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A Lesson from 26/11

A Lesson from 26/11

November 27, 2011

Mumbaikers may be 'resilient', but saying so is dismissive and counter-productive.

'Mumbai' and 'resilient', it seems, are words which go together. From the major television anchors to regular people on the street, and especially throughout the safe haven of social media, the 26/11 attacks in 2008 brought many such compliments to the people of India's largest city. They had, after all, endured yet another major terrorist attack in a particularly violent decade – this one the most shocking and jarring of all, as it was carried out in person by gun-toting outsiders – and yet somehow, they had bounced back and continued their work, their lives.

The same happened this year on 13/7. After the bombs went off at Zaveri Bazaar, Opera House and Dadar West, Indians and NRIs around the world were quick to express their confidence that the citizens of Mumbai would pick up the pieces, jut out a stiff upper lip and carry on. The 24/7 media outlets led the outpouring. In the aftermath of such a sickening act of destruction, Mumbaikers would surely demonstrate their renowned resilience.

It's a natural response, I suppose, to want to praise the spirit of those who are suffering. It's usually considered an expression of support. It is certainly spoken or typed with good intentions. By 13/7, however, the 'resilient' tag had worn thin. Mumbai residents were ready to reject it, and with good reason.

To describe a group of people suffering hardship as 'resilient', or to praise their 'spirit', is not helpful. It's dismissive. It distances whoever uses it from the people directly affected, when it would be more useful for those people and the country as a whole to speak inclusively. It's a distraction from the real issues – like how to prevent terror occurring in the first place, or how to actually go about the cleanup of lives and minds that is now desperately required. It puts to one side the details and stories that come out of such shocking events and confines them to footnotes.

It suggests that people will manage fine, and our saying so belittles them, despite whatever compassion we may seek to imply. It implies a superior ability to cope, and in turn a lesser requirement for support. People often talk about resilience in regard to a sports team, such as to describe Manchester United's uncanny capacity to persevere and turn defeat into victory, but neither terrorism nor the ability to bounce back from it are part of a game to be won or lost.

This 'triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity' is also a statement of the obvious. Resilience is a powerful human quality, and it's part of the reason why we have survived and proliferated so successfully on this planet. India itself has faced the most bloodcurdling war and violence and led an extraordinary and unprecedented peaceful independence movement, along with experiencing more than its fair share of natural disasters. Resilience, strength, courage in the face of adversity are as established in India as they are anywhere else.

What all this talk of resilience does is gloss over the period of mourning and shock and flash forward to a time when everything will be rosy again. It ignores the pain that those affected feel now, their need to be heard and assisted through a difficult time. Mumbaikers do go about their business the day after a terrible attack like 26/11 or 13/7, but they are not doing it because of some supernatural power to cope; if anything, it's a dissociative feeling, of knowing the threat of danger is constant but compartmentalising it for proper reflection only outside working hours.

All this is not to say that resilience is not a remarkable thing. It is, and those who display it deserve commendation. However, to use it as the basis (or the extent) of one's support to those hit by an act of dramatic upheaval is misguided, a cop-out. Instead of reducing an entire city to a patronising buzzword, it would be far more useful simply to listen, to hear people's stories as they come to terms with what has happened and to let them cry or scream if they need to. Then, when the financial and social needs arising out of the disaster become more apparent, they can be tackled directly rather than through a dismissive smokescreen of perceived bouncebackability.

That would be a healthy response to a terrorist attack. Leaping to praise people's recovery from something that has just happened, on the other hand, is wasteful and delusional. I hope that this can be understood and applied when future damaging events occur in Mumbai and other place in India; that the millions of observers who genuinely care can take the time to demonstrate their compassion with open ears, hearts and minds


  • Bronwyn
    28.11.11 10:10 AM
    Excellent piece: thank you for giving such respect and honour to those Mumbaikars that display 'spirit' and 'resilience' time and again, but illustrating clearly how useless these words are in actually learning and moving on from a horrible event.
  • Joseph James
    Joseph James
    27.11.11 11:00 PM
    Resilience is nothing but a euphemism coined by the journos for the Mumbaikar's indifference, insensitivity and impotence.
    A girl gets raped in a train. The fellow passengers look the other way.
    Resilience or cowardice?
    Two young men are beaten to death in broad daylight in the heart of the city for objecting to 'eve teasing'. But nobody intervenes. Resilience indeed!
    Three years have whisked by since the shocking attack on the commercial capital of the country. But precious little has been done to prevent its recurrence. But the famous 'resilience' of the Mumbaikars doesn't let them question such inertia.
    They have even forgotten the heroism of brave martyrs like Sandeep Unnikrishnan.
    Is this resilience or the heartlessness of a big Metro or merely a survival tactic in a modern jungle?
    27.11.11 10:42 PM
    RESILIENCE is a buzzword imported by the foreigners and others alike. It is still wrong to use it even with good intention, because you and I who are not affected by sush tragedy will never understand or know the loss of those involved.

    The person truely effected by this may never recover from such tragedy and loss, and to insult them this way is even worse.

    The best way to help this individual is to offer them help and support and that's only things you can do.

    The point the terrorist are trying to make by taking the life of innocent is also lost in this carnage along with their own life. No matter how nobble their cause is, it will never be recognise by civilised.

    So the whole point of this exersise by the terrorist means nothing to the rest of the world, except it leaves pains and suffering to the victims.

  • Vishal
    27.11.11 08:46 AM
    Very true, Mr. Morris. We need to feel the pain and hurt for us to do something about these terror attacks. We move on the next day as if nothing happened and the people upon whom the trauma is inflicted keep burning inside. If we Indians do away with a little of this so called 'resilience' and refuse to put up with all this, we'll become a safer nation...

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