The Far Reach of Mumbai’s Shrapnel

12/02/2008

The New York Daily News

As I watch the images of Mumbai, and particularly Colaba, the sliver of a neighborhood on the southern tip of the city that was the epicenter of the recent terrorist attacks, I feel shaken in a new way.

Like many others, I have been affected by the various terrorist attacks that have quickly come to define our young century. First, when I moved to New York in 2002, when the wounds of 9/11 were still fresh. Then, with the burning of the train in Godhra, India, and the violence that followed in the Gujarati city of Ahmedabad, India, where I was born. And then, by the far-off bloodshed in London and Madrid.

But there is something different – more visceral – about this latest attack for me. The horror that has rocked Colaba has burrowed into that part of my inner life that houses my sense of familial history – my return, with adult eyes, to a country I left as a young child, and my hope to someday show this small bit of Mumbai to my 19-month-old son.

I imagine that I am not unlike other Indian immigrants of my generation. I love my adopted home and I have a deep longing for my birthplace. The longing is rooted in stories – stories about Colaba.

In the early part of the 20th century, my mother’s father moved to Mumbai, running away from the provinces to build a life in the big city. He got interested in cameras, learned photography and eventually opened a photo studio not far from the Taj Mahal hotel. He understood the benefits of location. The well-heeled hotel patrons were precisely the kind of customers who helped my grandfather’s portraiture business thrive.

My mother grew up in the neighborhood. Her family lived in a Gothic-style apartment building called the Waterloo Mansion. She has always spoken of her Colaba childhood in the bright-eyed way that many others speak of life in Mumbai in the 1940s and 1950s. A mix of Hindus, Muslims, Parsis and residual British shared the streets. Bollywood movie stars congregated at neighborhood hot spots. It was at the Regal Cinema across the street from her home that my mother first saw Raj Kapoor and Charlton Heston on screen.

While I visited Colaba as a child – my family lived in Mumbai until I was 8, in a neighborhood further north – I did not really get to know the area until the early 1990s, after having lived in America for well over a decade.

I have a particularly strong memory of a long evening at the Leopold Cafe, one of the first places targeted in the attacks, getting reacquainted with a cousin who I had been close to as a child. We drank too many Fosters over several hours of talking and listening to music. As we walked out into the night, I felt genuinely at home in the streets of Mumbai.

Four years ago I returned to the city and the neighborhood with my wife to show her the source of all my nostalgia. We spent quite a few long, lazy afternoons having drinks in the restaurant at the Taj. In one of the first clips I saw of the unfolding events in Mumbai, there was a shot of the Oberoi hotel lobby where she and I sat and drank strong, Assamese tea.

I wish I could make the obligatory statement that I will immediately return to Colaba, that I will not let the terrorists hijack my images of the place. My son was born in America, and reconnecting to Mumbai together is one way to ensure that his bonds with India will be more than an abstraction.

He and I will return together. But I do not know when. As I sit and watch the images on cable news like any other American, I am struck by the far, far reach of shrapnel.

Mine is just one tangential story. There are hundreds of others – the porters at the Taj, the young revelers at the Leopold Cafe, the travelers at the train station. We need to hear the sometimes mundane, always textured tales of the wounded and the dead. Without them, from where we stand in the United States, the anonymity of the suffering prevents us from fully understanding the magnitude of the lives lost.

Even for someone like myself, who in a parallel life could well have been among them.