Rocked it in the daytime, Rocked it in the night

How was it I started almost all of my small talk Thursday?  “On a scale of 1 to 10, I’m about 1.75 freaked out ‘cuz I bin to a buncha those places that got shot up in Bombay.”***

This is India’s 9/11, this was an assault on all of us, this attack on India’s financial capital was meant to shake the world’s confidence in a time of economic turmoil, dissuade investment in India,*** blah, blah, blah.  Mostly bullshit, I reckon.

I mean, are you kidding me?  The country lives with violence like few other countries on earth.  Bombay has seen plenty in the last 20 years.  Admittedly, armed militia-type attacks, not so much.  Still, you know, my last time in Bombay was around 30 July 2003.  I know this, I can look this up, because it coincided with a general strike called by Hindu Nationalists to protest the most recent of five bombings over the previous eight months, aimed mostly at public transit.***

But let’s be clear, a couple of Five-Star hotels are not the WTC.  And even throwing in the Leopold so as to describe these targets as places popular with tourists needs some real qualification.  Sure, I guess all those Sheikhs and their entourages (which are my my main memory of the lobby of the old part of the Taj, for even going to India later as a professor and I couldn’t bring myself to take a room there) are maybe a little skiddish about travel to India.  Or maybe not since they don’t carry American or British passports.  Yeah, I guess well-heeled members of Canadian meditation clubs are probably spooked (but then, in my experience, they would be anyway, about anything and everything in India).

If Indian wheelin-n-dealin was the target wouldn’t a midday hit on the BSE or some bank buildings and the like have better made the point?  No, the southern part of Bombay from mid-evening is just a world of easy high-profile targets for multi-site Columbine-like carnage. 

When I was young(er) and (more) foolish, India rarely made me nervous.  But where it did, that was Bombay more than once.  I’ve always stayed in the same hotel (there are stories &c.), the Grand, just a short walk from Victoria Terminus,*** the GPO and separated from the docks by a gianormous concrete wall.  At night, the neighbourhood to me was always a place in which I went about with minimal wealth on my person and sans passport.  Sure, most of the coolie-type folk with their unrefined heroin habits were passed out by then, but their pushers and allied, um, entrepreneurs were out and about sniffing the air for prey like jackals.  (When the pimp with the cataract started to take offense at my refusal even to entertain the concept of entering into a commerical relationship with him, I knew it was time to make for the Grand with all haste.)

And that space from where TV cameras captured the smoke and flame hemorrhaging from the neck of the Taj Palace’s main dome, out there is a big open area leading to the concourse before the Gate of India.  It is a place where, even in broad daylight, I try to be as open as possible to normal-, spidey- and extra-sensory perception.  For, nowhere else in India have I experienced so cosmopolitan an assault by the begging-n-preying classes.  Nepalis and Tibetans, as well as Indians from everywhere, harranging the tourists.  Certainly not one of those places I can imagine hanging around after dark; that goes for good hunks of Colaba.

There was this little girl, 8-10, we conversed as we walked around there.  She told me some story; I honestly don’t remember much now.  But, in the end, it came down to the assertion that she had an infant brother who’d do well, if only I’d agree to go to this place just off the concourse a few blocks and buy for her for her brother a bag of powdered milk.  She was, I noted, short of Persian phonemes because she followed me (or led me in her mind) all the way to the Prince of Wales “Mujiyum,” as she called it, taking a couple of final stabs at her original request.  I figured she was some less than wholly benign girl Kim, attempting to lure me (or be lured) into mischief.

What’s my point?  I guess I’m trying to say, well first I’m not trying to say that I think the Bombay attacks aren’t worthy of news coverage and even to the degree that they’re being covered, nor that I think the attacks weren’t calculated to produce a spot of bother in financial circles, nor I guess that I think that spooking tourists wasn’t really part of the plan.

