Letters From Mumbai

Photograph by Luca Rosean

Not Just Jazz by the Bay

Two months since the Mumbai attacks, the city is numb and rumors breed wildly. Our reporter in India’s financial capital reports on house parties, police lines, and the threatened market for roti rolls.

Terrorists hate Thanksgiving. Who knew? Of course, this was never discussed in the media following the Mumbai terror attacks. I mean, the Indian journalists made clear on the front page of the November 30th Times of India that some kind of weird numbers game was going on; the attacks began on November 26th and, as we learned, “the number 26 is a very unlucky number. Twenty-six comes to 8 (2+6=8) which brings in destruction.” Within hours, the targeting of tourists and expats was well established. But it was only a select few of us—those of us with mashed potatoes in the fridge, turkeys soaking in brine, pies cooling on the counter—that really understood what was happening. The terrorists weren’t just out to spread mayhem and havoc in my adopted city; they were out to ruin Thanksgiving.

For those slow-ticking 60-odd hours from Thursday, November 26th to the 29th, nobody in Mumbai ate cornbread stuffing or much of anything. We were all too busy staring at the TV. The attacks unfolded like a bad action film, with strange plot twists, unnecessary explosions, pop-pop-pop machine-gun fire, over-the-top rescues, and antagonists who seemed to be cheap stand-ins for real terrorists—the kind, you know, who have motives, demands, and faces.

It was scary, and we quickly learned what soldiers know: Adrenaline and a perceived threat on your life can take you pretty far, but you’ll definitely feel like shit afterwards.

Much has been made of the locations the terrorists targeted. It’s clear they mainly chose the haunts of the rich and the foreign (groups that, in Mumbai, overlap in perfect Venn-diagram style). A common refrain in the weeks following the attacks, at least among the monied Indian and foreign classes, was a tally of the last time they were at the locations. My recitation goes, “Why, just in early October I took the train in to VT station, walked through the Oberoi lobby, and stopped at the Taj to use the restroom!” The attacks hit home; of course they did, that’s what they were meant to do.

Did you know the terrorists are British citizens, Mossad agents, Pakistanis, Al Qaeda operatives, trained dentists, all at once?So Thanksgiving was ruined. Our rain date was the Friday following, December 5th. After dinner, my friends decide we would go to a party in South Mumbai. “Nariman House,” my friend tells the driver. The look on the driver’s face is a mixture of shock, horror, and complete confusion. Nariman House, home to Mumbai’s small Chabad outreach community for ultra-Orthodox Jews, was under siege for days. When the hostage-taking, hostage-killing, gun battles, and commando operations ended, nothing was left but a concrete shell.

“Err, close to Nariman House. Not in Nariman House,” my friend fumbles. The driver is expressionless.

We get to the party. Turns out it’s a journalist party. Everyone is drunk and waving around conspiracy theories and “inside information.” Did you know the terrorists are British citizens, Mossad agents, Pakistanis, Al Qaeda operatives, trained dentists, all at once? That they pretended to be Malaysian students, Thai students, Trinidadian soccer players? That they lived on nothing but dried fruit (which, during the siege, was oddly true)? The party stumbles on and we stagger out.

New York has its pizza, Berlin its shwarma, Jerusalem its falafel, and in Mumbai there are roti rolls for when you’re drunk and hungry. We head on foot towards the city’s best, served from a sidewalk restaurant whose plastic tables and chairs appear only after the local cop has been given his nightly due.

The streets are empty of cars and scooters, and the stores are shuttered. It’s one of the few parts of the city where street sleepers, those too poor to afford even a tent in a slum, don’t crowd the sidewalk. We take a few turns and there it appears: a dark, silent, hulking Taj, the hotel that saw some of the attack’s worst atrocities. A cheap plywood fence has been erected, complete with stenciled “rising spirit of Mumbai” banalities. It is 1:30 in the morning. There are police in various uniforms—city police, National Security Guards, plainclothes men—dozing in chairs. A few stand at attention, bearing what look like WWII-era automatic weapons. They eye us warily as we walk past the hotel’s historic Old Wing. Most of the damage is on the other side of the building, so our view is of an undisturbed giant. Next we walk past a doorway flooded with light. It’s the entrance to the New Wing’s tower, where most of the guest rooms are located. Every light in the building is blazing but no figures appear at any of the windows.

House parties are the new style, as are moments of silence at house parties.A police line appears. It’s a heavy rope, strung across the road. I run ahead and lift it up for my friends to duck under; for some reason, my greatest fear is a friend clotheslining herself, crashing to the ground in front of these inattentive cops. They’re there to protect us Americans, us Westerners, us rich people. My mind starts to wander. In some ways—in all ways, I tell myself—we’re the ones who brought these attacks upon this hotel, this city. In my late-night state, victim and perpetrator get a bit muddled. If we stumble, if we talk too loud, if we blather or act the fool, we will have justified these attacks. We’ll have proven ourselves not worthy—though, of what?

We approach the food stand. It’s far, far emptier than we’ve ever seen it before. Usually swamped with late-night cabbies and others in search of cheap, solid, quick eats, it looks half-closed. We sit down at a rickety table and chase away a gnarly street cat. The leg of my chair keeps trying to slip off the curb. A waiter appears, the menu card strung around his neck. “Rumali roti,” we confidently order. “No,” he replies in Hindi. “Chicken kabab, that’s all we have.” Well, shit. We bolt down our food, the heavy mood not lifted one bit.

Too soon. It’s far too soon to be here, to be doing this. It was our mistake. But isn’t the first time always too soon?

Now in February, there are events going on at the big hotels again. The reason I know about them is because people mention them in order to say, “Yeah, not going to that. Too soon.” House parties are the new style, as are moments of silence at house parties. Actual heartfelt moments of silence.

I was riding in a cab down Marine Drive, the seaside road leading to South Mumbai, just a few days before New Year’s Eve. There was a large plastic banner strung up above the iconic restaurant/bar “Not Just Jazz By the Bay.” It read: “Thank God 2008 is Over, Best Wishes for a Peaceful New Year.”

There isn’t much more to add, except to wish for a peaceful Thanksgiving as well.

Jil Wheeler is entering her third year in Mumbai and her seventh year living abroad in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. She does not own a monkey, yet, but if she did she would call him Asher. She is known across the Indian subcontinent for her ardor for mutton biryani. More by Jil Wheeler