February 22, 2020
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I Write Fiction, But Reality?

In Berlin for a year on an academic exchange programme, the author of God's Little Soldier recounts how he felt seeing his city defiled

I Write Fiction, But Reality?
Illustration by Sandeep Adhwaryu
I Write Fiction, But Reality?
outlookindia.com
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Wednesday, November 26. Tübingen University, Germany. I get the feeling I'm here not as a novelist but as an expert on extremism and terrorism. Moral of the story: Don't write a book called God's Little Soldier.

Back in the hotel at 6 pm. Switched on CNN. No other English channel in the hotel. A moving caption at the bottom of the screen about Taj Mahal Hotel. Too bad I missed it. Have to get dressed to leave for the meeting with the mayor. There it is again, 'Gunshots heard at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai'. Sounds like gangster stuff. Is it the men of Our Father, which art the mafia, none other than Dawood Ibrahim who rules Bombay from Dubai and Pakistan?

9.30 pm. I am back, in front of the TV, sandwich in hand. 'Taj, Oberoi and Cafe Leopold under attack', CNN says. Shots of people running for cover outside the circle at Metro Cinema. Go to sleep, I tell myself. Tomorrow is a hectic day, lunch with the dean, followed by a seminar with 50 students.... Cama Hospital joins the Taj, Oberoi, CST amongst the places attacked. Must be some mistake. Why would terrorists go to a children's and women's hospital?

11 pm. I'm still watching. CNN is concentrating full-time on the Taj and Oberoi and the Chabad Lubavitch Centre but hardly touches upon the other seven or eight sites where only Indians hung out. How come whenever we've had terrorist attacks on Bombay, it's always simultaneously at multiple locations?

I'm witnessing one of the worst terrorist attacks on my city from 4,000 miles away. At 12.30 am, the radio station here wakes me up and wants me to comment on what is happening in Bombay. All I know is that fiction can never keep pace with reality. I suspect Updike, Rushdie and yours truly who've written about terrorism really know nothing about the subject when confronted by insane killings in reality.

Late night, and I'm still watching TV. Taj, Oberoi and a Jewish centre exclusively engage the interest of the CNN team with just a passing reference to CST and Cama Hospital. I switch to German channels—surely they will be more balanced and will focus as much on locations with a concentration of Indians. I have no knowledge of German, but understand enough to gather that these media guys, too, do not think that the attack on Cama Hospital deserves some TV time. It would seem that only the whites matter to them.

There is a fire at Oberoi and now flames the size of gigantic sunflares are shooting up to the sky out of the Taj and great big grey-black clouds of smoke are billowing out from next to the hotel's landmark dome. There are continuous explosions, shootouts, hand grenades blowing up. A wounded guest is brought out by the Taj staff on one of its tall luggage trolleys; he's followed by a man who hangs like a hammock, his hands and legs held up by four men carrying him to an ambulance.

CNN keeps switching to its sister channel in India, CNN-IBN. Once in a while they have an expert on terrorism from their own bank of reporters. I'm incensed to find one of the experts say that the US and British governments are considering how to reduce the risk of war between the two nuclear powers, India and Pakistan, both of whom are gearing up for a showdown after this attack. There's a crucial difference between Indian and foreign anchors and reporters. The ones from the subcontinent have only one pitch for their voices: a new octave of shrillness that slips into hysteria, with or without cause. The foreigners are much more insidious. They sound reasonable and speak with authority, thus camouflaging their highly dangerous prejudices and biases. Is it not premature to talk about a war between India and Pakistan since it will take time to find out who is behind the terror this time?

The chief minister of Maharashtra seems to be flying back from Kerala. He's as always a fount of platitudes and vacuous reassurances. The situation, he says, will soon be brought under control. It has to come under control by morning, I tell myself. Surely, daylight will smoke the terrorists out.

My mind keeps going back to the guests in the Taj and Oberoi. What's going on? Why doesn't CNN tell us what happened at CST? There must have been thousands and thousands of men and women waiting to catch the trains back home. What happened there? How many were shot dead? And what about the Cama hospital? Were children and women shot? They keep showing shots of Karkare, the head of the anti-terrorist squad, wearing a bullet-proof vest, and then they immediately tell us that he has been shot dead along with two of his colleagues. Shot dead where and how? And what about this Jewish centre? Does it mean the Jewish community in our city's being revived?

Thursday morning, November 27. This can't be. The Taj, the Oberoi and the Jewish centre are still under siege and burning, the hostages are still inside, the terrorists are still running rampant. The number of the dead keeps rising. The military is out on the streets.

The prime minister is on the screen. He has one of those soft, dead voices. No fault of his. But he comes across as emotionless and limp. I must not formulate these silly judgements based on the quality of the voice. In the documentaries that I've seen, Mahatma Gandhi had a squeaky, colourless voice, but he could carry the entire nation on his shoulders. Come on, Manmohan Singh, lead us out of the darkness into the light. Kick the bloody terrorists out of my city and out of our country. Oh God, what is he saying? Oh no, no, no. Manmohan Singh is doing exactly what Indian prime ministers and other leaders have done over the last 40 years. He's already pointing his finger at our neighbours. Can't we keep our mouths shut till the absolutely proven facts are out for all the world to see, instead of making knee-jerk accusations? "We will take up strongly with our neighbours that the use of their territory for launching attacks on us will not be tolerated and that there would be a cost, if suitable measures are not taken by them." Oh, Manmohan Singh, I thought you had better judgement. If Pakistan is involved in this, God help us. But also if they are involved, we need 100 per cent proof before blabbering.

