The city had been attacked by terrorists, a channel reported. Another channel screamed that the city was surrounded. Panic spread. My driver thought at first that it was an FM radio jockey’s joke. But he soon realised the gravity of the situation. Of course, we were in north Mumbai, in the faraway western suburbs, while the attack had taken place in south Mumbai, at least 30 kilometres away. Reporters were talking about gun-toting men running amuck with hand grenades, a bomb in the railway station near the domestic airport, another in a hospital. It all sounded so surreal and filmy that few even believed it.
On the Andheri-Kurla road, life was normal—a traffic jam, even at 11:30 pm; dug up roads, debris, Metrorail construction work.... We saw people talking on their cellphones, agitated expressions and animated conversations. The news was spreading. My mother called to make sure I was home. "Yes," I answered. I was in no mood for sermons nor did I want to frighten her. I was barely 10 minutes from my destination. Turning back meant another half-hour drive. Besides, I did not want to disappoint my friend’s daughter.
She had called, saying hesitantly: "Uncle, are you...?" "I am," I replied and could feel her relief over the phone. Her crestfallen face greeted me at the door. "Only three of the 30 guests may turn up. The rest have dropped out," she said. She had spread mattresses on the terrace under the starry winter sky. Candles had been lit. The music system was in place. But the cake would not be delivered. Nor the pizzas. The masks would not be worn. The snacks would not be eaten. The gloom was palpable even as we (there were 10 of us finally) sang "Happy Birthday" to her mother at 12:30 am.
All this may seem trivial compared to the enormity of the events that took place at the Taj and Oberoi. But this is what happens when terrorists strike—there are the hundreds who suffer the violence directly, but the ripple effect strikes millions psychologically. Fear grips the city, smiles turn into frowns, roads become empty, offices are shut, people wonder if they should stay indoors or, in sincerity and solidarity, return to work. Meanwhile, the phone rings—another call, another sms from a concerned friend.
But some things never change: as I write this, I can see the media turn the event into an emotional soap opera, more concerned about the competition and trps than reportage; politicians have started their ritual of cabinet meetings and press briefings and one-upmanship; people on the streets and in their houses are sitting around TV sets, calling up friends to allay their restlessness, imagining scenarios, and shouting recommendations that no one can or will hear.
This has happened before and this will happen again, whether we wish it or not. We can, like the Americans, in righteous indignation, make this a reason to launch a war that will never reach conclusion. Or we can, as Indians have often done, talk and do nothing, in cowardice rather than compassion. We can sink into despair as leaders scramble for political mileage from the tragedy. Or we can just move on with life—wash away the bloodstains, wipe the tears and move on. We do not have many choices. Life has to go on.
The party did not happen, so what? Instead, let us celebrate the desire of daughters to bring joy to their mothers. Let’s focus on what can be, rather than what could have been. That is one thing that the terrorists cannot take away from us.
Devdutt Pattanaik is writer/lecturer on mythology. The Book of Ram is his new book.