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'The gods look after us'

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

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.


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