Empty gestures and selective remembrances

Its the night before thanksgiving here in California, and – not unlike many American men – I am watching a game on the telly. Well, on the telly in India but funneled to my laptop via the intertubes in rather irregular fashion (but don’t tell the BCCI). And the game is one that is likely to bemuse my American friends who will indulge in what they call football after turkey tomorrow: the third day of a cricket test match (that’s the 5-day-long version of the sport) between India and Sri Lanka being played in Kanpur. And it looks like India may actually win this test match, just in time for me to enjoy after that turkey meal too! Not quite the thanksgiving tradition of the pilgrims and Indians, but this’ll do fine for a globalized diasporic Indian like me.

Yet the game started today on a curious note: the Indian team lining up to stand in 2-min of silence before entering the ground to resume play this morning! My wife happened to glance at my laptop as the game started, and wondered aloud who had died – and chuckled upon learning the real reason. Turned out this homage was for victims of what transpired a year ago today in the siege of Mumbai by a handful of young gunmen from Pakistan, or what’s been labelled 26/11 in India. Why must my countrymen mimic the Americans even in naming our terrorist attacks?. Turns out this anniversary of a particular act of terrorism is indeed being commemorated throughout India in various often curious ways, online and off, in the world of advertising and television (with the Zee channel apparently offering to go silent for a couple of minutes!). Why then did my better half chuckle ironically at the display of solidarity by the Indian cricket team? Well, in the scheme of terrorist attacks in India (or even in Mumbai alone), 26/11 didn’t claim a particularly high toll of deaths, nor did it come near many other traumatic acts of violence inflicted from forces within Indian society (communal riots and massacres), let alone the routine deaths from the mundane maladies of the developing tropical world (diseases chronic or epidemics, famines, droughts that everybody loves)! Why then do we single out this particular event – is it simply a sign of the increasing Americanization of Indian society, especially media? Even NPR here had a story about this anniversary today! Or did that attack really mean so much more? Perhaps it was the nature of the attack itself, revealing hitherto unexpected vulnerabilities in the Indian security apparatus, upending life on an ordinary day when seemingly ordinary young men turned the country’s financial capital upside down. Was this terrorism at its psychologically terrifying worst, arousing deep anxieties and leaving psychological scars? Or is much of this public breast-beating merely part of the routine cynical exploitation of such traumas by politicians? Surely it is far easier and simpler to have an external enemy to blame and rally the patriotic citizenry around rather than examine one’s own actions. Perhaps this anniversary contains a bit of all of these things. And many of the ordinary people, especially those commuters caught up in the events a year ago, seem to have moved on in that “resilient” city – or so suggests NPR’s voice from Mumbai – even as Pakistan drags its feet despite big brother US’ pressures to bring the “masterminds” behind the attacks to trial let alone justice.

So I turn to Prem Panicker to make sense of all this, and he has obliged by sharing his own blues in a thought provoking essay about the lost promise of lasting social change in the aftermath of the Mumbai attack. It was (besides my sister and brother in law) @prempanicker on twitter who helped keep me in the moment during the prolonged siege and the public response afterwards in Mumbai, who articulated beautifully the anguish of my home city, and who now reflects on what might have been. It was also Prem’s blow-by-tweet reporting a year ago that finally got me hooked on twitter, and I continue to turn to him for news from my native shores.

Via @prempanicker also comes a link to one of the best pieces written about the attack, by Jason Motlagh in the Virginia Quarterly Review. For lighter relief, afterwards, check out Girish Shahane’s evisceration of a couple of media pundit blowhards trying to cash in on this anniversary. And lest I be accused of falling in that camp, I will stop right here and get back to the cricket, which, for a change, has been quite enthralling and surprisingly good today.

Happy turkey day, everyone.

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