by Bruce Byers
A retired Foreign Service Officer shares his memories of a pleasant, peaceful time in old Bombay, now Mumbai, along with some thoughts about the recent terrorist attack on that city. – Ed.
My family and I first arrived in Bombay on an Indian Airlines flight from New Delhi in June 1974 after a long Pan Am flight that had taken us from Washington to Munich to Tehran where we had spent several days and picked up our faithful dog from friends at the embassy there. The time of our arrival in Bombay was early monsoon, and the days were hot and sultry in the morning followed by rain at midday.
We lived in a spacious second floor apartment at “Jeevan Jyot” in a cul-de-sac off of Nepean Sea Road. The space between the building and the Arabian Sea was a large, circular green studded with several palm trees. Beyond it a high wall kept the sea back. From our balcony we had a grand view of the sea and the ships that passed by on their way towards Bombay’s harbor on the other side of Nariman Point. During the monsoon when the tides were especially high and rain ran down Malabar Hill behind us, the garages and the green space were sometimes under water. This did not happen very often, but when it did, the house man would wake us up to get our cars to higher ground directly in front of the steps that led up to the building’s entrance. Sometimes we came a little late and water was already up to the bottom of the doors. In those cases, the brakes had to be thoroughly cleaned before everything rusted.
I worked downtown at the U.S. Information Service at 4 New Marine Lines not far from Churchgate Station. It was a 15 minute walk from there to the Oberoi Sheraton hotel where I sometimes enjoyed lunch. The Taj Mahal hotel was a ten minute taxi ride away, down by the Gateway of India. We often met friends there for lunch or dinner and enjoyed walking around the open space outside and looking at the ships plying the waters in and out of the harbor. We saw many lateen-rigged dhows that could have been sailing there a thousand years ago.
On weekends the harbor area near the Gateway of India was a very busy place with hundreds of families out for their strolls and ice cream vendors busy with children and their parents. Individual young men walked around trying to hawk “Rolex” watches that they had strapped to their arms. Others tried to sell bogus gold bangles. Pigeons and other birds kept fouling the pavement as they were attracted by people handing out bread crumbs and other goodies. It was a lively scene.
At one and the same place two different worlds mingled. In the “Old” Taj and its more modern “tower” the business elite and power brokers of the city met for lunch and held conferences. The dining rooms were busy with wedding parties and other large gatherings in the evenings. Outside there was a kaleidoscope of the city’s inhabitants enjoying their proximity to wealth and opulence. In some spots crippled beggars pushed about on rickety handcarts or walked on hand-made crutches trying to cadge a few paisa for a meal. My family and I occasionally went to the Gateway on a sunny weekend morning during the cooler months for a look around. We also went to a few special shops in Colaba before returning to our apartment near Kemps Corners for a late lunch.
During the weeks after the worst of the monsoon was over a friend from the consulate and I would venture to the docks at sunrise to meet one of his contacts who owned several fishing boats. There we would purchase shrimp, rock lobster and succulent white or black pomfrets with the owner’s help. He would ask what we wanted and then wade into the crowd gathered at the edge of the stone pier above the fishing boats and tell his men below to send up our orders. This way, he helped us avoid the hurly-burly of the auctions that were ongoing. In less than 30 minutes we would have our “catch” in coolers and large buckets and be on our way home.
Recent Terrible Events
I am reminded of all of this and more by the terrible events that have recently shaken Mumbai’s people to the core. It is difficult for me to imagine the random violence of gunmen walking into the Taj and the Oberoi and the Jewish Centre and other meeting places and gunning down innocent people. This is worse than a hundred-year cyclone ripping across the peninsula on which Mumbai is located. No amount of flooding, of “house crashes,” of fishing boats lost at sea in Monsoon storms, or of thuggish violence among competing gangs in the poorer sections of the great city could compare to the three days of targeted killings that the men from Pakistan wrought.
In scale it did not match the events of 9/11 in New York City, but it was just as violent and deep a gash as anything could leave on an unsuspecting people busy at their daily tasks. Certainly, the people of India have every right to vent their anger and frustration. Their civil, police, and military authorities were unprepared for the terrorists’ strike and took too long to respond. For me the scenes of fire leaping out of windows in the Taj Mahal hotel were more gripping than the worst kind of digitalized mayhem a Hollywood terror film might display because I had been there and known people who had stayed there and visited some of the rooms in the grand old building.
Of course, for those in Pakistan who plotted the attack and trained and outfitted the young men and sent them on their way to create mayhem, those same scenes must have brought smiles to their distorted faces. An eye for an eye…they may have smugly thought. Just exacting such hateful vengeance on an unsuspecting public does little to advance a political agenda, but that is not the purpose of the perpetrators of these cowardly acts. They are beyond vengeance. Theirs was a calculated move to unnerve India’s people, cast doubt about the readiness of their government to protect them from invaders, and increase tensions along the historical fault lines that separate India and Pakistan.
It will take months, if not longer, to determine who was behind the terrorist actions in Mumbai and longer still to mend the torn relations between India and Pakistan. Meanwhile hatred and fear will continue to roil the people in both countries. Accusations and counter-accusations will be flung back and forth, and this, perhaps, is one of the purposes for the attacks on Mumbai. There is another purpose that is less apparent: to show the weakness of the government in Islamabad. It hardly controls its own country’s territory. It struggles in contention with centripetal forces from Baluchistan to Waziristan to Kashmir. If the Mumbai attacks were an effort to draw Pakistan military forces from deployments along its western borders with Afghanistan and to stir up more unrest in Kashmir, then they may have scored a minor victory. If they were designed to cripple India’s positive influence on the Karzai government in Kabul and bolster the long-standing efforts of Pakistan’s ISI to influence events in Afghanistan, then they may have gained a few feet of ground.
If the Mumbai attacks were aimed at showing the weaknesses in democratic societies to absorb unexpected violence from abroad, their perpetrators have failed to reckon with the strength and resilience of people who live in freedom and can judge for themselves what responses to such acts are appropriate. Democratic governments do not operate on the Old Testament “eye for an eye” kind of justice. Their elected leaders and legislative representatives realize that this is a fool’s game that can only run downward in a destructive spiral.
The peaceful days we enjoyed in Mumbai are past, but peace and prosperity will prevail in that great city and throughout India. With luck and international support, greater peace and stability might also one day come to Pakistan, and the roots of terrorism that have grown there might wither and die.
The views expressed in this article are entirely the author’s own and do not represent any official U.S. government policy.
Bruce Byers is a retired Foreign Service officer who held assignments in Tehran, Mumbai, Kabul and several European posts. He also served in Manila before returning to Washington for assignments at the Department of State. He was involved in cultural and informational affairs in the U.S. Information Agency prior to transferring to the State Department when USIA was consolidated into State in 1999.