Mumbai: tragedy and farce
by Sandhya Jain on 09 Dec 2008 0 Comment

On 20 September 2008, when Islamabad’s Marriott Hotel was gutted by a massive suicide bombing that killed 62 persons and injured over 120, I recalled with a shudder that barely two weeks prior to that grisly devastation, my sister-in-law, her son and father, had enjoyed a brief stay at that very hotel. At home in Delhi, similar feelings of blessed escape rose when bombs blew up in frequented markets like Lajpat Nagar, Sarojini Nagar, Connaught Place.

When normalcy was restored, we returned to the old haunts quite unselfconsciously. It was therefore a bit jarring to find the “luminous people” making social and political cachet out of having patronized Mumbai’s Taj and Oberoi Hotels (especially the former) before tragedy struck, and pompously promising to return the day they reopened. As barring its solid façade the Taj is all but gutted, this seems superficial and supercilious.

Notwithstanding Mr. Ratan Tata’s brave demeanour during the crisis, his support to and defence of his staff who conducted themselves with admirable fortitude, the Taj is a long way from restoration in this era of global meltdown which has already shaken the Tata empire to its foundations in view of the costly overseas purchases made in recent years. Servicing those loans is headache enough; raising formidable millions to virtually rebuild the Taj may not make sense if global business is going to take a hit.

The Taj is beautiful, as we all saw on television, and I am somewhat embarrassed to say that I just never noticed during the few visits I made there. For me, going to a hotel has simply meant a place to stay when out of town, a place to meet someone staying there, a place with a restaurant one wants to eat in. Like others, I have enjoyed the hospitality of some of the finest hotels in the world, but for me a hotel could never compare to home.

It was a cultural shock to find some of the country’s well-heeled citizenry, many of them Mumbaikars with their own homes in the city, bemoaning the loss of what it became fashionable to call “second home.” For the record, I myself got married at the Taj Mansingh in Delhi, and in my younger days often landed up at Machan; but I would never think of it as anything but a once-frequented haunt, at par with the now favoured India International Centre and the more homely Indian Women’s Press Corps. And it would offend me no end if my son started saying that the places he hangs out in with his friends are a “second home.”

The most striking aspect of media coverage of the Mumbai tragedy was the special positioning of the rich and famous as the city’s representative voices and faces. Worse was the fact that they all seemed to have a particular political alignment. One channel allowed actress Sharmila Tagore to dominate a particular telecast to the near exclusion of other guests, and her well-rehearsed and eloquent performance was remarkable for its sheer partisanship.

Ms. Tagore ranted against politicians and positioned herself as distant from that tribe; she even read out a BJP advertisement issued with an eye on the on-going elections in six states to express disgust at the attempt politically encash the tragedy . This is disingenuous as her family is closely aligned with the ruling Congress – her mother-in-law was an MP for a couple of terms; her husband Mansoor Ali Khan contested but lost from Bhopal on a Congress ticket; and she herself became Chairperson, Censor Board, due to her party affiliations.

More importantly, in all the verbiage, Begum Tagore never once expressed regret or apology for the murder and mayhem unleashed on the city by the religion she now professes. She did tell us that Taj was her “second home” as she lived there for a good four years when she first came to Mumbai (now we know why the then film media was full of stories about her starry tantrums and demands!). As someone who probably lived in the family home in Calcutta during the Great Calcutta Killing of 1946, I can only say she has a very funny way of relating to tragedy.

The electronic channels had gone very far with these fake “Rudalis” (paid mourners) by the time public revulsion reached their ears. Mercifully they made a quick transition to the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus where live RDX was recovered a few days ago, to the operator of the public address system whose presence of mind alerted the public and cleared the platform before an even greater tragedy could take place; to the police constables and army jawans who came out of the crisis injured but alive; to the ordinary men and women affected by the carnage; and baby Daulat, born of a mother who tried to delay childbirth so that the injured coming into the hospital could be attended to first.  

Mumbai’s political class, however, was as craven and crass as its rich and beautiful people. Even after a disaster of such magnitude, Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh gave top priority to saving his chair. When he did arrive at the Taj, he had actor son Ritiesh and film-maker Ram Gopal Varma in tow, giving the impression that he was busy discussing film scripts or budgets when he decided to undertake the formality of the visit. In the uproar that followed, it remains unclear if he visited all the spots struck by the terrorists, and the victims in hospital. 

The push and shove that accompanied Congress’ change of guard – which caused many days of delay and suspension of the disgruntled Narayan Rane – was shameful. I was only surprised that no one thought of Sanjay Dutt, accused and sentenced to five years in jail for his role in the 1993 Mumbai blasts, but merrily out on bail, enjoying a glorious film career, and even finding time for courtship and a second marriage! As he seems unlikely to return to jail, and is even actively eyeing a political career, and as both he and wife Manyata successfully lectured the international glitterati at the recent annual Leadership Summit of a media house, he seemed a natural choice for Chief Minister. 

The author is Editor


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