Who Sank my Mothership?

Experts, journalists, and film-makers are seeing motherships everywhere.

In an interview today on Here and Now with Bob Baer, former CIA analyst for the Middle East, he just let drop the terrifying scenario of a jihadi mothership docking in Baltimore Harbor and launching commando attacks from a swarm of dinghies, in imitation of the attacks in Mumbai two weeks ago. Not surprisingly, the film Syriana was adapted from Baer’s intelligence memoirs.

In the weeks before the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai, a Saudi oil tanker was hijacked off the Horn of Africa. In a direct action against Somali pirates menacing the high seas, on 19 November the Indian Navy sunk what was called a “pirate mothership” in the Gulf of Aden, in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes off the Horn of Africa. This seemed to many Indians a swift and effective strike in the subcontinent’s own maritime near-abroad, the western Indian Ocean. Continue reading Who Sank my Mothership?

Friends (Almost) Lost

The attacks on Mumbai have stirred memories of friends lost, and almost lost, to terrorism in South Asia. I will never forget the morning in 2002 that I strolled down to my paper-wala’s newstand in Dadar and saw the horrific photo of Danny Pearl in a track suit with a gun to his head, on the front page of Mid-Day. I had just met Danny at a party a few days before he left for Karachi, where he was later kidnapped and killed. He and his wife Marianne were a beautiful couple and the toast of Mumbai’s journo scene — and the Wall Street Journal bureau in Mumbai remains the best foreign press outlet in the city. Marianne, a film-maker by training, worked with students at Wilson College produce a film on Bombay’s historical Irani cafes called Aur Iraani Chai in 2001-2002 in the Neighbourhood Project. You can see the short film made with her inspiration and guidance on YouTube. Their apartment in Malabar Hill was the scene of many wonderful evenings where Danny would play his violin and Marianne would dance into the night with journalists, writers and hangers-on of Bombay’s dotcom boom years.

Several years later, I was in Mumbai on 11 July 2006 — exactly one year before I got married — when a series of bombs went off at rush hour in the packed trains of the Western Railway. I was, in fact, waiting for a train at Dadar Station, travelling in the other direction, to Victoria Terminus (site of the recent attacks by gunmen). I learned weeks later that A.G. Bapat, engineer and manager of the National Textile Corporation in Mumbai, was killed on one of the bombed trains travelling to his home in the suburb of Kandivali. Mr Bapat was a friendly public sector official in the bankrupt NTC, the government company formed by the takeover of half of Mumbai’s failing inner-city textile mills in the seventies. NTC was one of the city’s biggest land-holders, and behind their mammoth compound walls and factory gates lie the crumbling treasures of Mumbai’s 19th century industrial architecture. I spent a year from 2002-2003 photographing several of these mills with the help of Mr Bapat, who was eager to support a proposal we developed for an Industrial Museum in one of the closed mills. This never materialized, and many of Mumbai’s grandest Victorian mills have been torn down in the past three years. See the photo albums in the collection Mills of Mumbai and the individual albums for Tata Mills, India United Mills no.1, Kohinoor Mills no.1-2, and the most remarkable, Elphinstone Mills, which was sold and demolished two years ago. Thanks again, Bapat Saheb, for all your help.

Another friend and colleague whom I surely thought lost in a 2005 attack in Bangalore was the brilliant scientist and entrepreneur Dr Vijay Chandru. Chandru, as he is known to everyone, was one of the inventors of the Simputer, a visionary open source hand-held computer for agrarian and rural uses in India. He now manages Strand Genomics. His wife Uma and I worked together at the Srishti School in Bangalore, where I was a part-time consultant. Chandru was sprayed with automatic gunfire at close range in a daylight attack on the auditorium where he was attending a conference, across the street from the leafy canteen at the Indian Institute of Science, where I had lunch as I stayed nearby. Much like my beloved Cafe Leopold, the Iraani cafe in Mumbai which was attacked by gunmen last week, the canteen and auditorium was open to the street. Chandru’s arms and torso were hit hard by an AK-47 shot from this street. I was not in Bangalore then, but learned on the news he had somehow survived the attack. Miraculously, less than a year later, I sat across the table from him in the Stata Center here at MIT, where he spent an hour describing his surgery and recovery at Mass General Hospital, where he has come to be treated by a renowned surgeon, Jesse Jupiter. He had already regained control of his arms and was walking, and was working at MIT LIDS.