Tag Archives: disasters

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.

Bombay is Still Burning

The attacks on Mumbai are unbelievably gruesome and at this point hard to comprehend. I am not there right now, and am writing from faraway. I was quickly able to (recursively) account for all my friends and family with a single message “are you safe?” sent to all my loved ones in Mumbai. Everyone is. Thank you, all, for asking.

The nature of this attack is globally unprecedented. This is not even like 9/11 — it has lasted three days,11/26-11/28, and is still not over. The first news I heard on Wednesday afternoon, was of gunmen opening fire with automatic weapons and throwing grenades in Victoria Terminus at rush hour. This immediately reminded me The last time something like this happened was July 11 2006, or 7/11, when I was on the railway platform in rush hour at Dadar, and the overhead electric lines suddenly popped and the station went dark. After learning of bomb blasts up the line at Matunga Road, I walked home amidsty an enormous jam of vehicles, as all the train commuters emerged onto the streets. It was only when I came home that I learned what had happened. Bombs had gone off all over the line, killing and injuring hundreds of train commuters.

The signature of 7/11 and terrorism in Mumbai were their attacks on the city’s vital arteries, its train and bus network, where most Mumbaikars spend hours everyday together.The nature of the targets is very different from previous terrorism such as 7/11 or the bus bombs, or at least the news coverage here would have us believe. While its sister station in India, Channel 7-IBN, is leading in their coverage in Mumbai, CNN here has focussed largely on the shootout and hostage situations Taj and Oberoi hotels. The dramatic photos of the Taj Hotel dome draped in smoke and flames on today’s New York Times front page has already become the signature image of the Mumbai attacks.

There are other ways in which these attacks are remarkable, and different. The attackers apparently arrived by sea, landing in the very heart of the Indian Navy’s Western Naval Command in Colaba, in the Sassoon Docks, where a busy traffic of fishing boats, country craft, and small vessels land everyday from Bombay Harbour. There’s been a lot of news recently about piracy in the Indian Ocean near the Gulf of Aden, where the Indian Navy allegedly sunk a pirate “mother ship” last week. In signs of the hyperbolic tendencies of Indian journalists, there were reports yesterday of a terrorist “mother ship” detained off Gujarat, a Pakistani merchant vessel.

While images of mother ships in the high seas of the western Indian Ocean might be an exaggeration, there is no doubt that strategically, an arc of coastal states from Aden to Muscat, Dubai and Karachi are key nodes in a region where Bombay has been the largest coastal city. The Taj and Oberoi hotels are perched at the very southern tip of Mumbai’s Island City. And while these hotels — and Nariman House — are located in one of Mumbai’s most posh central business districts, at their feet and edges cling crowded colonies of fisherfolk and slum-dwellers who regularly venture out to the seas. These attacks were a brazen assault on some of the key symbols of the financial, military and commercial architecture of Mumbai, and its role as a regional and global capital. But anyone who has walked the streets of Colaba or Cuffe Parade can tell you that this regional command and control centre has feet of clay

Here in the US, the attack has coincided with the Thanksgiving holidays, when many families are at home glued to their many plasmas, tubes, and flat screens. The coverage here is banal at best, parachute correspondents or terrorism experts who know little about India, using the famous backdrop of the Taj Mahal hotel — now exploding, now on fire, now duck they’re shooting. For once I wish I could watch Rajdeep Sardesai shouting his way through the crowds, or even my buddy Sreenivasan Jain on NDTV. While I am not in Mumbai today, all Mumbaikars are part of a real-time news space that is following events as they unfold. Some of the more amazing moments so far have been the top cops shot as they let down their guard outside Metro Cinema, NSG commandos landing by chopper at Nariman House and storming their way in. Stay safe friends, and pray it is all over very soon.

Mumbai and the Global History of Urban Disasters

This essay was written the day after the catastrophic floods in Mumbai on 26 July 2005 and was published as Some Reasons to be Optimistic, or, Mumbai and the Global History of Urban Disasters in TimeOut Mumbai Vol.1, Issue 26, 26 August to 8 September 2005.

Whether you consider the recent floods in Mumbai to be either a natural disaster, or a man-made crisis — or  a bit of both — most will agree that we have just been through the biggest social crisis to face the city since the communal riots and bomb blasts in 1992-1993. It is not often in history that an urban disaster prompts wide-ranging public reflection and institutional changes. There are many contemporary lessons to be drawn in Mumbai from the global history of urban disasters, from floods and famines to terrorism and riots. Crises such as these prompt immediate action, but often the most sweeping and epochal changes they inspire happen once the original impulses to act are forgotten. These impulses are buried away in subsequent events and history, obscuring their effect in prompting wider, often revolutionary changes.

The catastrophic earthquake which destroyed most of the Portugese capital Lisbon in 1755 and wiped out most of its population — and the philosopher Voltaire’s satirical reflections on its causes and consequences in his novel Candide, or Optimism inaugurated the Enlightenment in Europe, the tradition of thinking which questioned the divine right of kings and priests to rule.

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Bombay’s Blame Game: On the Recent Floods

Originally published as an editorial in DNA (Daily News and Analysis), Mumbai, 5 August 2005.

Who is really to blame for the floods and chaos in Mumbai this week? The monsoon downpour last week was not strictly a natural disaster. It was a man-made crisis, and the public have spent the past week searching for explanations and solutions to this human disaster. The answers provided have ranged from the opportunistic to misinformed, and almost all are lacking in a longer term perspective on institutions, particularly those concerned with urban infrastructure in Mumbai.

The latest assertion, by environmentalists and activists opposed to the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, is that the overflowing of the polluted Mithi River can be solely blamed on reclamations for the Sea Link and the Bandra-Kurla Complex. While this is plausible, the claim is being made without any scientific or ecological evidence to substantiate their arguments about the effects of reclamation. But then where are the real experts? In a city which boasts some of the nation’s finest institutes of technology — insular enclaves of global expertise which rarely interact with the city’s public problems — very few academics or qualified engineers are to be found raising their voices.

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