On November 30, as the art deco clock on the wall of the 137-year-old Café Leopold in downtown Mumbai announced that it was 12.15pm, a couple of Time Out Mumbai staffers raised our tea cups to the manager to express our admiration at his establishment’s little gesture of defiance. Approximately four days earlier, two young men had sprayed the popular tourist hangout with bullets, killing at least seven people, including two waiters. Now, in response, the café had scrubbed away the blood stains, swept out the debris and rolled up its shutters to serve Sunday breakfast.
It was probably the longest four days in the city’s history. On the evening of November 26, several groups of terrorists rampaged through Mumbai, shooting 56 people dead as they waited on the platforms of the magnificent Victoria Terminus train station, and laying siege to a Jewish community centre and two luxury hotels.
All of India was glued to its television sets for three days, until commandos eventually stormed the buildings and killed the terrorists. At least 163 people were killed and 248 injured in the attacks. But the owners of Café Leopold, like most Mumbaikars, refused to be cowed down. Less than 24 hours after the shooting had ended, it was ‘business as usual’, one of the owners, Mehrzad Dehmiri, told us.
Mumbai has been tested sorely over the past few years. On the afternoon of July 26, 2005, a freak cloudburst caused unprecedented floods, leaving 447 people dead and thousands homeless. A year later, on July 11, seven terrorist bombs exploded in commuter trains during the evening rush hour, killing 209 people. But after each catastrophe, the city has demonstrated a remarkable ability to pick itself up and get back to work.
This resilience has come to be celebrated in the Indian press as ‘the spirit of Mumbai’, a phrase that got over four million results when we last did a Google search.
This fortnight, Time Out Mumbai has devoted its cover story to dissecting what exactly gives our city the ability to shake off adversity and hustle itself back to work so quickly. Among the primary reasons for sturdiness, clearly, is bare necessity: Mumbai, after all, is a city of working-class people (55 per cent of whom live in slums), a large proportion of whom are paid by the day. These daily wage labourers have no option but to march back to work – or else, they and their families will starve.
But that’s only a part of it. It’s obvious that Mumbai values the idea that it’s a go-getting place, that it’s tougher than any other Indian city. To fail to get back into the trains after a calamity is an admission of cowardice. Of course, what makes it easier to head to work on a day filled with uncertainty is the assurance that you can count on help from strangers. ‘When floods marooned the city in July 2005, we banded together and made human chains to navigate the roads,’ our cover story says. ‘Strangers brought food and water to the people stranded on the streets and sheltered them until they could make their way home.
‘In July 2006, when victims of the train bomb blasts were waiting for aid, residents of the huts lining the tracks created stretchers out of their bed sheets and carried the injured to hospitals.
‘Last fortnight, we learned about how, in superhuman acts of courage, the staff at the Taj and the Oberoi hotels risked and sacrificed their lives to protect customers.’ To cut to the chase, we write, ‘Too often we’re called a cold, hurried and unfriendly city that only cares about the bottom line. But you need only step out of your house to know that in Mumbai, you’ll never walk alone.’
As investigations into the attacks proceed [at time of going to press], it seems likely that the terrorists belonged to an organisation called the Lashkar-e-Toiba – the army of the pure. Improbably, the downtown café in which we took tea has emerged as a symbol of Mumbai’s courage. Ahead of a memorial rally at the Gateway of India last week, a colleague decided to get special T-shirts printed up. If you walk into Time Out Mumbai’s offices sometime soon, you’re likely to find several staffers with white shirts that declare their affiliation to the Lashkar-e-Leopold – the army of Leopold.