Mumbai Under Siege

By Dilip D'Souza
Sunday, November 30, 2008

MUMBAI The man's lips are twisted, whether from disgust or because he has a physical problem, I can't tell. Skinny and balding, he sidles up to me in the crowd. I don't know why he's chosen me, of the hundreds milling here. But out of the side of that twisted mouth, he mutters: "Chinmaya Sir has come, Chinmaya Sir!"

My brow furrows. Who's Chinmaya Sir? As I repeat the words in my mind, I realize what he's trying to say. I ask: Chief minister?

He nods vigorously, then spits out a curse word and says:

"Why has he come? They will throw bullets at him and he will fall over!" He holds his right wrist and flops his hand over. "Like that!" I must look nonplussed, because he suddenly chuckles, too loudly, and sidles off. I see him muttering out of the side of that mouth to someone else, repeating that hand gesture, clearly looking for some taker for his chuckling theory about terrorists "throwing" bullets at the chief minister, the head of the government here in the Indian state of Maharashtra, and the CM falling over.

We're in wait-and-watch mode here outside the Trident hotel on the seafront in Mumbai, where terrorists have killed and wounded hundreds and are still battling police and commandos. We've all seen the horrific images -- fires, explosions, bodies, shootouts on streets so familiar that it's a punch in the gut to see them like this. It's why we're here. Yet in front of the Trident, where terrorists are still holed up hours after this outrage began, very little is happening. I've met people anxious about relatives, journalists desperate for news -- and also bystanders offering their varied and peculiar takes.

Things are surreal in this city under siege. While everyone talks of the terrorism, it's also as if we're at a brand new tourist attraction. Plenty of backslapping as friends catch sight of one another, wisecracks at the expense of authorities, terrorists, whoever.

Altogether, there's an air of cynical bonhomie that I've not sensed after previous atrocities. I mean, there's anger and despair in me, in circulated e-mail, on blogs. And then I run into this . . . what is it? Levity?

It makes me wonder: Have we grown used to terror? If so, is that a good thing, because we won't let it terrorize us as much? Or a bad thing, because we expect it to keep happening?

A television reporter interviews a bystander. I can't get close enough to hear what the woman is saying. I imagine that it must be something grave, though you wouldn't think so by looking at her husband. Through the minutes she's on camera, he stands there, arm over her shoulder and a proud smile on his face. A "Look, my wife's on TV!" smile, I swear.

Elsewhere, a young man stops in his tracks, hands his cellphone to his friend and excitedly poses for a photo as if he has run across a flashy Lamborghini: chest out, shades in place, elbow nonchalantly on its roof, cool as can be. Only this is no Lamborghini; it's a Toyota with TIMES NOW -- the name of a TV channel -- painted on its side.

Many long minutes after the sidling man told me that the CM was here, the deputy CM actually arrives. Over rushing heads and TV cameras held high, I see several cops with guns drawn trotting past. Following them, a white Ambassador -- the ancient auto that's still the vehicle of choice for ministers -- sweeps around the bend and stops. Minister R.R. Patil, a short mustachioed man with a permanently quizzical look, emerges. Herded by the policemen, he disappears to confer with the men in charge of the operation. Later he walks over to the media. A feeding frenzy ensues, TV cameras held high again, and even though I'm six feet tall, I can't see him anymore. Later, a journalist who was fortunate to be right next to him shares what he said: five terrorists killed so far, one captured, maybe 10 to 15 more inside.

Patil settles into his Ambassador, his escorts start trotting, he sweeps off toward the Taj Mahal hotel, scene of the other ongoing standoff. The tall woman beside me, I find, is doing what I'm doing. Counting. In a time of uncertainty and violence, our deputy chief minister is making his way about the city in a convoy of three helmeted cops on motorcycles and 10 -- that's right, 10 -- other cars filled with armed cops. And the trotting gents somewhere in the mix.

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