Thursday, November 27, 2008

The resilience of India

Here is Joshui Brustein quoting Suketu Mehta's book:

The writer Suketu Mehta captured brilliantly the dogged, resilient compassion of Mumbai in his book “Maximum City: Mumbai Lost and Found.”

In remarks he has given based on the book, he spoke of asking a man named Asad bin Saif, who worked at an institute for secularism, whether the chaos and slums and filth made him pessimistic about human beings. Here is how Mr. Mehta continued the story:

“Not at all,” he responded. “Look at the hands from the trains.”

If you are late for work in the morning in Bombay, and you reach the station just as the train is leaving the platform, you can run up to the packed compartments and you will find many hands stretching out to grab you on board, unfolding outwards from the train like petals. As you run alongside the train, you will be picked up and some tiny space will be made for your feet on the edge of the compartment. The rest is up to you; you will probably have to hang on with your fingertips on
the door frame, being careful not to lean out too far lest you get decapitated by a pole placed too close to the tracks. But consider what has happened: your fellow-passengers, already packed tighter than cattle are legally allowed to be, their shirts already drenched in sweat in the badly ventilated compartment, having stood like this for hours, retain an empathy for you, know that your boss might yell at you or cut your pay if you miss this train, and will make space where none exists to take one more person with them. And at the moment of contact, they do not know if the hand that is reaching for theirs belongs to a Hindu or Muslim or Christian or Brahmin or untouchable, or whether you were born in this city or arrived only this morning, or whether you live in Malabar Hill or Jogeshwari, whether you’re from Bombay or Mumbai or New York. All they know is that you’re trying to get to work in the city of gold, and that’s enough. Come on board, they say. We’ll adjust.
That quote comes from Suketu Mehta's amazing book on India called Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found. Incidentally, I bought my copy from a street merchant a few blocks away from the Taj Mahal hotel. It is an investigation of Mumbai full of insights on the city and its inhabitants; from the glamour of the Taj and Bollywood to the prostitution in the ghettos to poor Bihari migrants trying to make it big to Shiv sena leaders and much more. I suggest you read it if you want an insight in today's India.

I want to echo Ross's post on the incredible resilience of India's society, because it is an important point. India has been suffering from an incredible number of terrorist attacks in recent years. 2300 people were killed in 2007, making India the country most affected by terrorism in the world, and it was not an exceptional year by India's standards. There has been several attacks this year, including a few with more than 100 casualties. Mumbai itself has been attacked six times since 1993, the last time being a mere two years ago which ended up killing more than 200 people.

Today's attack is not an isolated incident, it could not even be accurately described as an escalation (at least not in human terms, maybe in symbolism). Yet India's society is still holding strong. They have a Sikh Prime Minister who was largely elected by Hindus, about two decades after rebel Sikhs attempted to carve an independent state out of Punjab and Indira Gandhi's murder at the hands of her Sikh bodyguard (when she was Prime Minister). There are some Hindu extremists trying to rouse anti-Muslim sentiments, and they have been successful in certain instances. But most of the time, even in Hindutva organizations, pragmatism and relative moderation rules. And during the past decades, in the environment I just described, India has thrived. Try imagining any western country under these circumstances. Do you think we would react as wisely as India? I think asking the question is answering it.


LecterH said...

I am from Mumbai. And I am pissed off. Not because of the terrorist actions - that's a bunch of brainwashed kids being unconscionably stupid. And they deserve to die a prolonged death after all information is squeezed out of the ones dumb enough to be caught alive. No - what upsets me is the reaction I know is coming.

And it's going to be this. Nothing.

I don't mean that everyone should throw their toys out of the pram, have a huge hissy fit, and nuke somebody. But, for once, someone - get ANGRY! It's great to say that India's democracy is 'resilient' and will bounce back. And it will. But where is the line between 'resilience' and 'apathy'? Where is the spirit of being together to fight a common foe?

The Chinese use a symbol for the word Crisis which is part 'Problem' and part 'Opportunity". This can be a teaching opportunity for this great country. It can be an opportunity for people to get angry, and channel their anger positively, introspectively and extrospectively. Ponder what the country and the world can do, and what they can do in their own lives.

Alas - What I see is another television spectacle, soon to be consigned to the rubbish bins of memory and cocktail party chat, and to be forgotten as soon as the next cricket victory comes by or another Bollywood item number girl catches the public imagination. And in the meanwhile, the BJP has the balls to put out ads saying the ruling party is ill equipped to deal with terrorism. yeah - nice timing and way to put politics aside and support the country.

And the country will move on. And everyone will sing songs of praise hailing India's resilient democracy. Just move on - as if nothing happened.

An opportunity missed in a crisis. And therein lies the real tragedy.
And in the meanwhile, let's not forget those brave men (and women?) who are putting their lives on the line for their country. I realized in the last couple of days that I would not have been able to do it. It takes a special kind of bravery.

Victor Tremblay said...

I understand your frustration LecterH. Fighting terrorism is extremely frustrating because of their ability to avoid retaliation by hiding in the population. The first instinct is to retaliate hard but this only leads to more recruitment propaganda for the terrorists. There are no easy solutions to this problem.

I think the Sarkozy-Putin discussion that happened a few weeks ago sums up the situation: Putin told Sarkozy that he wanted to hang Georgia president by the balls, just like Bush hanged Saddam Hussein, to which Sarkozy replied "Do you really want to end like Bush?".

A strong answer can lead to worse results even though it feels better. I do not mean to tell India what to do, I am merely an observer. But it does not seem to me that hitting back hard would result in a safer India.