emerging as the investigations become serious.

“Of course, more than fear, generally there is an outrage in the minds of Mumbaiites. Fortunately, the hard-winged Hindu party leadership has at least for now shown a lot of restraint by not retaliating, as often happens in the backlash. Yet there is concern in the minds of people how they are going to react over a period of time, once the facts are established.”

I really appreciate Raj’s firsthand account of last week’s top story and share with him his concern for the future of Mumbai. Based on some of his previous contributions to our coffee conversations, however, I’m hoping that his positive outlook on life will have some influence.

All has not been well in Mumbai for quite some time. In 2003 the top story was the religiously-motivated taxi bombings. The event inspired Raj to write the following in words that seem hauntingly appropriate now:

In the name of Religion
when bombs blast
mind is shrapnelled
heart stills
soul bleeds
the Body of Religion
sadly victimised
gets nailed in coffins.

In the name of God
when the Satan strikes
eyes are blinded
ears deafened
tongues tied
sounds of guns
smell of death
smokes the prayers...

Who are the winners?
"media barons, vote brokers"
Truth shrouded between the lines
of what is billed
"The Top Story"

A couple of years later he shared with our readers the key to an alternative top story, which he summarized in what he regards as the four most beautiful words in the English language: love, peace, hope and harmony.

May it be so, Raj. Thanks.

© 2008 Warren Harbeck

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