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Conversations with a terrorist: Reflections on 26/11

On 26 November 2008, my city of birth, my Mumbai -- trusting little insomniac that she is -- watched disbelievingly as 10 lethally-armed terrorists, young, smiling and high on speed, targeted key sites on its southern side: the CST railway station, from where millions commute daily, in large dusty trains that snake their way across the city, the country; the Hotel Taj Mahal, heritage home to the wealthy, the gentile, the dressy, the showy, the well-read, the well-heeled, the old who must be seen as apostles of good taste, and the young who, well, simply must be seen -- The Taj, where marriages are plotted as feverishly as mergers, where flavours settle fluently on tastebuds, where architects and aesthetes celebrate the ambience of another day, a nother age; without doubt, the grand old dowager of monuments;

Leopold Cafe, Mumbai's own nook of bohemia, agog with tourists, music, chatter, beer, the romance of marble top tables and cursive black chairs and foreigners in light summer clothes and waiters swivelling in between, tiptoeing to their orders as nimbly as to the tunes of the jukebox; Hotel Trident, the end-of-the-road glitter in the Queen's Necklace, where the city sparkles before an endless ocean, where lovers turn their backs to the city and gaze wistfully at the horizon, where vendors stroll purposefully, their wares in hand, hope and expectation alight in their eyes, and where people of all communities, all ages, shed their frustrations: job cares, family cares, money cares: who cares as long as they have a seafront to wash them away?

Here they stole in. Here they attacked. How do you think we felt? We, the ones who belong to this city as much as it belongs to us.

They came in from the choppy seas
Accompanied by a traitor wind
Dark-eyed monsters with a collective spine
Abject orphans of a mastermind

No God they knew
No fear, no guilt
Their purpose was clear:
Kill, kill, kill 

They blazed with fury
They bristled with rage
They shot to pieces
Our heritage
No parent they saw
No mother, no child
The victims that fell
Fell to their bile

He who feasted
And he who served
He who never made it
To a fair dessert

With sweat on our lips
And terror in our hearts,
We watched the places of our youth
Fall apart    

Let me tell you, Mr. Terrorist, these places are the arteries of my city. Life happens around them, through them. They promote life, and life, in turn, promotes them. They are our lifelines, pounding with blood and business.



By delivering on their promises of sustenance and livelihood, a step beyond commerce, they assure us that Mumbai won't stop working, what is sought shall be delivered, be it a train that leaves on time from the CST, or a creamy cold coffee at the Sea Lounge, or a part-crisp, part-tender Peking Duck at the Golden Dragon, or a plate of chicken tikkas at Leopold Cafe.

Given the right combination, life works out. The ending writes itself in a way we expect. In a world of inconsistency, these places are our constants, our absolutes.

They inform us of that, reassure us. They are our institutions, the pillars on which we base our habits, our hopes, expectations, memories, trust. They are, in truth, the worlds we inhabit.  So many worlds in a single city.

When these places get shot at, blown up, eroded, when you see them smoke and smolder and fall to the virulence of an intemperate age, when you see them reduce from places of fragrant memories into sullen ash-coated graveyards of death and annihilation, shredded, dismembered, abused, denied, there are reminders that it is not life that is the culprit as much as human beings who fail to interpret it. Why were you here in the first place? What brought you here? Please tell us, Mr. Terrorist.

How they make cities like yours stand tall, stand tall,
When we are reminded that our mosques must fall, must fall?

How they make your children think free, play free,
When ours are meant to be jihadis?

How do we forget unresolved crimes, unpunished leaders,
Ignored, are we not human? Are we not bleeders?

Now excuse us if our untreated wounds boil and fester And the blood that spills out is not warm blood but cold
Not a trickle but a flow Not ours, but yours Yours alone.

So they told you: you will have access to a hundred blushing virgins in heaven. And you can have your way with them. Did they tell you why those women died as virgins? And what were their ages when they died? God, they say, is in the details. So how come they forgot to tell you the details? Did they share that the Arabs once owned the city of Mumbai? Surely, the Prophet must have been worshipped then.

