Mumbai's Untold Stories
Obscured by headlines of threatened Westerners and "India's 9/11" are ordinary Indians, coping with the all-too-familiar aftermath of November's terrorist attacks.
A newspaper story I read in the aftermath of the Mumbai terrorist attacks suggested that no illusions of safety remained in the bustling Indian metropolis.
That thought consumed me.
As a child, I had stayed with my parents at the landmark Taj Mahal Palace & Tower Hotel when we were stranded overnight by a delayed flight back to America after a trip home to my native Calcutta. We marveled at its finery. Its walls provided safe haven then.
No longer, after the night of November 26. Images of the Taj burning spread quickly around the world. And so did criticism of media coverage of the attacks.
Many Indians, including several of my print journalist friends in India, felt the coverage favored the plight of the wealthy and foreign tourists occupying the Taj and the Oberoi, another posh hotel in Mumbai. They questioned why the media focused on an Israeli orphan and the patrons of Leopold Café, a popular Mumbai hangout for Western visitors.
What about those who perished on the platforms of Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the central train station used by ordinary Indians to travel in and out of Mumbai? Or at government-run JJ Hospital, where unidentified bodies were transported?
It reminded me of the media's fascination with the disappearance and death of pretty white girls. Their stories are sexy; they make for excellent victims. Barkha Dutt, an editor with NDTV, an English-language television station in India, insisted the bias was unintentional. On the network’s website, she defended its coverage
"Could we have been more aware of the suffering and tragedy of those killed in the first few hours at the CST railway station and not got singularly focused on the two hotels? On this one point, I would concede that perhaps, this was a balance we lost and needed to redress earlier on during the coverage. But, mostly our attention was on the hotels, because they were the sites of the live encounters, and not because of some deliberate socio-economic prejudice. Still, when many emails poured in on how important it was to correct this imbalance, most of us, stood up, took notice, and tried to make amends for an unwitting lack of balance in air time."
I hope that journalists did make amends. And that in the weeks to come, they will interview victims from all social classes in their coverage of the aftermath. In these “Act II” stories, journalists have an opportunity improve on their earlier coverage, and to help the Indian community heal as a whole.
This takes me back to the newspaper's declaration of Mumbai's vulnerability - "no illusions of safety." The sad truth is that Mumbai is a city well acquainted with carnage, and its citizens have long been aware of its vulnerability. In this sense, as writer Amitabh Ghosh and others have pointed out, calling these attacks the 9/11 of Mumbai is grossly inaccurate.
In 1993, vicious attacks on the city's stock exchange and a dozen other sites left 257 dead and wounded more than 700. A decade later, 59 people died in four separate explosions and in 2006, a series of deadly blasts ripped through crowded commuter trains and stations, killing at least 209 people. The victims then were primarily ordinary Indians, not millionaire industrialists or celebrities or tourists.
Was it because the November attacks were a "first-class" tragedy that they got so much global attention? Was it because luxury establishments were attacked that the sense of vulnerability was finally extended to all people, rich and poor, and therefore legitimized?
It certainly seemed that way to my Indian friends who were watching the continuous coverage on CNN.
As in other parts of the world, terrorism in Mumbai is random and indiscriminate. Now, all Mumbaikars must live with that daily fear, even as interest in their tragedy wanes among the public here in the United States.
As India focuses on the perpetrators of this crime and the alleged connections to Pakistani militants, it would behoove journalists not to forget about the people struggling to go back to life as they once knew it. How traumatic must it be for someone who witnessed the shootings at the train station to then be forced to take a train the next day?
In the midst of the politics and international intrigue, 18 million Mumbaikers must find the strength to live life despite the fresh fear in their hearts. Kudos to the journalists still out on the streets documenting the natural resilience of human beings faced with tragedy.
I hope they recognize the uncommon richness that can be found in the stories of common human beings.