Mumbai, before and after 26/11: How the 2008 terror attacks changed the city and its citizens

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on 26 November, 2017. It is being republished on the occasion of the 12th anniversary of the terror attacks that rocked the city of Mumbai

As I remember, it was a short burst we heard first: the noises staccato, abrupt — so sharp we were off our feet and at the verandah, the dog already there, ears forward, alert. Peering into the darkness of late-evening November, my first thought turned to fire crackers, though Diwali was long over by then. But my husband wasn’t smiling. His Rajput upbringing meant he understood the sound of gunshot better than others, and as it turned out his instinct was spot-on.

The television was already on, news reporters piecing together the story that would ultimately and bizarrely be broadcast live over three agonising days, not just to a horrified nation and the world, but also to the very agents responsible for this brutality — the terrorists themselves.

Pigeons fly near the burning Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai November 27, 2008. Indian commandos freed hostages from Mumbai's Taj Mahal hotel on Thursday but battled on with gun-toting Islamist militants who launched an audacious attack across India's financial capital, killing more than 100 people.REUTERS/Punit Paranjpe (India) - GM1E4BR1EKX01

It wasn’t as if random acts of terror were new to us. Terror attacks had already been changing our perspective of the world as a safe place for a while. Then came the 9/11 attacks, which crossed all boundaries of what we had believed probable. So what if they had happened abroad? The fact that a plane could fly into a building, then a second time… for real, not in the movies – seemed unbelievable.

In a newsroom at the time, I recall the disbelief in a colleague’s voice as he tracked the first plane crash on the internet. Still early, we didn’t know what had happened then. But later, the unforgiving horror hit, past all beliefs of unreality, of random acts of cruelty. My husband narrated how the cops, playing rugby with his team, were called off the pitch mid-game — summoned to arms, their departure silent, immediate. There was a sinister force changing the world, and those in the forces had gone on high alert as the news unfolded — globally. But if we believed the boundaries of what we trusted as safe or normal or even moral had been crossed by 9/11, if all things sacred were defiled then — we had yet to see what unforgiving lengths terror could go to, up close and personal. 26/11 was our nemesis.

The word ‘audacious’ has always irked me, when used to describe terror assaults.

Audacious implies something daring, bold, and implicit in the word is the quality of bravery. Yet terror attacks are an act of supreme cowardice — unable to target soldiers/those in power, they target civilians, the weak, the defenceless, the unequally equipped. How can they be ‘audacious’ as so many reports insisted at the time?

Mumbai was under siege. We had witnessed terror earlier. Bomb blasts in 1993, the blast at the Stock Exchange so close to home, my building trembled for a heart-stopping instance. I had felt it. Multiple train blasts in 2006, and dear friends from work travelling on trains bound for self-same destinations. I, heavily pregnant and sick with worry for their safety, had felt it. But this attack, this attack that did away with the illusion of safety in places we considered the most secure, where we brought children and the elderly, where we let down our guard…this was a whole new world of madness. Restaurants, a theatre, even a hospital had not been spared in this one — for three long days we were a city literally at war.

My husband and I, we never did find out exactly how we heard those gunshots in our home. Later there were several theories of echoes from the Taj across the bay to where we lived. There were also theories that some from the party had landed on our side and made their way up, firing as they went...

What changed after? Everything. For those in South Mumbai, many survived at great personal cost. Dear ones lost, lives altered just like that. I will not dwell on this part, it is heart breaking.

By way of the collective — every hotel, every theatre in the city has security at the entrance now. You cannot enter a restaurant without being searched first.

The gate at the Times of India building, VT’s heritage landmark turned fortress immediately after; this was the bastion that some of the terrorists had almost entered.

On the state and centre level, restructuring, resizing, re-grouping of forces. Coastal watches, more weapons for the police, better training et al. A work in progress, so many gaps were pointed out. So much still needs to be done.

Perhaps we haven’t had such an awakening to evil since then. But that is not to say it will never happen. We need to be prepared, regardless.

Here’s the truth: Even years later, I find myself praying before going for something as simple as a movie. A couple I know travels separately to the same place of work. That way, should there be an act of terror in the city, at least one parent might be left alive to care for their infant daughter.

There has been also been a lot of attention given to a book written by foreign journalists, capturing the horror and its aftermath. Maybe we, as a collective, are still are too close to what happened to be objective about it, some say.

But how to be objective? Terror had already been wearing us down each time it has happened. 26/11? Something broke then. Something we considered alive and resilient and impervious to despair. Let’s call it the heart of a collective consciousness. Change is required in the way forward, to protect us all from similar situations. Change in the city’s defence procedures for sure, we need to equip ourselves better. That terror attacks haven’t occurred again is no guarantee that they might not in the future.

“Don’t take it so personally,” friends say when I express outrage over lines crossed, whatever the area.

Terror is not some far away notion, happening to other people, the wolf who may or may not be at the door. It was among us, its cruelty and evil ravaging everything. It has taken away friends and loved ones, it has changed the way we eat and pray and work and think — it has changed the way we live. It has taken our freedom to move without fear. I would ask you to introspect, then answer this: how can it not be personal?

Gauri Sinh is a writer and former editor of leading dailies

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