BBC BLOGS - Soutik Biswas's India

Archives for November 2009

'The gods look after us'

Soutik Biswas | 04:12 UK time, Friday, 27 November 2009

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A rabbi outside the Jewish cultural centre which was targeted during Mumbai attacks

All roads lead to Leopold Cafe in Mumbai these days, so I join the procession obediently one rainy afternoon.

Offices and schools in the city have shut mid-afternoon after a cyclone warning. Dark grey clouds hang menacingly on the horizon. Defying a light drizzle and gusty winds, office-goers and school children saunter on the seafront promenade. It makes more sense than rushing back to the hovel-like housing in which most of Mumbai's residents live.

In the bustling streets of Colaba, Leopold - "Since 1871 Getting Better with Age" - is buzzing with activity. The 138-year-old eatery, which was the first target of gunmen during last year's terror attacks, is full to the brim. Over 100 guests, mainly foreigners, occupy its 34 cheek-by-jowl tables.

The trauma of that terrible night - eight people died here, including three foreigners and two employees - is largely forgotten, and business is brisk. Horror sells along with its hugely popular chicken tikka masala and chilly beef: guests gape at the bullet marks on a shuttered shop front glass, the fraying walls and ceiling, and the cramped mezzanine bar. There are even 26/11 coffee cups to buy as memorabilia. "Bullet-proof Mumbai," says the writing on the cup. "No bullet can beat us."

Farzed and Farhang Jehani, the two enterprising brothers who own the place, are busy giving interviews to networks. "It always used to be a cult cafe," says Farzed, taking a break from the cameras. "After the attack, it has gone down in history as an iconic place. I heard that there was a debate on French TV about our restaurant." Outside, a paunchy private guard hired by the brothers to beef up security carries a metal detector in one hand and a stick in another. Presently, he is shooing away urchins haranguing backpacker clients for alms. "These children," he hollers, "are worse than the terrorists!"

Leopold CafeI am checking out a bullet hole in the wall near the side exit when I catch a middle-aged gentleman reading Martin Amis over a plate of omelette. "You know why I am sitting here?" he chuckles. "Because I can jump out and make a quick exit if they come shooting again!" Black humour is never in short supply in Mumbai. It comes naturally to its residents from the realisation that securing 20 million of them with a 40,000-strong police force - underpaid, under-quipped and understaffed - is well nigh impossible. (To put things into perspective, New York has 37,000 policemen to look after a population of 8.27 million.)

"What security?" snaps one of the managers of the vast Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus railway station, when I ask him gently whether things have changed since the attack. (More than 50 people were killed by two gunmen here.) "Nothing has happened and..." he starts again, and stops when he realises I am a journalist. CST, as it is popularly called, is a railroad universe. Some 3.5 million passengers use it every day. More than 2,200 trains arrive and depart each day.

So I arrive there on a weekday morning in a car with dark windows, walk in with my backpack, openly avoiding the metal detector doors. Nobody asks me any questions. A sea of passengers surges through the shrieking doors, and nobody is stopped or checked.

When I seek information on security measures taken after 26/11, I am informed about increased baggage screening (I didn't spot any, but I am sure it happens sometimes), an increase in the number of closed-circuit cameras from 38 to 104 (to capture the aftermath), the deployment of 22 women constables (do they have information about female terrorists?), and some newly trained commandos. Standing near a shop called Curio Stall which sells bottled water, pillows, crisps and cola on the station concourse, I ask a station manager whether he feels safe working here.

"Oh, we are surrounded by Gods and temples," he says cheerily. "The Gods look after us."

"Tell me, is it possible to guard over three million people in one railway station?"

In a warren of grubby lanes not far away, the Chabad House Jewish Cultural Centre stands forlorn and shut. Six people, including the rabbi and his wife were murdered here before Indian commandos slid down from helicopters into the buildings and smoked out the killers.

