Monday, December 08, 2008

Sixty hours of terror

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, December 7, 2008

Sixty hours of terror

The sounds of gunfire and grenades have died down. The dust
has settled. The shards of broken glass and plaster are
being cleared. The blood has been washed away. And the eerie
silence has given way once again to the reassuring urban
chaos that is Mumbai. But 10 days after the nightmare began
in Mumbai, one that seemed not to end, that extended for
three nights and two days, the scars are still raw, the
images still sharp and the questions still unanswered.

On Wednesday night, November 26, the gunmen struck. They
were not masked. They were like young people we see on our
streets. By Thursday morning, Mumbai was paralysed. Why?
This is a huge city, sprawling way to the north of where the
attack took place, in the southern tip of the city. Trains
and buses were unaffected. Yet, no one moved on that day.

Staying put

Two factors were principally responsible. One, the apparent
randomness of the attack. Images of armed gunmen spraying
bullets at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST), a building as
beautiful as it is important for the city, and thereafter
all the way down the street to the junction where another
landmark, the Metro cinema stands, forced people to stay off
the roads. Any of us could have been on the street when the
gunmen opened fire. Any of us could have been walking around
the popular Colaba causeway, buying bags and scarves from
the hawkers that line its pavements when the gunmen barged
into Leopold Cafe and opened fire. Any one of us
could have been like the man who stepped out of his shop to
find out what the noise was about only to be shot by the
gunmen as they made their way to their ultimate target, the
Taj Mahal hotel.

The second reason was the non-stop television coverage. The
terror attack might have been far from our homes. But
television brought to us its terrifying sights and sounds.
And the faces of the gunmen. No one slept that night. Few
could summon up the will power to just turn the television
set off and wait until the next day. As a result, the city
was hooked onto this continuous horror show being played on
all channels.

But the massacre in Mumbai also brought home to the people
of this city a version of urban warfare they had never seen.
The sight of commandos landing by helicopter on the roof of
Nariman House, a little known Jewish centre in the crowded
heart of Colaba, was even more unreal. You only saw such
sights in Hollywood movies. Could this really be taking
place in one part of our city?

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