Lest We Forget

As I write this editorial for Samar magazine about the gruesome attacks on my city Bombay last week, our news channels have already begun turning their attention back to Bollywood and cricket. The question on many people's minds has been 'How long will everyone care?' And now, we have an inkling about how long our ratings-driven news channels have cared:

About a week.

But an encouraging number of people, including myself, have vowed to continue doing whatever we can, to impact the nebulous democracy machine we have in our vast nation. My turning point occurred as I stayed home like most of Bombay the day after the attacks began, glued to the news, sputtering curses at the death-count infatuated reporters and at the awful management of the hostage situation that was unfolding in front of all of us. I also had two American and English friends staying with me, who didn't leave home all day, since the news reported that the terrorists were seeking out their nationalities specifically.

By evening on Thursday, I had had enough. A like-minded friend, Sejal Gandhi, agreed that we had to do something. We needed to mourn publicly over our shared losses, and to put up some kind of stand to let the authorities know that we need better infrastructure to handle emergencies. Although there was a fear that people may not want to congregate in public since the terrorists were still at large, we nonetheless decided to call a candlelight vigil at Carter Road promenade in Bandra, a safe distance from South Bombay... in 3 hours.

We quickly sent out a text message to everyone we knew in Bombay and posted on Facebook. When we didn't hear back from anyone, we assumed no one would come, and felt that was typical of middle class folks in the Western suburbs of Bombay, who have kept their heads buried in the sand until something directly affects them. But we decided to go even if we were the only two people out there. By the time we made our way to the promenade, I was pleasantly surprised that I got a couple phone calls from friends who wanted to join us. These friends invited others and later we heard that a radio station had announced it as well. As we lit candles and got ready to silently walk the promenade, a friend Ajesh Shah suggested that we leave candles outside Additional Commissioner's office and police station at the end of the promenade. The whole experience was magical for our group of around 30, who were greeted by smiles of gratitude from the constables and inspectors who started peering out of the police station at us. But not all responses were favorable. I also got a call from a copywriter friend who suggested that we should donate the money to the army instead of paying for candles. I explained that this was my way of expressing discontent and that we are all free to have different responses to the attacks. Our debate continued after the vigil, and it was even alluded to by someone else that secular passive people like me were the reason India was getting attacked because the wrong message of 'turning the other cheek' was being sent to Pakistan.

I guess we felt a little more confident with our approach when over a thousand people came to the next vigil we organized, two days later. Truth be told, we were overwhelmed since we had a police permit for only 70 people. Perhaps we were too quick to agree to NDTV coverage, whose camera crew along with other media persons were well on their way to dramatizing the entire event, even going so far as to ask me to delay the march so they could finish their introduction! We also couldn't help but notice how the press made a bee-line to interview all the White attendees, about whether they would return to Bombay.

Nonetheless, we realized that vigils are a platform to exchange ideas for positive change as a debate raged on into the night, about what the government needs to do differently, who is to blame and how we ordinary citizens can help. The next day, as the last terrorist was reported shot dead, thousands upon thousands gathered at Marine Drive. The following Wednesday hundreds of thousands gathered at the Gateway of India. The mood grew angrier and the crowds clamored equally for war as they did for better governance. Many of us agreed gloomily that the one positive thing to come out of the inexcusable and horrific attacks is the fact that middle class Bombay has woken up and found their voice to chant 'Enough is Enough'. I can only hope that peace prevails because war, in my opinion, will breed another generation of terrorists. I can only hope that those who participated in vigils and protests, will not forget, not remain quiet, but make their vote count, so that better leaders will find the will to make sure that no more innocents die needlessly. I can only hope that religious extremists stop manipulating the hearts and minds of poor young boys and that governments of the world realize that inequity and ignorance is at the root of terrorism. For our part, Sejal and I have committed to continue to organize positive initiatives in Bombay, such as a peace wall in memory of those lost to the attacks, lest we forget...

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