When I looked around to meet members of Mumbai's minuscule Jewish community after the attacks, most refused. A pall of fear hung over an unnerved people. It is still not easy to meet community members. Inside Chabad House, the walls and floors are pock-marked by bullet holes and stained with dry blood, gory reminders of the bloody mayhem.

Chabad HouseI get on the phone with Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, who is looking after the affairs of Chabad House. He tells me the new cultural centre is functioning from a discreet location, and people who come to live there are being screened.

"We will move forward with greater strength to keep the legacy of the people who died at the Chabad House alive," he says. "We will not run away". The Chabad House is a symbolic place, and in another year Rabbi Berkowitz says a decision will be taken whether they will return to the house, or move somewhere else. "But any which way, the house will remain a symbolic place."

Next door, in a century-old derelict building, residents are more worried about the roof falling on their heads rather than the next attack in the neighbourhood. During the commando operation, they say, their building rocked and shook. "It could fall on our heads any day. Can you please inform the authorities that they have to save us from getting buried under the debris of our house first?" implores Harishchandra Kashinath Awad, an employee of India's central bank, who lives with his wife and two sons in a tiny 120 sq ft room in the rocking house. It is a miracle in living, but then so is Mumbai.

Living with insecurity

Soutik Biswas | 18:54 UK time, Wednesday, 25 November 2009

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Mumbai police on a Mumbai roadIf you believe Saurabh Upadhyay, Mohammad Ajmal Qasab was not caught by the police. The only surviving gunman in last November's Mumbai attacks, he says, "simply gave up while running around Mumbai."

I am sitting in a taxi in Mumbai with the gangly college drop-out and gang member-turned-tourist guide as he takes me on a quick "terror tour" of the places that were attacked. Nearly 170 people were killed by gunmen at a busy railway station, two posh hotels, a Jewish centre, a hospital and a hippy eatery.

As our car trundles through the rising downtown traffic, Saurabh continues to enlighten me in breakneck guide-speak.

"The terrorists got lost. They looked at their maps. But maps don't help in this crazy city. So Qasab ran and ran and gave up to the police, exhausted."

Our taxi comes to a halt on the road where a police patrol stopped Qasab's car and dragged him out after shooting his accomplice dead. "Qasab just got fed up and gave up." What about reports that the cops got him?

"Nah, that's all wrong. You think the police can do that? They are so fat!"

A year after the audacious attacks, the dividing line between fact and fiction has blurred in Mumbai. The official narrative of that terrible night is being challenged in many ways. The only thing we are sure of is that 10 gunmen walked into a city of 19 million people and wreaked havoc for 62 hours. Also, the gunmen were indoctrinated and trained across the border, in Pakistan.

Widows of senior policemen who were killed have challenged the authorities to come clean with the facts. Why is the bulletproof jacket of my husband missing? asks the wife of an officer who was gunned down that night, raising suspicions that the force had been buying sub-standard protective gear.Mumbai

Another wife has written a book saying that the police owe an explanation about why reinforcements were not sent to her husband and his colleagues during the attack on the hospital; and why they were left to die on the streets for 40 minutes after being shot by the gunmen.

A day after the attacks, I visited the Mumbai police control room tucked away in a corner of the force's handsome colonial headquarters. I sought a timeline of telephone calls made to it relating to the attacks and of the police deployments on the night of the attacks.

The timeline I got did not match a number of other timelines that the papers reported, crediting them to the Mumbai police. Control room chatter from that night point to a confused and fumbling force. Now the former police commissioner has set the cat among the pigeons after saying that some of his colleagues did slip up badly. And a perfunctory investigation of the lapses hasn't helped matters.

The tourist guide's amnesia - or ignorance? - helps in the dissemination of a parallel narrative about the attacks. As our taxi turns into a narrow lane in the backstreets of Colaba where the Jewish centre came under attack, Saurabh - "I have 16 years experience as a guide," he says - tells me cheerily that "40 to 45 terrorists" entered Mumbai that day. "Most of them escaped. The police have no idea where they went. They may be still around, plotting their next attack."

