On Mumbai

I’ve resisted commenting on the Mumbai attacks in this blog because I don’t think that my take on the disaster is at all relevant. I was, thankfully, not in Mumbai at the time, not even close, and I knew none of the victims. I cannot pretend to understand what Mumbaikers are feeling – though to assign a single emotion to a city of 18 million unique souls is insulting anyway – and I don’t want to give armchair commentary. There is enough nonsense in the Indian media. The newspapers and news channels clang with typically grotesque post-disaster rhetoric that creates heroes in one moment and assigns blame to villains in the next. Politicians read bland pre-typed statements while the pantheon of Bollywood icons step forward in their turn to give their own starlit take on the disaster. I find this repulsive, too, though I suppose these cinema icons represent the class of Mumbaikers who could actually afford a room, or even a meal, at the hotels targeted by the terrorists.

I will say, though, that the attack in Mumbai, as well as the bombings in Guwahati which happened a little over a month ago, reminded me of an essay I read two months ago by Amitav Ghosh. I don’t have the essay with me so I cannot quote directly from it, but in it Ghosh speaks about another spate of violence – I don’t remember which; perhaps the riots in 1993 – and the way it was written about. He said writers have an unfortunate tendency to approach violence aesthetically. They feel that violence must be described in its lurid, realistic detail, and ‘writing violence’ means painting a visceral scene of black smoke and blood. He doesn’t mean that the writing is necessarily gratuitous, or even poorly written, but that it focuses only on the mechanics of death.

Ghosh argues that this sort of writing pays humanity no service. Instead, writers should step back and observe the acts of kindness and self-sacrifice that always accompany such tragedies. And he is not talking about the rescue workers, SWAT team members and fire-fighters who are the official, media- and politician-christened heroes of these terrible days – though their efforts should, of course, be celebrated. He is speaking of those for whom heroism is not their job. He is talking about those who lead others through dark hallways to emergency doors. Those who drag the bleeding to shelter. Those who press fabric torn from their own clothing against the wounds of strangers.

This is not heroism. It is humanity. It is the light that exists on the other side of the darkest shadow. Sadly, it gets the last of the ink if it gets any at all.