I was lucky enough to be out of Mumbai, where I live and work, during the terrifying days of November 26-29. When I flew back last Saturday, I returned to a different city. On the face of it, not much had changed up North (the attacks were in the South), except that things were eerily calm and an intangible gloom hung in windows and faces. But as my taxi sailed familiar routes, places where I had met friends for coffee, bought my first salwar kameez, picked up vegetables on the way home or got of the train every day – the backdrops against which I had carved out a home here – seemed physically hostile and foreign.
Terrorists focus their attacks on large cities not only because they have dense concentrations of people, but because they can use the fabric of the city itself to dishearten and terrorize. They prey on the physical landscape of the city, and even more devastatingly, on inhabitants' imagined cities. Their aim is to transform individual and collective memories of, myths about, and relationships to specific places in the city by converting them into loci of fear and insecurity.
It makes sense that those wishing to destabilize and cause fear would attack urban icons. Civilizations find their most visible expression in cities, and iconic sites come to serve as symbols that define collective identity. Desecrating iconic sites like Mumbai's Taj Hotel is a way to destroy much more than lives or historic structures — it is a way to attack the heart of the city and nation. Damaging collective reference points creates is a deep sense of instability and insecurity. Although the Taj will be rebuilt, it will not be the same Taj; terror will be written into the physical structure and its depictions in postcards, pamphlets and photographs for some time to come.
Besides iconic sites, perpetrators of the attacks in Mumbai and other parts of India have targeted other symbolic places in the city to distort their meaning in the minds of users. Sites of leisure, like amusement parks, nightclubs and cafes; sites of healing and protection, like hospitals and police vehicles; and sites of exchange, like street markets and stock exchanges, become places of insecurity and potential violence. Threatened or actual attacks on every mode of transportation – airplanes and airports, trains and railway stations, buses, taxis and auto-rickshaws – seek to paralyze us. Terror works by causing people to enslave themselves by confining their movements, barring themselves from certain places in the city, and shrinking their spheres of security.
Insecurity and public calls for action lead to increased militarization of the city, as your bags are triple-checked in malls and movie theaters, billboards remind you to keep an eye out for unattended baggage and armed policemen peer into your taxi at checkpoints. Heightened policing and militarization, in turn, reinforces the identification of certain sites with violence and fear.
As terror tries to colonize our imagined cities, it is through reclamation of city space that people affirms their resilience in the face of terror. Mumbaikers have been incredibly insistent on maintaining their daily routines and the life of the city. On the day that I got back to Mumbai, wedding processions took place on the streets, construction work proceeded apace, and people were out eating, shopping and watching movies. I already managed to get stuck in a traffic jam. Leopold Cafe, a well-known tourist hangout that was the first hit in the attacks, re-opened on Sunday, and Not Just Jazz by the Bay, a popular bar and restaurant near the Oberoi Hotel at Nariman Point that was taken over by terrorists, was full of revelers by Saturday. Of course, the majority of Mumbai's population – hawkers, slum and pavement dwellers, day laborers – cannot afford to stay home or avoid the train. They've never been to the Taj and face many more immediate threats to their lives and sustenance than the specter of terrorism.
The day I got back to Mumbai, it was the familiar whirl of the drill in the adjoining building, the cries of the vegetable-wallah on the street and the sound of the bell ringing in the morning puja that represented a city insistent on staying alive. In time, I hope I can reclaim my Mumbai, as well.
(Photo of Taj by Indranil Mukherjee, Guardian.co.uk. Photo of Leopold's by Amar Singh, About.com )