Exit wounds

World As the shock of last week's attack subsides, S Subramanian catalogues the tangled sentiments washing over Mumbai, a city long fed and grown on hope where tastes now tend to hard-boiled cynicism.

MUMBAI (BOMBAY), INDIA - NOVEMBER 30:  Remains of the funeral rites at the Dadar Crematorium on November 30, 2008 in Mumbai (Bombay), India. The city of Mumbai was rocked by multiple coordinated terrorist attacks that began on November 26 and targeted a railway station, two hotels, a Jewish centre, a hospital and cafe. Over 195 people have died, including 22 foreigners, and around 295 people injured.  (Photo by Ritam Banerjee/Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***  GYI0056283615.jpg *** Local Caption ***  GYI0056283615.jpg
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As the shock of last week's attack subsides, S Subramanian catalogues the tangled sentiments washing over Mumbai, a city long fed and grown on hope where tastes now tend to hard-boiled cynicism.
Decoding the mood of Mumbai's streets in the few days since the shattering terror attacks has been like trying to identify the ingredients of a dish through an exercise of taste. Every so often, your senses cut through the starch and light up in recognition. Here's stoicism, in the dinky tailoring shop that lost one of its owners to an AK-47 bullet and has already reopened. Here's anger, in the interviews of Mumbaikars on television, and in the desire of a member of a candlelight vigil to have a particular politician "slapped by a hundred people." Here's despair, this woman outside St. George's Hospital, who is still scanning handwritten lists of the injured and the dead. Here's pity, the hospital attendant sitting on his wooden stool, watching her.

There was even a trace of grim, black humour to be found. We learned from police reconstructions that the terrorists, on their first night in town, planned to be at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus far earlier, and that they were delayed by a traffic jam near Regal Cinema - Mumbai's last-ditch attempt to save itself through its own chaotic nature, I thought. Three days later, around midnight, I was walking the lanes near the Taj Mahal hotel when I noticed a huddle of people crouched around something outside the iconic, scarred Café Leopold. Even from a distance, I could see the cell phone cameras in action. The center of their attention turned out to be a bullet hole in the road's median railing - but without the bullet, so just a hole really, indistinguishable from the thousands of other holes in median railings around the city. Yet here were these people, residents of the greatest film factory on the planet, hugely arrested by a hole.

To the palate, though, these felt stale. They've all been encountered in Mumbai before. Stoicism, for instance: the city has been asked so many times to spring back - from riots, from bombs, from floods, from building collapses - that its very resilience has become a cliché. This time around, Mumbaikars rebelled vociferously against that image, pointing out that they got up the next morning and went back to work simply because there was little else to do. (The media repeated this notion in unison with such frequency that it too, very rapidly, became another cliché.) But something tasted new, something in the conversations that taxi drivers would start of their own accord, in the responses of people to the images on television, in the interviews of victims that filled newspaper pages end to end. It took me a while to realize that in Mumbai, a city that has for long fed and grown on hope, there is suddenly a new appetite for hard-boiled cynicism.

Over the last week, I have seen this cynicism aimed at the Indian political machinery and at its intelligence apparatus; I have talked to cynics who sneered at citizen solidarity movements and at peace marches; I have watched, on television, cynical tirades against Pakistani declarations of innocence and against international calls for Indian restraint. And by a process of alchemy, because I am involved in the mankind around me, I too have turned weary of fine words that add up to empty sentences, and then felt disturbed by that weariness. This alchemy, multiplied across the many millions of otherwise peace-mongering Indians, may turn out to be the most vital result of the carnage inflicted upon Mumbai. (I would have written "the most dangerous result," but I'm not sure that is true any more.)