In every house his name would have been invoked, his principles of universal tolerance would have been taught. Once again they chose to forget the details, and God, as they say, is in the details.

Tell us, Mr. Terrorist, what were you thinking when you played out your dance of death? What was boiling in your heart, your mind?

Cold coffee
Cold blood
Sea Lounge
Death hounds

Shamiana
For you, Osama!
Golden Dragon
Cooked its wagon

Wasabi
Out of Sushi
Peking Duck
No luck

Zodiac Grill
Had your fill?
Crystal Room
No room

Chandeliers
Frozen tears
Chambers
Embers

I spare no woman
I spare no child
The smell of Kaffir blood
Makes me smile
And if you must,
join me in the Ballroom
where the last waltz plays on,
plays on �
 

You are, indeed, the lowest form of animal life on this planet, Mr. Terrorist. Your mother doesn't want you, your father regrets you. Your brothers deny you, your friends disown you. You sell yourself in the name of God, and you hurt God's people. You did not even spare that good kind lawyer, who pleaded the last case of his life. He pleaded for others younger than him, more terrified, more fearful. You did not spare the priest who served Allah under a different name.

So what if his way was different from yours? You severed him from his only child. You shot the chef who led his guests to safety; he simply paid the price for facing you. You drilled through policemen in the line of duty.

The bravest and the best fell to your bullets, your rage. You severed children from their mothers, fathers from their sons, friends from enemies, who will surely miss them, as all of us human-beings eventually do, and you parted us, the lucky ones, from all sense of reason, understanding, coherence, comfort, that we, as human-beings, are all created equal.

By removing all rules of order, by reducing well-gathered orderly lives into shrill voices of fear, desperation, shame, and tragedy, you have denied the Almighty one. You have denied Him his right to manage his world his way. Denied Him the power of life over death; the power to raise his children and see them live, laugh, fight, grow, earn, and rejoice with their families. Now, perhaps, in death, you shall tell us what you see.

Voices,
I hear voices now
"Why did you separate us from our loved ones?
Why did you deprive us of them?"

Voices, 
I hear voices now
There a mother, there a child
There a father without a shoulder,
A child without a mother

Voices, 
I hear voices now
Here a mother without breasts,
No mother at all
A child without milk,
No child at all

Voices, 
I hear voices now
No sweet virgins
To call me to their tender embraces
No nymphs to fan me
While I wheeze out my fears, in starts

Voices, 
I hear voices now
Not those of my friends laughing
Nor those of my masters teaching

Voices, 
I hear voices now
I have just been told we shall be returned to earth,
All nine of us:
A pig in a well
A chicken in a coop
A goat destined to bleed on Bakri Eid

O' is this the heaven you promised us, my masters?
And now you had better know what really happened, Mr. Terrorist, the facts as were found later: While 170 people fell to your evil, there were over 600 saved. They made it, despite your bullets, your bombs, your fury, your jihad.

Maybe Allah wanted them alive. He certainly didn't give you the numbers you wanted. He certainly didn't tilt the scales in your favour. And He certainly didn't want you to be among the ones who got away. He preferred you dead than alive. And He made martyrs of the brave cops who died for us.

And of the brave commandos who saved our people. (They are the ones who got all the candle marches and the memorials, and they will get these every year, as long as Mumbai thinks, feels, and remembers.) And He, the all-merciful Allah, showed our politicians that at some point they had better start taking life seriously, that is, lives apart from their own.

But here is the irony of it: we don't hear anyone talking about you, do we? How can they? Who would come forward to claim you? Who would want to own up to you? Not your friends. Nor your family. Certainly not your masters. They thought you would be more useful dead than alive. So they kept themselves for the speeches, the bile, and the hatred. And cleverly they left you for the virgins.

Murzban F Shroff is a Mumbai-based writer. His fiction has appeared in over 30 journals in the US and UK. His debut fiction collection, Breathless in Bombay, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize in the best debut category from Europe and South Asia. He is the recipient of the John Gilgun Fiction Award and has three Pushcart Prize nominations.

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