And I’m not saying that this isn’t an Indian 9/11.  It’s just that I suspect that perception will be confined to some white folks and not for very long except among a very few of them.***  Indians experience this kind of thing far too often to come to know any instance of it by the metonymy of its date shorn of reference to a year.***

This was not an attack on all of us.  To assert that it was is the kind of thing that I only expect to hear during Question Period or a sermon.  Its reach will not come nearly as close to most of us as it will to the 100s if not 1000s of Indians who are going to suffer in subsequent acts of violence.

So I guess I’m just saying that India, and especially Bombay, can be a bit of a brutal place.  Political violence (of many many sorts) is pretty rare, lightning-strike-like, but in a country that big with that many people, a number of folks are going to get zapped there with regularity.  Less frequently fatal – but still often fatal – violence there, the very discriminant sort against individuals and against whole classes of people, is part of daily existence.  Remember that that city which foreign correspondants find so cosmopolitan is home to Asia’s largest slum.

Bombay’s one of few places I’ve been in India that, from end to end, puts “Electric Avenue” inta my head:



Now in the street there is violence
And an a lots of work to be done
No place to hang out our washing
And an I can’t blame all on the sun, oh no.

Workin’ so hard like a soldier
Can’t afford a thing on TV
Deep in my heart I’m bah warrior
Can’t get food for them kid, good God!

Who is to blame in one country
Never can get to the one
Dealin’ in multiplication
And they still can’t feed everyone, oh no!

We gonna rock down to Electric Avenue
And then we’ll take it higher 
Ho no!  We gonna rock down to Electric Avenue
And then we’ll take it higher

Ho! Out in the street
Out in the street
Out in the daytime
Out in the night

We gonna rock down to Electric Avenue
And then we’ll take it higher
Ho! We gonna rock down to Electric Avenue
And then we’ll take it higher

Out in the street
Out in the street
Out in the playground
In the dark side of town

Ho!  We gonna rock down to Electric Avenue….

***At the risk of looking like some Raj romantic, I have to confess, I just can’t really make the word “Mumbai” come out of my mouth, and it’ll always be Victoria Terminus to me.  I justify this on the weak grounds that those were their names when I first vistied them (but Richard Gombrich insisted into like the 80s that the place would always be Ceylon to him, ick).  I also justify it on the slightly stronger grounds that there’s no shortage of locals who’d still use those names to me.  Finally, that crazy town will always be so known to me for the song must always say, “Come fly with me, lets fly, lets fly away, If you can use some exotic booze, there’s a bar in far Bombay!”  (There’s some stories, there’s a pretty girl, and there’s dancing and Indian beer at American prices at the bar in the Oberoi hotel, dancing and cheap booze at Fardapur with Walter Spink as MC.)

***Over at the CTV, Paul Workman, reporting from Delhi, described the thing as an attack on India’s “largest and most cosmopolitan city.”  Did any Delhiites overhear you say that? 

***Once everything opened up again at the end of the day, I found myself in the Leopold Cafe, drinking for Commonwealth honour with a semi-professional Australian rugby-player and a South African pilot for Air Mauritius – who had to fly the next day.  There were pretty Belgian girls; there aren’t any other stories, at least that I remember.  I have never and will never fly Air Mauritius.

***Ok, ok, *shudder* Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus.

***And of course, Jews everywhere recognize the behaviour of that predatory species that stalks them incessantly.  And so David Ahenakew must be considered a criminal.

***Nevermind the fact that Indian English speakers, and so the English media in India, simply aren’t prone to such linguistic simplification.

The last time I was in Bombay, I bought a dancing Shiva for a drinking buddy.  I didn’t get around to giving it to him ’til I’d been back for a few weeks.  Coincidentally, I got to improve the anecdote of its purchase when I presented it to him, for that very week a taxi packed with explosives blew up what I gathered was within about 40 yards of where I’d bought the little bronze, which was on the street beside the new tower of the Taj Palace in Bombay.


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