There still seems to be some confusion about exactly what is happening in Mumbai this morning. At least ten attacks took place on landmarks in the city yesterday. The attacks appear to have been orchestrated by an little-known Islamic group. Meanwhile, the web is full of instant analysis: a comprehensive Wikipedia update, flickr pictures from the scene, along with minute by minute updates.
Of the various blogs, this, entitled “A night out on Mumbai,” caught my eye. It nicely captures how the attacks hit at the heart of the city, and in a way which may not be clear simply from reading the news. Visiting Mumbai last year I went to both the attacked hotels, ate breakfast daily in Leopold’s (a small local restaurant, also attacked), and spent afternoons working in the deli, mentioned in the extract below. Mumbai is an enormous city. But its downtown is tiny. Each of these places is 5 minutes’ walk from the other. And each is a landmark, in the sense that downtown Mumbai doesn’t actually have many other cafés, restaurants and upscale hotels to speak of. Equally, the area is difficult to leave. In rush hour it takes hours to move north out of the peninsula through clogged streets. The blogger writes:
A friend of mine had an opening of her art exhibition a few hours ago, so we ventured to South Bombay for that. We attended the exhibition, sipped the litchee juice, nibbled on party snacks, and then six of us headed out for dinner. First we tried Indigo Deli, which is a couple of hundred metres from the Taj. We were told there would be a 25-minute wait. So we headed to All Stir Fry, … as we did so, we heard gunshots, and saw people running towards us from the left side. That’s when we realised that this was much more than a random police encounter, or a couple of gunshots. We heard that terrorists with AK-47s had opened fire outside Leopold’s, the pub down the road…. We watched transfixed, and as the apparent scale of the incidents grew, we realised we couldn’t go home.
Equally, the significance of attacks hitting the Taj hotels needs a little explanation. The Taj is more than just a hotel; rather its an icon of the city, and a main artery for all of Mumbai’s (and therefore India’s) business and celebrity dealings. Precisely because it is so difficult to move around the city – getting from an office in the north, to another in the south, and back could take half a day – business orients around the few major hotels, especially the Taj. IHT writer Anand Giridharadas, who I met on my visit, explains (see the 12:01 update) on their blog this morning:
Anyone, anywhere who has lived in Mumbai was gasping at the sight of a burning Taj Mahal Palace & Tower hotel. That is because it is not your average hotel. It is not another Sheraton or Hilton in the business district of another world city. It is the aorta through which anything glamorous, sentimental, confidential or profitable passes in Mumbai. Few other hotels of the world could say they were built out of spite. Legend has it that Jamsetji Tata, a nineteenth-century industrialist, was once turned away from a hotel in British-era Mumbai because he happened to be Indian. He decided, in a strange kind of revenge, to build the best hotel in the country, outfitted with German elevators, French bathtubs and other refinements from all around the world. The hotel became, for many Indians, a symbol of the overthrow of the indignities of the colonial age. And it became a symbol of the best that could be had in a city paved with dreams.
Perhaps even more than that, the fact that it was Mumbai itself which was attacked, not the capital Delhi. India’s business and entertainment capital embodies a fast changing Asia. Sukheta Mehta begins his admired paean, Maximum City, thus:
There will soon be more people living in the city of Bombay than on the continent of Australia. Urbs Prima in Indis reads the plaque outside the Gateway of India. It is also the Urbs Prima in Mundis, at least in one area, the first test of the vitality of a city: the number of people living in it. With 14 million people, Bombay is the biggest city on the planet of a race of city dwellers. Bombay is the future of urban civilization on the planet. God help us.
It is an extraordinary city: chaotic, exhilarating, and enticing. It will bounce back.