Sunday, December 28, 2008

Update on me and Mumbai

First a quick personal update:

I’ve been accepted to a couple medical schools, but haven’t decided where to go. I don’ t need to, and likely won’t, decide till May 15th, so there’s no rush.

In the interim, I’ve quit my job (’s becoming a recurring theme for me to hand in a resignation every 6 months), and for now, I have 6 weeks off to enjoy my last few days in India. I’m relishing my time off (being a bum is highly underrated), and have a list of things to do (travel, self-improvement, family visits), that bears resemblance to that of a retiree (sans grandchildren). Some highlights from the next weeks: trips to Goa/Bombay, and Calcutta/Darjeeling/Sikkim, cooking lessons in Hyderabadi cuisine, exercise to shed the excess baggage gained thanks to the latter cuisine, and time with my crazy Jihadi family.

In anticipation of my own laziness, I’ve signed up for a new job that will only last 5 months, and entails 15 hours/week of work for a comfortable paycheck and accommodation included (in my, surely irrelevant, opinion, it’s not about working hard or smart, but working less ;). An important detail about the job: it involves teaching Chinese tikes how to speak English in Suzhou, a city located one hour from Shanghai. China features a booming job market in Teaching English as a Foreign Language jobs for native speakers, and recruits the same from the US/UK/Australia. I can’t help but think they’ll feel cheated when a brown guy shows up, no matter how clearly nasally American my accent.

Ok, update done

My blog is experiencing a bit of an identity crisis, given my relatively stationary existence since returning from my SE Asian adventure, but I recently read “Freakonomics” and one of the pleasures of the book was it’s distinct lack of theme. In that vein, I give up on trying to make this blog about anything more specific than the meanderings of my own perverse sense of curiosity. With that I give you an update on the Mumbai bombings:

I was recently in Mumbai for a lavish wedding hosted by Parsi friends of the family. It was a sumptuous affair, rife with glittering attire, sparkling small talk, and all the trappings of “Mumbai Society.” In short, it was trippy, trippy fun, given how utterly removed I am from any sort of “elite”. I felt like a millionaire playboy for a couple days, instead of a post-college bum...
However, the wedding also offered a chance to interact with some of the social elite of Mumbai, and understand how the recent attacks had played themselves out in the city’s psyche; I was particularly well-situated for this purpose, given the wedding’s location in South Bombay, where the targets of the attack were located.

In a nutshell, the mood was sober. Unlike many of the terrorist attacks in recent history, this one had hit the elite (a striking parallel to the 9/11 attacks), as the Taj Mahal Hotel and Trident occupy a central location in the social constellations of the the city rich and/or famous (one graduate of Mumbai’s elite Cathedral school told me he knew many of the victims, and that his family lunched at the Taj two or three times a week). For many, Christmas and the upcoming New Year’s celebrations will be decidedly low-key.

The attacks attracted disproportionate attention given their high profile targets (note, the attack at the Victoria Terminus, also a Mumbai landmark, but one frequented by a relatively pedestrian crowd, received considerably less press, and I’m about to committ the same sin in writing about the Taj Mahal hotel).

Incidentally, I visited the Taj Mahal Hotel the day after it re-opened, an astonishing three weeks after the attack. The management had done a spectacular job! Photos of the hotel from the attack were no less than a visual metaphor for the nature of strike, the well-appointed lobby riddled with random bullet holes, and smeared with blood. However, the lobby into which I stepped that day evidenced the attacks only by way of a temporary Tree of Life memorial, featuring the names of the dead. Apart from that, a few stores had been walled off, but very professionally, to the point where you would’ve only known had you visited the hotel earlier (I had).

My mom and I hadn’t come as terror tourists (though there were a fair share of those), but to visit the famous Gazdar Jewelry shop, where my family has frequently struck gold in finding rare and exquisite antique jewelry (shameless pun, I’m sorry); this trip was both to look for more, and to show our solidarity with the owner. The shop’s owner, an old family friend, waxed lyrical of the Tata heirs role in quickly rebuilding the hotel. He said the speech given at the re-opening speech the previous day was surprisingly moving, and Tata himself was moved to tears while thanking the hotel’s staff for their individual acts of courage, which certainly saved lives that day. Interestingly, I repeatedly heard Tata referenced in the ensuing days, by numerous Mumbaikers. It would appear that just as NYC collectively narrated its own patriot mythologies in the days following 9/11, the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai had curiously fixed Tata in the role of the fearless leader (akin to Guiliani in NYC). In a way, I think it quite appropriate. The Taj is certainly an elitist symbol, but its history can certainly be a source of national pride. In 1903’s, Jamsedji Tata had visited Watson's, then Mumbai’s most lavish hotel. He was turned away for being Indian, and vowed to build a hotel so magnificent and classic, he would neatly turn the snub on its head (note: there is considerable speculation that this story is apocryphal, and I'm inclined to believe it is, but what is history but a fable agreed upon). Regardless of his motivations, he undoubtedly built a hotel worthy of Mumbai: the Taj is undoubtedly a remarkable piece of Mumbai history, and in a sense, a symbol of Indian self-reliance (it’s also about as classy a “Fuck You” Tata could’ve offered his would be detractors). Its quick renovation following the attacks deepens it role a symbol of Indian defiance, this time, in the face of terrorism.

On that note, Indians have a remarkable threshold for chaos, and with it, terrorism. While America threw the relative equivalent of a national hissy fit in the wake of 9/11 (and not unrightly), most Indians regarded the 26/11 attacks with directed exasperation (the government screwed up royally, most feel), and an almost spiritual patience.

Finally, some Indians simply took no note at all. One of my cousins, a member of South Mumbai upwardly mobile youth (he’s an I-banking analyst, one of the increasingly rare few who still has a job), smoked himself silly with his friends on Mumbai’s finest hash. When I asked him with measured gravity (lest I upset him and his friends), about whether the attacks were directly traumatic, he replied with an irreverent grin: “Traumatic? Are you kidding? I fucking partied!....a two day vacation in the middle of the week. It was fricking sweet, I was high the whole time.”

Though not as classy as Tata’s retort, I suppose that’s as big a “Fuck You” to the terrorists as any.

1 comment:

Dallas said...

Arsalan, When do you leave for China?