The commandos are in Bombay. They're in black and the guy who is their spokesman has a black scarf around his face. He's talking about the corridors of the hotels being full of dead bodies and of the slow progress in eliminating the terrorists. Many of the hotel guests are streaming out or are being carried out. Each has a tale of horror to tell.

The usual suspects seem to be in place in Bombay. A total lack of timely intelligence. And even when there is intelligence, warning of attacks on the city of Bombay, the government ministers and the police pay no heed. We are now told that the attackers came in from the sea and docked their dinghies at Sassoon Docks. I suddenly get the feeling I must be watching Die Harder, Part Two. A terrorist in black is on the screen. He's caught mid-action with a machine-gun in hand. He's high on adrenaline and racing past on his mission of death. Any moment now Jeremy Irons will speak in his clipped tones and order the second instalment of murder and mayhem. Where are you, Bruce Willis? Parachute down and terminate the whole lot of them.

But the fact of the matter is, this time the terrorists really are high-tech guys, well-trained, every move planned.... It appears either they or their accomplices had already rented rooms in the hotels and stockpiled their weapons there. Are there only ten of them, or are there many more? It seems more than likely that they had substantial help in the city.

The phone keeps ringing constantly. I'm now an expert on the terror attacks in Bombay. I feel like a fraud. I'm whisked off to a radio station which is linked on broadband to a major German TV channel. I'm the Oracle of Delphi and I'm about to tell Germany in my prescient voice what's going to happen next in Bombay. Okay, we are about to go live. "What do you think about what is happening in Bombay today?" I can see trouble brewing. For God's sake, can anyone tell me what is happening to the Indians who were killed or wounded at CST or Cama Hospital? Are there no Indians living in India, or is it that the only people who matter are the foreigners? But I'm sensible and answer the question as honestly as I can. But the next query completely throws me. "Bombay is a soulless and unfeeling place. How do you think the city is reacting...?" I'm so taken aback that I respond instantly: "Are you kidding? Bombay soulless and unfeeling? Frenetic, yes. Mad energy, yes. But soulless and unfeeling?" The interpreter comes back at me: "This is a very serious programme, and we don't expect the use of words like 'Are you kidding' from you." I'm truly aghast. My city is under siege, the number of the wounded and dying is rising every few minutes, God knows what's happening to the hostages and to the Indians who do not seem to exist for foreign media. I simply can't believe that these people are so heartless that in such a dire crisis they have the gall to speak so disparagingly about Bombay.

Evening. My final talk. I feel a terrible sense of disconnect with my city. There has been a barrage of e-mails from friends from all over the world asking how I was, and if any of my close relations and friends had suffered. However false it may sound, isn't everybody in Bombay my friend and relative in this time of crisis?

Dinner. This can't be possible. This has been my mantra for the last 48 hours: How can those poor hostages survive through this? The commando spokesman talks again. They are closing in, but there is no end in sight. I have little doubt that the terrorists could have been blown to bits many hours ago if we didn't care about what happened to the hostages. The Jewish centre crisis has come to an end. I had no idea the rabbi and his wife had come to India two years ago. They are no more and so are many of the hostages. But as far as the foreign media are concerned, it would seem death is no longer the great equaliser. As Orwell would have put it: The foreign dead are more equal than the Indian dead.

Friday, November 28. 60 hours. There was news that finally all the hostages were freed not just from the Oberoi but also from the Taj, and that the crisis was over. But it was not. It went on for another few hours, because the terrorists were still there and their stockpiles of ammunition were going off as if every single country in the world was celebrating its independence on the same day and at the same hour.

The blame game is being ratcheted up in India. The political parties of the country are blaming each other. I doubt whether they really give a damn about what happened and about the people who died and the hostages who were so brutally killed. Their only focus is the elections next year and how they can turn these events to their own advantage.

Indian media in general—though there must be some exceptions—are baying for blood. No prizes for guessing whose blood. But can we now, at least temporarily, chop off the hand that points the finger at our neighbours and instead call on the FBI, Scotland Yard, Israeli intelligence and Interpol, along with a member from Pakistan and, of course, Indian representatives, to get to the bottom of some major questions: Who were the culprits? Who was financing them? Which country had given them shelter? Having come to a conclusion agreed upon by representatives of the major democracies of the world, we can then unitedly point our finger at whoever is responsible. Whether it be Pakistan, the Taliban, Al Qaeda or anybody else, India will then be in a position to take a very strong stance.

But here again, all talk of war would be utterly counter-productive. If, by any chance, it is Pakistan which is the guilty party, then it will be our duty to make the nations of the world realise that India was the victim today, but they themselves will be victims tomorrow or the day after. Hence, the most draconian sanctions must be enforced against the culprit until they sign a pact that they will never again support any terrorists within their country or finance them. If they are not willing to do this, and God forbid that the Pakistani government or military will be so foolish as to not accept these terms, then India would have a moral right to consider retaliatory measures.

As to the foreign media, for whom the world begins and ends with the West, just a word of caution: Empires collapse, superpowers become underdogs. Wake up, guys, one of these days China or some other nation is going to be at the top. And then don't be surprised if one day you find you don't exist for them.

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