It was a usual day in 2008. I was ready for work, plugged in my earphones and listened to the radio as I waited for my bus outside my hostel in Kolkata. And instead of the songs, that terrible news was being broadcast across all the radio stations. Mumbai was under siege.
I called up a friend, he was caught in a police barricade when he went out to get his clothes from the dhobi. Another friend was stuck in her south Mumbai hostel without food; her boyfriend stuck in another rented place near the dockyard. Numerous others who were stranded, huddled, afraid and clueless as to what awaited them.
I visualized the perpetually overcrowded railway stations in the Mumbai I loved. I thought of the beautiful CST station with its gothic architecture where there was death and mayhem in every corner at that very moment. I thought of Nariman Point where I had spent lovely evenings staring at the surf. No other terrorist attack—and there have been numerous—has affected me as much as this one.
And even today I feel anger swelling in me when I think of that day. Life changed dramatically for us after this day. All of a sudden, malls and theatres came up with barricades with metal detectors. City Centre (Salt Lake), where we’d spent late evenings chatting in the open for as late as 10 pm, began to evacuate people well before 10. If you’re eating at a restaurant, fine; if you’re just whiling away time in the open, the police would come and ask questions, make you feel like you’re an outlaw, and ask you to pack up.
Soon, I began to wonder why there was so such security at Howrah station. Lakhs of people thronged the station at any time of the day, and what was perfectly natural seemed—within a few months—a gaping hole in security arrangements. Every time I stepped inside the Howrah station subway, I wondered what would happen if someone with a bag of RDX followed me into it and detonated a bomb near the largely unmanned ticket counters.
If it were drunkards, molesters, and pick pockets that bothered us before, post 26/11/2008, the unseen, amorphous enemy was a “terrorist”. We learned within a few months, that one of the SIM cards used by the 26/11 terrorists was traced to a shop in Mirza Ghalib street in Kolkata. People nodded their heads and said that area was forever a den of anti-social elements and forgot about it.
We could afford to forget because we in Kolkata were relatively safer. No terrorists attacked Kolkata. My father joked, “They want to destroy businesses and not just lives—lives are cheaper”. He was correct in a way. Others joked, “Bengal is where they live and escape from—into Nepal and Bangladesh. Why would they plant bombs in their own den?”
Much of that sarcasm has horribly turned out to be true. Today, I’ve come around to docilely standing in queue to allow a policewoman to feel me up at every metro terminal, movie theatre, and shop. Today I willingly put all my belongings down to the slimmest purse through the X-ray queue before entering any public place. Before I visited Kashmir and stared at the automatic-weapons toting army jawans patrolling every street, I’ve witnessed the same in the poshest areas of Delhi—even as we, the people of India, went about our business of trying to spend a normal evening under the shadow of guns.
I’m not hyperventilating—although I realise this is a rather long post. Terrorism has changed out lives. We are not a free society—despite all the other trappings of libertarianism we espouse—if we cannot grant ourselves the freedom to spend an evening watching the sunset without being under the constant gaze of CCTV surveillance and gun-toting police and jawans.
And I’m sorry, I don’t have a solution. All I can offer is the perspective of one who has known better and freer times when big money and malafide political narratives had not made terrorism such a lucrative business.
It’s not just the dead who are victims of terrorism. All of us and our unborn children are victims of this malaise. The least we can do is to remember this day—Remember who did it and more importantly, why it was done to us. We must remember the reasons, we must remember those endless hours of nail biting, sweat and blood-filled moments lest we forget and allow it to happen again.