Given the history, the cynicism is difficult to argue with. These attacks have been blithely called India's equivalent of September 11, a comparison drawn solely on the spectacular, media-savvy character of both events. But really, the analogy would only fit if America had also seen bombings in Detroit, Chicago, Memphis and San Francisco earlier in 2001; attacks, horrific and aborted respectively, on the New York City subway in 1999 and on the Capitol in 1994; and Canadian-backed cross-border terrorism in Alaska ever since Ronald Reagan entered the White House. September 11 was a one-off, but for India the Mumbai attacks were the newest allocation in a long-running disbursement of terror.

Twice this year, I have received calls or text messages asking if I was safe and far from the site of a fresh attack. On three other occasions, when bombs went off in cities where I knew people, I reached for my own phone. During a series of blasts in July, my father was in Bangalore on work, and last week, my sister was alone in her apartment in Mumbai. For many Indians, thanks either to political incompetence or irresolution, that phone call of reassurance has become something it should never be: routine, a part of life. In that kind of soil, cynicism blooms with ferocious energy - perhaps that is the only resemblance between India's 26/11 and America's 9/11 - and it could bear uncertain fruit.

Indeed, one distinct possibility is simply no fruit at all. It would be only too familiar for the government - whether this one or the next, since general elections are due in early 2009 - to mumble promises and do nothing. That too has become routine in India. In the state of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, the chief minister and home minister have been forced to quit, as has the central government's Minister of Home Affairs, unusual moves in a country where admissions of political failure are rare. But they will be replaced not according to the dictates of who can do the job but according to the demands of political arithmetic, party fealties and coalition dynamics. The currently galvanized public mood will wane in intensity as people return to the difficult-enough task of making a living. "We're Indians, we forget," the owner of a photo studio right next to the Taj told me. Just outside her window, the magnificent hotel was still being swept for bodies.

Forgetfulness is a curse, but so is the other extreme: foolish wars, punishing clamps on civil liberties and the demonization of the Indian Muslim. An electorate that persists in its anger with the ruling Congress Party could push the Bharatiya Janata Party, with its soft spot for Hindu fundamentalism, into power next year; it could also give the Congress a second chance, but only if it promises to act tougher. So the government may feels tempted to bring back a harsher version of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, India's variation of the American Patriot Act that was authored by the BJP and then rescinded by the Congress a few years ago. It may escalate India's military presence on its Line of Control with Pakistan, without any exact strategic objective about what to do with all those extra soldiers. It may decide that the alternative to being supinely inactive and ill-prepared is being provocative and bellicose, particularly if it seems to satisfy a section of the voting public; no Indian political analyst has ever gone wrong by overestimating the parties' willingness to pander.

If the present mood is any indicator of future temperament, I suspect that these actions may find some popular purchase. I know I would be torn between being intellectually appalled and unconvinced by these measures, and viscerally content that something was being done. Perhaps I would rationalize it by telling myself that, in such cases, if erring on the side of caution will protect a few more Indians from bombs in the market, it all becomes worthwhile.

Somewhere in the middle, though, is the Goldilocks alternative, the one that seems to be just right - and also, clearly, just to the right of where we are today. But its precise contours are a mystery, and I cannot even invoke the American Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart, who made a similar observation of obscenity, and declare: "We'll know it when we see it." The sorry truth, increasingly, seems to be that we will never know how much preparation is enough, although we know from accumulating experience how much is too little.

It would sound too much like the wishful nature of my formerly optimistic self to say, vaguely, that things could yet improve. The next government could hammer out anti-terror legislation - perhaps even a federal agency - that is genuinely effective but not draconian. The Indian public could, somehow, continue to hold on to its present, unusual mood, desiring accountability and results, not merely in the drive against terror but in the larger political sphere. American could join India in imposing some meaningful pressure on Pakistan, to eliminate the schools of terror that have become the world's worst-kept secret. The next political appointments could be made on the basis of experience and resolve, instead of bargains and favors.

It could all happen; I just don't see it happening. Pardon the cynicism.
S Subramanian, a regular contributor to The Review, is a journalist based in New Delhi.