21 July, 2006

A Certain Kind of Indian

My friend, Anuvab Pal, has written this piece for a newspaper and has forwarded the same to me for posting this on our blog. I requested him to join and post it himself but I feel he is kind of shy. Anyway, here it is for you to read and comment.

Playwright and Screenwriter Anuvab Pal recounts his experiences with the Mumbai blasts and compares them to his time in New York during 9/11.

A Certain Kind of Indian

Being in New York during 9/11 and being in Mumbai on 11th July, 2006, was very different. And also not. Some of the more harrowing (and uplifting) moments came back – the cell phones jamming; friends, enemies, well wishers et al from around the world desperately trying to get through; chaotic hospitals filled with hundreds of victims and thousands of well-meaning, confused volunteers; relatives, photos in hand, on a mad search for loved ones; photos strewn for the missing across public places; gory first-person accounts of dismemberment, media frenzy around human stories of tragedy and survival; random acts of kindness (which contrary to what Readers Digest will have you believe, is a Mumbai routine during disasters). And in homes, seated around shocking, flashing images and foolish reporting (long live Fox News , available here in 3 incarnations - NDTV, CNN-IBN and Times Now) eager discussions on a certain kind of fundamentalism (both inquisitive and accusatory).

And yet, something was different. Not from the obvious nature and form of the attacks but in how I felt about the whole thing. When I initially moved from New York, I was gregarious and curious and engaged with my environment. I would claim New York does that to you - arms you with a sense of balanced, erudite, socio-economic analysis, especially when visiting other places not like it.

As the months passed, natural expatriate processes ensued. I settled-in, lost intelligence, found logical argument absent and all argument replete with bias. I declared public transportation to be medieval, finagled a car (with driver), found most 'ordinary' people lacking in basic decorum and politesse, fashionably complained about the city's ethos at art openings drinking wine ("Mumbai trains go to and from where?", a Mumbai socialite once asked innocently about the city's commuting lifeline). I made friends with other irony-loving, complaining, foreign folk or colonial remnants and found myself comfortably enveloped in the stereotype of the Bombay, upper middle class, English-speaking elite. This meant I was haughty, feudal, dismissive (of popular Hindi speaking culture), hierarchic, rude (especially to people I perceived to be in the service classes) and totally disconnected with the everyday realities of the city.

This wonderful attitude helped me conclude that I had very little in common with average Mumbaikars – a rude, savage, illiterate, superstitious, caste-ridden, trading people. I despised things claiming to be the highlights of the place - I didn't like the romanticism with the underworld, I found dance bars and the women in them, dirty; I hated Bollywood movies; didn't read the drivel passed off as journalism in local English dailies; wasn't aware of books in local Indian languages; discovered the ideas in the local theatre to be about a 100 years behind; found Indian TV dramas laughably melodramatic and distrusted anything said to me by a fat man with a moustache using bad grammar and worse syntax (that's about 10 million people).

Clearly I had much more in common with those suffering during 9/11. After all, I watched Meet The Press with Tim Russert with gravity and belief, discussed Charlie Rose guests at West Village dinners, loved the movies of Woody Allen, devoured the novels of Philip Roth, read the New Yorker religiously. I often thought my life was Sienfeld-ian, and that New York, the cosmopolitan mix of everything, home to Mira Nair and Opus Dei, was the greatest city in the world. Like many middle class Indian immigrants, I was a self-proclaimed "democrat" because I enjoyed Clinton's articulation and because most people in Manhattan were (an immigrant's first need, over food and oxygen, is fitting in). Surely, I was more like them. A dignified, graceful educated people mourning when it was time to do so, like a dignified graceful educated people.

On 9/11, when people died, the survivors quoted poets and writers I knew. People experienced a range of mature emotions I could understand, funeral proceedings I could appreciate and would myself partake in. Everyone functioned on a higher level of intelligence - we were clever together. Surely this must be home, I thought. I was moved by moments that were expected to move and saddened by sad moments and felt and mourned. There was an assumed shared aesthetic, regardless of an actual union. At some distance and experienced alone but shared nevertheless, however cerebral.

Then I saw Mumbai and the death and blood and twisted metal. Constant footage of the kind of people I had decided to dislike, some dying, many helping. I saw scores of people near railway stations throwing open their homes for relief and shelter, thousands of low-income housewives with water along the major streets, handing them to people in cars (the same elite who scoff them). I saw thousands of Muslim men at the end of the day's prayers rushing (at the risk of arrest) to help the wounded and dead, even though the police had declared the railway tracks as cordoned-off zones. I heard from a tea vendor who lives on $2 a day deciding to run around all night serving tea to the distressed at the distinct possibility of devastating his lifelong business. I saw penniless students skipping critical examinations and cooking to feed people who couldn't get home to the suburbs. I saw beggars and homeless people carrying the wounded to hospital. I saw people who hadn't eaten for days delivering hot food to the injured. I saw people who had no business and no position to give anything, give and give more. Then, I cried. Simultaneously, I discovered this thing called a gut instinct. For years I had displayed an almost stoic, near-Scandinavian sense of restraint. I was secretly proud of this almost Western value of emotional stillness. I had never cried at any set back in my life, I had never cried at a loss of a family member. I had never cried during 9/11. But here I was, a temporary resident of a city I hate, watching a TV channel I hate, watching people I hate (and share nothing in common with), crying inexplicably for the first time and feeling the saddest moment I have ever felt.

