Salaam Bombay

Monday, December 1, 2008
In 1997, a few weeks before the fiftieth anniversary of Indian independence, my husband and I took a flight from Bhopal to Bombay. We had spent time at an ayurvedic medical clinic, trying to help the survivors of the Union Carbide gas disaster. My husband, who was at the time my boyfriend, had gotten violently ill there. We stayed at a local hotel where there was no lock on the door. And so, as he experienced 106-degree fevers and a succession of incompetent doctors, we had a constant barrage of hotel employees coming into our room without knocking. Did we want food? Hot water? Did we need another doctor? Could they clean the bathroom now? On and on it went. When I would leave the hotel to get medicine, I was constantly harrassed on the street. Even in broad daylight, women did not walk in that section of Bhopal – especially women wearing short sleeves and with no male escort.

When my husband finally felt well enough, we took the first flight back to Bombay to recuperate at our relatives’ homes. Over the next few weeks, homesick and exhausted from the intensity and madness that is India, we sought out the most western places we could find. We went to the Taj Hotel’s Sea Lounge restaurant. There, day after day, we spent whole afternoons drinking their American coffee, eating their bhel puri, watching the sea and the crowds outside through the tall windows. We used the private, air-conditioned Western-style bathrooms with their luxurious toilet paper. In the evenings, we sat in the hotel lobby people-watching as my husband’s cousin pointed out the Indian stars who walked through the front doors.

After we had sufficiently recovered, we went to the Café Leopold and spent hours talking and drinking tall glasses of beer with backpacking Europeans, Australians and Americans. We eschewed the air-conditioned upstairs room for the more open downstairs café, which offered a view of the street. We went to the Oberoi Hotel and ate bad, Amul-cheese-filled enchiladas at the Mexican restaurant. We walked the streets of Colaba, visiting the attar shops and eating kebabs from the nomadic stall that would randomly set up shop in the evening and close when the kebabs ran out.

The Taj, Leopold’s, the Oberoi, the streets of Colaba – these places were the sites of our courtship. They were also the home away from home for us and many other homesick foreigners in Bombay.

It turns out that this is a main reason they were targeted by the t-shirt-clad terrorists who invaded from the sea last Wednesday. They represented the Western world in Bombay, and perhaps in all of India. As I saw the sites I was so familiar with erupt in flames and spattered with blood, I realized something: the terrorists were, in large part, after us. They were after anyone who comes to India wanting to experience its diversity and openness. They were after foreigners who go to India to pursue a dream, be it of wealth, religious freedom, spiritual enlightenment, or the homeland. As most of their victims, they took Indians, but they wanted the pain to be felt around the world. Bombay is my birthplace. Even though I left it when I was three years old, I took this attack personally.

When I go back to India, I expect to experience a deluge of emotion. Bombay is the Indian city that I call home. It is the city where I fell in love with my husband and decided I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him. Now, it is the site of untold horror and pain. But it has survived many invaders attempting to steal its glory. This, too, shall pass, and Bombay will shine brighter than ever. This is my hope for my city of dreams.
Anonymous said...

Am still reeling from all this. Prayers to the families.

BTM bheinji turned modern said...

I'm surprised that an Indian woman would live freely together with a boyfriend in India, of all places, and especially a town like Bhopal.

Lok kya kehenge? Really, wasn't there talk?

Unmarried couples have problems getting rooms together EVEN NOW in India, what to speak of almost 10 years ago.

How did you manage?

Anonymous said...

I think many of us have similar memories of these locations - a little bit of "home away from home" during extended visits with our families in Bombay. I revisited pictures taken on a trip a few years ago with much sadness.

I don't expect a trip to the Taj will ever be the same - much as a trip to lower Manhattan or the Pentagon is marred by the events of 9/11.

But the memories of these happier, more innocent times will always remain in tact.

Anonymous said...

The Taj is like a second home to me whenever I visit Bombay. I believe the best way to win the war against these terrorists is to do what NYC did after 9/11 - pulsate with such a degree of economic growth and prosperity that it is better than it has ever been before.

Anonymous said...

It is all very sad and new news keeps coming out about more attacks. I really do think this is India's 9/11. Looking forward to seeing what the Brown Girls have to comment on this. Sometimes in humor is wisdom.

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