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The warmth of a cocoon

I saw the news on page 15 of the Indian Express on Saturday, when the Bombay siege was reaching a climax. It was a short agency report about the cyclone in Tamil Nadu: 86 fishermen dead, hundreds of boats missing,

I saw the news on page 15 of the Indian Express on Saturday, when the Bombay siege was reaching a climax. It was a short agency report about the cyclone in Tamil Nadu: 86 fishermen dead, hundreds of boats missing, one lakh acres of crop submerged, 2,426 villages affected. There was no follow-up the next day. Death is supposedly a leveller. But as in life, the fishermen of Tamil Nadu would not attain anything like the same level as the Bombay dead, though the systemic failures on the Coromandel coast were as shameful as those on the Bombay coast. The news was not covered at all by the three major English news channels. It did not even make it to the ticker. Reporters and anchors were otherwise occupied, some doing an outstanding job of the Bombay coverage, others trampling every responsibility entrusted them. Across the board, however, was the kind of hypocrisy that the politicians were being accused of. As politicians juice their constituencies at times like these, so too does the media, drawn from the middle and upper classes and pandering to those classes.

The point here is not really the coverage, but our particular anxieties, and that they militate against the idea of India offered up in these same forums. That idea is of inclusion. This was just another example of exclusion. And to look around the country nowadays is to sense the outrage of exclusion everywhere: of class, caste, religion, territory; to feel that everything that has already happened was waiting to happen, and everything that will happen is waiting to happen.

It is staggering that in a decade where thousands have died in attacks — home-grown, foreign, state-sponsored — India’s wake-up moment was this. A number of reasons suggested themselves. These attacks were particularly audacious, and their prolonged live coverage sharpened their impact. But the main reason for the reaction now is probably much cruder. It is that the upper classes have been hit. These victims were not train and bus travelers, idlers and vendors. These were people inside important places rather than outside them. This time it was too close to home. The talking heads no longer needed to speak in abstractions.

As a friend remarked, more tears were shed at the destruction of Wasabi restaurant than at the death of VP Singh. Whatever your view on Mandal, the fact that the man who so directly transformed the lives of millions of lower-caste Indians could be completely brushed aside exposes our concerns. I hope I write this not from liberal-elite guilt, but the debilitation that one sometimes feels because of this blinkered perspective. To understand the mind of a killer is beyond most of us. But to try and understand the world around us is not. To hope for a society where this is possible is not. I remember the 1993 Bombay blasts — one blast anyway. It was, I think, our final period that day in school, not a kilometer from the Air India building. It was a broad rather than a loud sound, and echoing, as if in an empty stadium. The blackboard shook. The duster fell from the teacher’s hand. We rushed to the balcony, watched the smoke rise. Then we were sent home. And there we stayed cocooned in our South Bombay lives. Whatever might happen would happen elsewhere, among other, different people. Only a few months ago Bombay had apparently burned. Not for us. The riots too had been elsewhere, among different people.

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We were young then. But we should have been taught better. We should have been able to absorb better. We were enclaved. If I feel helpless or angry or despondent now about the scenes in those Bombay precincts that I’ve spent most of my life in, I feel so too about the world we grew up in. If our response now is to further enclave ourselves, the Bombay tragedy will have been all the more monumental, the terrorists all the more successful.

Rahul Bhattacharya is the author of ‘Pundits from Pakistan’

First published on: 04-12-2008 at 02:01 IST
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