Saturday, November 29, 2008

Bombay Then and Now

A commando drops onto the roof of the Jewish center in Bombay. Photo by Siddhartha Babbaji, AP, in the San Francisco Chronicle and other major newspapers.
A statue in one of 30 Buddhist caves of Ajanta, near Aurangabad on the Deccan plateau.

By Pat Browning

As a lifelong news junkie, I spent my spare time this week roaming the Internet for the latest on the disaster in Bombay. It has been Mumbai only since 1995, which was day before yesterday. It will always be Bombay to me.

Such a kaleidoscope of memories as I followed the news:

The view from my hotel on the back bay overlooking Marine Drive. Running along the shoreline of the Arabian Sea, Marine Drive glittered with streetlights at night, living up to its nickname of the Queen's Necklace. In the stillness of early morning, solitary men fished from small boats on the bay.

The little-known museum in Mahatma Gandhi’s former home. I was fascinated by glass display cases of miniature figurines in tableaux of scenes from Gandhi’s life. From this house, the Mahatma (Great Soul) launched the civil disobedience movement that led to India’s independence from Great Britain.

The Towers of Silence. Closed to outsiders, they sit on a busy street, hidden by trees. The Parsis, or Zoroastrians, of Bombay, bring their dead to the Towers of Silence and leave them on stone slabs for the buzzards to pick clean. Bones are left to calcify in the sun and eventually swept into a deep well.

Parsis worship earth, fire and water. As it was explained to me, the Towers of Silence don’t pollute the earth with burial; don’t pollute the air by cremation; don’t pollute the water with ashes; and they feed the birds.

A name surfaced during reportage that has been dismissed as fictitious, but it got my attention. A group calling itself the Deccan Mujahadeen supposedly claimed responsibility for the terror in Bombay.

Historically, the Deccan plateau has been ruled by Muslims. The city of Aurangabad, about 100 miles east of Bombay, is the jumping-off place for India’s famous cave temples at Ajanta and Ellora. With Buddhist, Hindu and Jain paintings and sculptures dating as far back as 200 B.C., both sites are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In size, scope and beauty, they are overwhelming.

Gandhi’s influence was pervasive. One of his programs for lifting India’s masses out of poverty was “cottage industry.” On the taxi trip between Aurangabad and the caves, I saw a sandalwood soap factory, a silkworm farm, and many items carved from local woods. I bought a small, round, three-legged rosewood table inlaid with ivory for about $26. The legs were removable for packing into a suitcase. I still have it.

After I got home from India, I read Louis Bromfield’s 1940 novel, NIGHT IN BOMBAY, and marveled at how contemporary it seemed. Bombay apparently had not changed much since Bromfield wrote his book. When I was in Bombay, India’s telephone system didn’t work. Messages were delivered by hand. Even in luxury hotels, reservations were written by hand, on little file cards.

What a difference technology has made. During this week’s nightmare, even the terrorists had cell phones.


Mark W. Danielson said...

While the carnage from these recent attacks will be less than a ferry disaster, its impact will leave an indelible mark on the world. But then, that’s a terrorist’s goal, and technology has made it possible. The world hasn’t gone crazy. Just a few extremists make it appear that way. I have no reservations about returning to India, and expect to do so in January. It’s important to realize that isolated attacks are exactly that. With few exceptions, everyone on this earth is trustworthy and deserves respect.

Anonymous said...

The terrorists in Bombay sure picked their targets for maximum impact and publicity.