Friday, November 26, 2010

Remembering

Today marks the second anniversary of ‘26/11.’ Terror in India has a long history - 26/11 was a tragedy unlike any other, but it wasn’t our first.

Many of today’s twenty something Indians, and indeed, most citizens of Bombay, have grown up with terrorism forming part of the backdrop of their lives. My own first memory of experiencing an unease I could not fully articulate dates back to the riots that followed the 1993 Bombay blasts. While I was not directly impacted in any way, I could sense that something in the city had changed. I emerged from those turbulent times unscathed, even though friends living nearby were later to tell me that they slept with chili powder under their pillows and sticks by their front doors. Parsi friends described how either Hindu or Muslim neighbors would come to the baugs seeking refuge – who showed up pleading for help depended on which mobs were running loose on a particular night.

But life soon resumed its course, even as the city slowly disintegrated into ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ areas. Members of religious and ethnic communities have always tended to live in clusters, but the riots demarcated rigid boundaries where there was once porosity. This suspicion of the ‘other’ has only grown with time, with the ‘self’ being defined in increasingly narrow terms. Bombay continues to retain cosmopolitan tracts and pockets. But for the most part, the city has splintered, perhaps irreversibly so.

My life (and the city’s) since 1993 has been punctuated by blasts on buses, blasts on trains, blasts around prominent tourist and commercial hubs, and most recently, 26/11. Terrorism has also reared its head elsewhere in this country, repeatedly, month on month, year on year. We are in a permanent state of war, both internally and externally. Assaulted by headlines about blasts here, strikes there, threats inside, attacks outside, we have lost our capacity to mourn and our willingness to remember. It doesn’t help that all our commentators and talking heads seem to react to everything with a knee-jerk ideological perspective, wherein they are so wedded to their constructs of ‘victim’ and ‘aggressor,’ that there is little constructive dialogue and only a trite acknowledgement of loss.

When I read the post I had written immediately after 26/11, I cringe at the quality of the writing. But the truth is that that was how I felt in the moment – angry, shocked, sad – bereaved, almost. I felt it was profoundly important to retain a memory of the attacks, and how they made me feel – bitter, vulnerable, resentful. I believed that my memories, and the collective memories of all of those who were impacted, could compel us to take constructive action, seek change, demand governance.

I was initially surprised by people’s reluctance to speak about 26/11 and attributed this hesitance to denial, to apathy born of disaster overkill, to an inability to care. But now I think it was pure embarrassment – at the apparent ease with which the city was held to ransom, at the conduct of our politicians, at the fact that the South Bombay constituency had an abnormally low voter turnout in the elections immediately afterwards, at the conviction that things would not be very different if the events of 2008 were to repeat themselves. Because, after all, we were not very different either.

Remembering is a conscious act. It requires effort. It demands that we think about what went wrong, and try to do things differently. And in the absence of any evolution in policies, any strengthening of our police and security forces, any improved interaction between intelligence agencies, any indication at all that this city (or country) is any safer, remembering is a hollow gesture. So spare me the TV and print specials, the editorials and the special editions. For over two decades, we have shown ourselves to be less than willing to respond to our memories  in any meaningful way. 

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