Not that Mumbai's residents have any time or inclination to ponder whether they could be attacked again. They are used to living with insecurity, says Kumar Ketkar, newspaper editor and one of the city's leading thinkers. Some of the insecurities are life-long - like affording decent housing in a city where property is sometimes costlier than Tokyo or London.

Then there is the insecurity of survival: some 4,000 people alone die every year while commuting to work on Mumbai's busy suburban networks and choked roads. On the other hand, the wheels of commerce turn fastest here and opportunities abound. Life is cheap, and time is money. So there's no time to grieve in this Maximum City, as its best chronicler Suketu Mehta called it.

"There is a feeling of uncertainty and insecurity. 26/11 has left behind an imprint of horror," says Mr Ketkar, sitting in his office in a building overlooking the sea. "But since Mumbai's people live with insecurity, they live for the day. They don't withdraw." Mr Ketkar remembers the streets of Delhi emptying out and the capital shutting down after seven in the evening during the peak of Sikh militancy in the 1980s. Nothing of that sort will ever happen in Mumbai, he assures me. "There will be no let-up in going out, having a good time."Taj Mahal hotel under attack

There will also be no let-up in memorials with people holding candles and waxing eloquent on more accountability from politicians under the gaze of TV cameras. But only a fraction of them will turn out to cast their ballot on voting day. A politician will parade relatives of victims of the carnage to score brownie points. The police will crow about a $26m plan to equip the forces with modern guns and gizmos, never mind the fact that a few of their crack new commandos fainted during a mock exercise.

Like everything else, remembering the dead is good business. Some victims are cleverer than the rest - a hospital clerk who survived to tell his story after his throat was slashed by one of the attackers is charging journalists $125 for an interview. The manic media scrum helps.

Meanwhile, in the taxi on our terror whirligig, Saurabh says that life remains wretched for people like him, terror attacks or not. He sleeps on the streets near the Gateway of India because he cannot afford a home. His wife stays with an ex-gangster friend of his who has a roof over his head.

I ask him whether he believes that the city could be attacked again.

"Oh yes, it will happen again," Saurabh says dismissively. "Does anybody care?"

The thrill is gone

Soutik Biswas | 06:44 UK time, Friday, 6 November 2009

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A cricket match at a stadium in Mumbai, India

Is cricket losing its soul? Is the game being destroyed by a thoughtlessly punishing calendar, greedy officials, multiple formats and an increasingly mercenary spirit?

Some commentators, players, and coaches are beginning to believe so. A chorus of protest is rising about the state of the game and the chronic fixture congestion that is leading to player burnouts and fan ennui.

Crowds are sometimes thinning even in India, where the game is a religion. "Your wife was right. Cricket is boring," was the unbelievable headline of a recent cover story of an Indian magazine edited by a cricket-mad journalist.

The demand is loud and clear: Play less, play quality.

Consider October for proof of how the game's officialdom is reducing it to a crashing bore. The month began with the semi-finals of the Champions Trophy. Three days after the final in South Africa, there was the Challenger Trophy in India and the lucre- and entertainment-fuelled Twenty20 Champions League.

Now look at how the calendar has treated players from Australia: prior to the ongoing seven-match, one-day series against India, they have played in the super-rich Indian Premier League (IPL), the Wisden Trophy, the World Twenty20, the Ashes, two Natwest Series, the Champions Trophy, and the Champions League.

The upshot: five Australian players have been struck down by injury in India in the past 10 days or so. This is excluding fast bowler Mitchell Johnson, who played three matches despite a nagging ankle injury.

Since last October, India, the game's main engine and provider, have played 27 one-dayers, nine Tests and eight Twenty20 internationals. Indian players have also played the nearly two-month-long IPL, the Champions Trophy and the Champions League. Phew.

India cricket fanRahul Bhattacharya, writer of Pundits From Pakistan, one of the finest cricket books I have read, says the comfort of the game is gone.

