Thirty one people, guests and employees of the Taj Mahal Palace Mumbai, died on the twenty sixth of December 2008 during terrorist attacks that spanned coffee shops, another five star hotel, a railway station and a hospital. There is a plaque on a wall at the Taj that has a list of the casualties at the hotel. The last name is the name of the dog on duty that night, Lucy. A wall fountain with water flows next to the plaque, like washing away constantly the blood of that night. I mention that night gently in a few of my conversations with hotel staff. They are not allowed to speak about it. Yet some still do. Unlike Leopold Cafe near by which was also attacked and which has maintained some of the bullet ridden windows, at the Taj there is no other sign of that night.
The Harbor 1 Bar, the first bar in India, license number 001 was shattered too. It is not something that is mentioned when we have our drinks there one evening. We have a drink that is one of the most fantastical I have drunk. Stories of an American sailor who comes ashore in the early 1900s and asks for something special at this bar when he hears that prohibition had been lifted in America. The drink, a mix of fruit juices and alcohol set on fire at the table like a flambe´is magical, like a fire lit on evenings when lamps and lanterns must have adorned these walls. Yet I feel a certain pathos. I wish there was a drink that remembering the lives of those who died that night.
I feel disrespectful and inquisitive asking questions when another employee tells me how some tourists and guests in the hotel in the past have asked for gory details such as “Can you show me where the bodies were?” or “Can you show us where people died?” I blanch when
I hear that. Human curiosity is merciless. Another employee tells me sadly that many of his friends, chefs in the main restaurant that night, died.
I look around me at the polished surfaces, the gleaming chandeliers, the views of the sea and the Gateway of India, I eat the best food I have eaten so far in this trip to India. I cannot but still feel that the sadness and senseless brutality of that night lingers beneath the glamor. It is a hotel I will go back to because of all of that.
Mumbai was a city I secretly feared. I grew up in a small town. Mumbai, previously known as Bombay, was big, scary and glamorous; in my mind it was a city for mobsters and film stars and slums and crowded trains. I have never been to New York. My impressions of it are the same as those I have held of Mumbai.
We drove this week from Pune to Mumbai. I wondered what it was my children saw as I looked around me at this city. Mumbai has withstood many acts of terrorism. One against the very hotel in which we had booked a room. The view from our room was that of the Gateway of India, of a sea through which conquerors and traders had reached this country. Police security is visible everywhere- outside monuments, temples, malls, by the side of the beach. What I see is the common man who lives, strives, loves, works just as in any other place in the world, just perhaps the effort and strain a little harder.
I go for walking tours, for bicycle tours. Sometimes I go with Tom, sometimes with the children and sometimes I am alone. It is ironic that it is so easy to be alone here and yet not to feel lonely. I visit a church and let the deep silence seep into my bones, I stand in silence outside the first synagogue of the city and perhaps in this country, I enter a temple with a special queue for non resident Indians. I sit by the Arabian sea listening to Sufi singers at the tomb of a famous Muslim saint. It rains almost all the time. The mud, the dirt, the human and animal excreta are washed away and then accumulate again.
I meet a fellow writer who shares my outlook on the challenges of a woman’s life seeking her place in the world. She understands what I say and what I leave unsaid. I go to the house of a Parsi lady, ninety three years old. She makes me feel as though I have known her my whole life. Her hospitality is simultaneously one of this world and one of graceful times left behind. She speaks simply, she speaks without guile. I go to the house of another fellow writer for dinner. She has read my work and she offers words of support, and again that ear and a heart that understands what I say and leave unsaid. I find in these women traces of myself. I find in them a circle that pulls me into their midst without judgement or reservation.
America and the home I have made for more than a decade is half way across the world. What will we find here? The pilgrimages to homes and places of worship bring with it a melody to the solitudes and work of a woman. In Mumbai as in India, I find I am a stranger and yet at home.