It was my first night ever in Mumbai, and the distinct spicy-sweet taste of Bachelorr’s chilli ice-cream lingered in my mouth as the Gateway of India loomed into view. My hosts had decided a late evening tour of South Mumbai would be more palatable to a Mumbai newbie than braving it during the daytime rush, and how right they were: at night the Gateway was majestic, lit elegantly from all angles and a far more impressive feat of architecture than photographs had led me to believe. Wellington Pier was almost deserted, and the great arch’s silent grandeur gave the scene an almost tranquil atmosphere - at least until we walked to the base of the Gateway, and found a high security fence forming an ugly wall around it.
This was in early December 2010, just over two years since the terror attacks in South Mumbai that have become known as 26/11. Not such a long time, really. “Imagine, they came right up through here,” said Isha, looking through the arch to the harbour on the other side. “And over there,” said Jag, pointing off to the left at a small mooring on the edge of the concrete expanse. It was, in fact, very difficult to imagine. I’ve never had to deal with any kind of large-scale violence in my life; my only frames of reference for gun-toting commandos on the charge come from television news and action films.
My own lack of experience may have influenced my perception of this relatively quiet night scene, but perhaps more relevant is Mumbai’s long history of violence. Even in the last ten years, during which one might imagine a city as ever-changing as Mumbai might have gained a high percentage of its current residents, Mumbai has witnessed several separate terrorist attacks. This is a city better equipped than maybe any other in the whole world - at least mentally - to clean up and move on after a bombing or a shooting. Part of me finds this to be, if not a direct acceptance of terrorism, the sad reality of people that have to live and deal with it on a regular basis. On the night, with the constancy of the Gateway above me, my pessimistic side lost out to an admiration for the power of humans to both pick themselves up when they’re down and adequately remember a most upsetting event.
Right across the road from the Gateway, that ability to carry on undaunted was in full evidence at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Here was a building that was ravaged by bullet holes and falling bodies just two years before; this night, it stood completely refurbished and bore no indication that something so dark had ever happened inside. I find the interior even a little banal, with a lobby like a multiplex reception hall and a seemingly airbrushed-green pool garden. Objectively, I found the Gateway a much more impressive combination of weathered existence and architectural glory; the Taj felt somewhat artificial, but I had to admire the achievement of bringing it back to such a standard within two years.
There was nothing banal about the other patrons, though. If they weren’t genuinely important, they were sure dressed to appear so: all gowns, black ties and hairdos, with glittering makeup and expensive shoes to match. Now that I’d understood the swiftness with which Mumbai could reboot after a major terrorist attack, I was witnessing the pace of everyday life among its elite. Local businessmen walked swiftly with foreign clients, the foreigners no doubt on a whirlwind stay, the locals probably entertaining their third client of the week. I felt increasingly out of place; after all, what was I? Nothing more than a villager in the big city, who had somehow gained access to the most exclusive building in town wearing a t-shirt and rubber sandals.
Having completed our own whistle-stop tour of Colaba, it was time to head home. Off-putting though the crush of the overdressed wealthy had been, I was extremely impressed with Mumbai as seen through its major landmarks. Apart from a single wire fence, the scars of 26/11 didn’t really show on either the Gateway of India or the Taj Palace. Over the course of my stay, I came to feel that in Mumbai, all the action around you - whatever form it may take - need not affect you; provided a little good fortune, you can set your own pace of life. Regardless, I pray that its residents don’t have to face such horrors again.