"Cricket has reached a stage," he says, "where even the committed fans don't know which teams are playing, when they are playing, who's playing for whom, and, because they are playing all the time, why they are playing at all."

The fine cricket historian Gideon Haigh echoes Bhattacharya's sentiments. "The sheer disorganisation of cricket's calendar is now itself fatiguing, and cannot but bring cynicism and contempt in its train," he writes. Clearly, the thrill is gone.

My friend, Sambit Bal, who edits Cricinfo, makes no bones about it. "Cricket needs reason and context," he says. "The Ashes is big because it has context. But much of the cricket today is meaningless. One series leads into another. The anticipation has gone out of it."

Two leading Indian historians and cricket buffs who have written extensively on the game don't appear to very happy with the state of affairs. Mukul Kesavan says he "thinks of Tests long gone" more than he watches cricket currently played. And Ramachandra Guha, writer of a seminal history of Indian cricket, says he has stopped commenting on the game. He doesn't say why, but I suspect he is simply tired of its excesses.

The excesses are spawning a new generation of players who may be no longer interested in playing for the country and more interested in the easy lucre of a 20-over jamboree. So much so that writer Anand Vasu, in a scathing indictment of the young Indian cricketer, wrote recently:

"There isn't one young person in the Indian team who plays the game solely for the joy of playing the game or because it's an honour to represent India. Being an Indian cricketer is a complex cocktail of commerce, social climbing, relevance and all round-acceptability. Yes, there's the small matter of runs and wickets. But anyone who gets that far is expected to deliver the details anyway."

Vasu writes a virtual epitaph for great cricketers as the game is debased by a overdose of a high-paying, high-thrills, low-quality format like Twenty20. "You will not find a cricketer in this generation who will play 100 Tests. This is simply because it isn't a realistic ambition to start with."

For more clues to the crisis in cricket, I turn to my favourite cricket writer Peter Roebuck. He listens to my fears and doubts about the future of the game, and sets out to clear and explain some of them.

Roebuck feels it's too early to conclude that Twenty20 will kill the game. He also says, surprisingly, that we play too much Test cricket. Too much? Aren't the pundits demanding more Test match games instead of more unending one-day match series?

"Too many Test matches are being played where the contest is thoroughly uneven. Let's not spoil Test cricket by overdoing it, " replies Roebuck. Interesting.

India cricket fans watching a game on TVRoebuck is also worried about the spirit of the game. With players wearing multiple identities playing for the country, and a host of club sides in different formats which pay more than playing for the country, the age of the mercenary transnational cricketer could have arrived. Cricket's nationalistic ardour could be cooling. "The time has come," says Roebuck, "to instil the culture and meaning of the game to young cricketers. Otherwise, the game will be treated as a bank account or a plaything."

Roebuck cites the example of West Indian captain Chris Gayle. Thirty-year-old Gayle, a devastating batsman when in form, has played for six teams already, including the "national" team, and gone on record saying he "would not be so sad" if Test cricket died out.

Last year he played seven IPL matches for the Calcutta team before joining his team in England a mere two days before a Test match at Lords. "Gayle has become a mercenary," Roebuck wrote this week. "It does not seem much of a way to lead a team, let alone a proud cricketing tradition [that the West Indies enjoyed]."

"We are all servants and stewards of the game," says Roebuck. "You have to give to the game as much you take."

In the end, the game is a reflection of the times we live in. Cricket's prophet-philosopher CLR James famously said Bodyline - the intimidating cricket tactic devised by the English team to take on Don Bradman's Australians in 1932 - was the "violence and ferocity" of the age expressing itself in cricket.

"If and when society regenerates itself," James wrote, "cricket will do the same." And, as a prominent sports blog recently wondered: "As long as people keep paying, cricketers will keep playing, so the question is, have you had enough?".

I must confess that personally I am beginning to feel a little jaded.

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