I wondered later if this is what nationality meant. This gut instinct. A reaction wholly from the heart and free of the head. One that (no matter how many books I had read or commonalities I had shared or sophisticated opinions I had formed with a wonderful, literate, accepting nation), could come only with watching the suffering of one's own people. Whoever and wherever they may be, however different they may be.

Somehow, on 7/11 (as the media here, in some bizarre and silly correlation to the US, calls it) there is something higher at work; much more intrinsic, more knowledgeable, much more tuned into the pulse of this city. Something much angrier at India's economic boom (Lashkar E Toiba, the Kashmiri militant wing, has denied involvement) and equally conscious of the affluence and education of those that might take a first class train along the western line.

Some may say that the first class is easiest to get on with an explosive-filled suitcase but I would still argue that with those eight bomb blasts on 11 th July a demographic was being targeted, as much as mass casualty. That demographic being the architects of modern India. Young bankers, salesmen, software engineers, print journalists, TV actors, call-center employees, web designers, ad film makers et al. I am not suggesting that these people are being targeted as individuals. The idea that they stand for is being targeted. The idea of an affluent, educated, young, skilled workforce that is the backbone of India's economic transformation

It was also about killing a certain kind of people that might send a message to certain other kinds of people like them. Perhaps this isn't true in terms of individualistic specifics but if one was to generalize, from Dadar to Borivali, all the stations at that hour carry the commuting milieu that could be the perfect representative sample (and explanation) of India's rise. A consumer class of ambitious, literate, work-driven, under-45, set of men and women with disposable income. The new middle class as the papers keep saying. Many rent, many are breaking traditional notions (and real estate frameworks) of joint family systems, many refuse arranged marriages, many are single. Many are immigrants (increasingly from around the world).

As the (new and rapidly expanding) real estate that lines and surrounds these stations suggest, they are people who are changing the very nature of India's social ethos and thereby the nature of the city that houses them. Bandra, Khar, Santa Cruz, Andheri, Borivili are constantly evolving and advancing townships and the people who live in them are constantly evolving and advancing economically and intellectually as well. Lots of young couples live there. One can tell by civic amenities, restaurants, malls etc that keep popping up in these suburbs. The idea of south Bombay being the nerve center of the city is recently dead and city-dwellers have known this. This is information about the underlying trend within a city's pulse - recent news, often changing within a day, road gossip, stuff you overhear at bars or dinners or the Midday rag or from drivers and dabbawallahs (Mumbai's famous food delivery men).

Clearly these people who put these bombs stayed here long enough to understand trends and to feel Mumbai almost as a 20-year resident would. Could it be that these killers factored it in while planning? These bombs are much more than just a strike at the heart of Mumbai's suburbs; they are a strike at the heart of a new India. An India a lot of people under 40 are trying to create, an India their parents never knew or expected. An India busy with new corporations, new ethics and skilled labor, free of cheap religious strife or ignorant feudalism. An India with young love and unlimited energy, free of nonsense casteism and ignorant racism. A melting pot of bureaucracy-free achievement, hard work, entrepreneurial innovation and new, relentless dreams. Whoever did this, doesn't like where India is going, as a young, hopeful, confident, people.

It seems by getting on those trains the day after the attacks these same young hopeful people, (who perhaps can afford to miss a day's work though most companies recorded 90% attendance), collectively seemed to say, "Hell with you - we've got a materialistic, capitalist fun country to build because we're real tired of the old socialist one. Take your bombs and keep exploding them, we've got cell phones to buy, girls to date, malls to shop in and job interviews with multinationals which will triple our salaries. No matter what the you do Mr. Terrorist Person, we'll be out and about - the new India is here and you can't stop us".

Anuvab Pal is a playwright of Indian origin based in New York City. He is currently living in Mumbai for a year working on the production of 2 Independent films he has scripted.


Anonymous Anil said...

This hit home on so many fronts. A brilliant and honest piece of writing. Thanks for sharing this with us.

21/7/06 04:03  
Blogger Rajendra Pradhan said...

Exactly what all of us believe to be true. And he has put it across so effectively!

22/7/06 10:01  
Blogger John said...

Hi Anuvab,

Nice to see your writing after our meeting at the Caferati readmeet in Santa Cruz (remmeber the jets?).

It is nice reading an PIO's view of the country of his origin. People here are poor but not poor in spirit. For some of my writing on the subject visit my blog http://johnpmathew.blogspot.com.

Best wishes,

John P Matthew

31/7/06 19:40  

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