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20/07/2006

The last station

Indian writer Kiran Nagarkar tries to come to terms with the recent bombings in Mumbai

Someone must have switched on the TV in the next room. That's odd. Watching TV is usually limited to the evening hours here, never in the mornings, certainly not as early as 8.30. I drift into the other room. (Nobody notices me, they are mesmerized by the images on the TV screen.)

What's Rajeev Sardesai doing on CNN? I hadn't realized he had moved channels again. I seem to be suffering from an acute attack of jetlag. I am disoriented and find myself in some other time frame. I seem to be back in 1993 during the bomb-explosions in Mumbai.

The American anchor announces that their associate channel CNN-IBN is covering the news from India. A full flank of a compartment from a Bombay local train has been pried open like the lid of an Amul cheese tin. The camera is playing coy and shying away every time it comes close to dead bodies. The editor at the studio keeps cutting back to a wet window pane that's been pulled down all the way and has two red blood stains at the bottom, then to people walking on the rail tracks lifting hastily-covered bodies. Two drenched men gesture angrily at the camera as they escort a baffled friend away from the scene.

Now the camera cuts to the CNN-IBN reporter who has miraculously escaped the bomb blast in another compartment and is about to tell of the impact of the explosion and how for a few stunned moments everybody sat uncertain and paralyzed and then suddenly the train emptied out. But before he launches excitedly, perhaps for the 7th or 9th time, on a paean to the unconquerable spirit of Mumbai and how the commuters of the train got down to help the wounded even before the police or the ambulances turned up, he makes certain that his channel gets a plug by telling us that as usual, his channel will be on the scene 24 by 7 and will cover the terrible tragedy round the clock.

President Musharraf, we are told by the American anchor, has condemned the terrorist attacks. Soon, very soon, the railway minister, Laloo Prasad Yadav, and Sonia Gandhi herself, will give us their insights on who was responsible for the terrible events of Bloody Tuesday.

By now I am beginning to perceive that I have not segued into the past but am watching that awful, mind-numbing thing called "Breaking News," the fresh, piping hot, make-my-day, instant transmission of current in-the-thick-of-disaster TV coverage that alone can give the blase TV viewer an adrenaline spurt and can send ratings on 9/11 trajectories.

But my fake-cynicism is already in shambles. I am no longer trying to find a scapegoat to avoid facing up to what's going on on the screen. I am close to nine thousand miles away from the seven simultaneous blasts that have shaken Mumbai once again to the roots but even that vast distance will not safeguard me from what I would rather not know. I am regressing rapidly and asking inane questions: Why this constant need to kill? Does it ever get results? Will this slaughter of the innocents never end? Is it mankind which is blood-thirsty? Or is it their God? Who, in God's name, is doing this? Was it Pakistan? The ISI? Was it SIMI, the Islamic students' body? What was the trigger this time? Is it what we did in Gujarat? Is it because Kashmiri young people have no jobs and no future? Is it because the militants in Kashmir do not want a rapprochement between Pakistan and India? Is it because Musharraf thinks we are pussy-footing the talks on Kashmir? Or is it but one more stop-over in the series of explosions that have shattered Madrid, London and now Bombay?

I want to go lie down. Will someone please shut off the world? I rouse myself from my stupor and try to call a friend who commutes daily from Bandra into town and back again in the evenings. Is he okay? I can't get through. The voice of MTNL tells me 'All lines on this route are busy.' I try for another half an hour and then give up. Is Naresh all right? Or has the terrorist RDX got him?

I remembered a Sri Lankan couple from the tsunami disaster who lost their child in the sky-high waves that overwhelmed all life on the coast only to be reunited with their son a few months later. It was the kind of emblematic story of hope that was shown on TV channels across the world and the father of the child was interviewed time and again. He said God had personally intervened to save his child. None of the interviewers bothered to ask him about the thousands upon thousands who were not found or found dead. Had God personally intervened and had them killed?

I should know a thing or two about terrorism, after all I am the author of the book called 'God's Little Soldier.' I spent close to eight years studying the extremist mind and came to the conclusion that clarity and understanding would come, not from a linear, straight-forward approach, but through ambiguity alone. It was important to grasp that in the new arithmetic, right could be both right and wrong, and wrong could also be right.

I learnt that the definition of the enemy had remained the same since the time man began to live in tribes or perhaps even earlier. The identity of the enemy was always clear: he was the 'other', the one who was either a threat of annihilation for the group that called itself 'us' or who had already subjugated 'us'. It was obviously implicit that the opposite side could also view 'us' as the 'other'.

When the Muslims invaders arrived in India, they were the 'other' for the Hindu 'us'. Clearly there was no mistaking the Christian Crusaders. They were the villains and the 'other' in Muslim eyes.

But the notion of the enemy changed for the first time in history in the last couple of decades of the 20th century. The enemy no longer had a sharp, unmistakable profile. The enemy was one or hundreds of innocent bystanders in Baghdad, Kabul or Tel Aviv who had never done the 'us' group any harm or were in any way connected to the perceived grievance. In the transactions of terrorism, the bystanders became nothing more than victims or collateral damage. They are the instruments by which the militants in Iraq, for instance, think they are getting back at President Bush and the so-called Coalition headed by America.

And oh yes, I even know that at its core, the act of terrorism, is at its core, a negation of all the things that stand for life.

And yet of what use was all this knowledge now? How could I make sense of the madness I was witnessing on the TV screen and the chaos in my mind? The individual tragedies of the seven coordinated blasts had emasculated all the wisdom of my insights, not to mention the fine theories of the great thinkers and scholars. I had no answer to the woman on the screen whose eyes looked uncomprehendingly at the corpse of her dead husband as she aimlessly flipped a corner of the white sheet covering him back and forth.
Khar, Mahim, Bandra, Matunga, Borivili, Mira Road and Jogeshwari. Seven blasts, seven stations in Mumbai alone. Another seven or ten stations in Baghdad, and four in Jerusalem tomorrow or the day after. The agony of Christ ends with fourteen stations. Obviously mankind is not satisfied with fourteen or fourteen thousand. Nothing, it would seem, will quench man's thirst for blood and murder.

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Kiran Nagarkar lives in Bombay and is currently on a reading tour in the USA.

This article originally appeared in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on July 13, 2006.
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