The Mumbai Marathon has come and gone, on January 18. No, I didn’t run it. I do remember, with affection, running one of the shorter races a couple years ago. Once I got started, I didn’t much care about my timing. It was enough to run, to feel the adrenaline of thousands pounding the tarmac with me and from many more waving and cheering us on from the wings. It was such a charge that I didn’t even feel tired until the race was done.

That’s a hint of what so many remark on about this race: the near-mythical “spirit” of a great city. It’s easy to be cynical about talk like this, and I usually am, but while running it was hard not to sense it. Almost tangible. Could it really be that on that one day we found expression, in a jogging horde, for the essence of a city?

Maybe so. Yet there was that horrific attack on November 26. After it ended, plenty of people ridiculed any mention of Mumbai’s spirit. This time, they said, enough is enough. This “spirit” is just a fig-leaf for the failures of governance that led to the attack. Politicians invoke it, we pat ourselves on the back, we go back to “normalcy” (whatever that is), and bang! We get hit again. Enough of that.

And I can see the truth there, the anger and frustration, too. I mean, I want governance and security and justice, not some feel-good stuff after a tragedy. (Or say this: let’s define spirit in terms of governance and the rest).

Even so, let’s also examine this spirit, especially in the light of the November attack.

Take the anger, to start with. In early December, I attended a meeting called to protest the appointment of Chhagan Bhujbal, accused of various crimes over years, as our new Deputy Chief Minister. (His predecessor, R.R. Patil, resigned after the attack). Everyone present was seriously angry, and every speaker had contempt and disgust for Bhujbal.

Yet, as you might guess, the effort to remove Bhujbal has petered out, and he remains our Deputy CM. So much for anger. I’m not suggesting it wasn’t real, nor that the people there were insincere. But amorphous, undirected anger leads nobody nowhere fast.

Take unity. Despite the talk of coming together to fight terrorism, the reality is that there is very little such unity. What each of us really means is, “let’s all unite behind my particular take on the issue.” If you have a different viewpoint, even slightly so, you are a “terror-enabler,” or “soft on terror,” or worse.

So if after the attack, Arundhati Roy wrote of the need to consider the context in which events happen, including terrorism, that got columnist Tavleen Singh’s bile up. “A famous Indian novelist,” Singh wrote, “whose name I will not take because it would defile this column … justifies the attacks on Mumbai.”

I mean, come on. “Defile?” And “justifies the attacks?” Have we grown so perverted that we imagine those who disagree with us would actually “justify” the massacre of 175 innocent people? Is it impossible to grant each other a simple humanity? Meaning, if I am revolted by the attacks, I will assume that you are, too, as a basis for discussion. Has that become too hard? And if it has, what mirage of unity are we talking about?

And take hatred and prejudice. My cynical feeling has always been that far from unity, terrorist attacks bring out the worst in many of us.

Sure enough, it only takes a perusal of columns like Tavleen Singh’s, or Simi Garewal’s infamous claim on NDTV that slumdwellers are flying Pakistani flags, or innumerable vicious blogs, to know how deep-seated the hatreds are, and how easily they well up.

On my generally hail-fellow-well-met college class email list, for example, we’ve had a series of bruising, draining discussions through December and January.

One began when a classmate, now in Florida, said he didn’t want to hear anything but “categorical condemnation” from us, and he specifically mentioned me. What was I to make of this? I mean, I wandered the downtown streets of Mumbai during those two days, my mind awhirl with anger, depression, confusion, and fright all at once. I watched families break down outside the Trident Hotel as they heard about loved ones, either dead or traumatized by having been kept hostage. Throughout, I felt a tide of helpless anger flow over me like one of the waves crashing on the tetrapods nearby. Why would a college buddy think that I, or anyone he calls a friend, felt anything but condemnation for what these terrorists did to my city, to people I know?

Later, another classmate wrote, and this is verbatim: “As far as Muslims are concerned inside India, I think there is no dearth of prominent Muslims in India and powerful people at that! We must keep them under some form of surveillance as there is a threat from within. By this we could enhance internal security.”

Among the alumni who read these lines are several Muslims. One administers the list; another used to be our student union president. This man calls them “close” friends. What did they make of his outburst? I could only wonder, as I wrote in response to him: did he mean that they too should be “under some form of surveillance?”

What is it about terror that makes us forget our own friends and succumb to prejudice?

So: if this essay seems like something of a personal outcry of sadness and frustration, that’s just right. I’m cynical about “spirit” when what I see instead as a reaction to terrorism is hatred laid bare. Seems to me that reactions like that are the greatest success of the terrorist.

At his inauguration, I heard Barack Obama say: “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and non-believers. [B]ecause we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself.”

Change some words, and he could be talking about India, too. He could be talking about that certain spirit, more meaningfully than during any marathon. I’m sad and frustrated, sure. But along with Obama, I see hope in “our common humanity.” I have to.

A computer scientist by training, Dilip D’Souza now writes for his supper in Bombay. His main interests are social and political issues in India.

 

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