When the going gets tough, the newly-arrived and completely oblivious get…coffee
“It’s something Mumbai had not seen for eight years – a near-total shutdown. As news of Raj Thackeray’s arrest in Ratnagiri spread, taxis and rickshaws went off the roads, schools declared a holiday and most business establishments stayed shut.”
– Front page, Hindustan Times
Unbeknownst to myself, the city of Mumbai, and the neighbourhood of Bandra (where I was staying) were experiencing a complete shutdown. At the centre of it, Raj Thackery, leader of the right-wing Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) party had – in a show of anti-outsider sentiment – apparently incited his followers to attack a group of innocent railway recruitment candidates who had traveled to Mumbai from north India to write exams.
Four candidates were killed, and – when Thackeray was arrested shortly thereafter – MNS supporters took to the streets. According to the Hindustan Times, “Along the Western Express Highway [the same one I’d arrived on just a few days previous], the protestors stoned vehicles, burnt tyres, disrupted traffic and attacked policemen on duty.”
In fact, the damage included a torched police van, 38 buses set on fire, 40 private cars damaged by stone-throwing, 354 taxis damaged, 60 auto-rickshaws damaged (4 completely torched), one bus stop set on fire, and 6 transit drivers injured – among others.
From what I understand, Raj and his party were sending a message to the mostly North Indian-originating rail, bus, taxi and auto-rickshaw transit drivers that they were taking jobs away from “locals” and they and their kind should get out of Mumbai.
My cousin Deepika was incredulous when she came home early from work (“early” being 5pm, as – like many Mumbai workers – she and her husband usually don’t usually leave work until 7 or 8, in time for a 9pm dinner).
“Where have you been?!” she exclaimed, “Did you not notice that the streets were deserted?” She had been frantically trying to contact me via her cook Lena, who had come by the apartment in the afternoon to grab me but didn’t know enough English (or I, Hindi) to communicate that the city was under siege, and I should stay put.
To the contrary – short of frequenting a train station or shopping mall, I’d slipped away while she spoke animatedly on her cellphone, and spent the afternoon doing exactly what one shouldn’t be doing when a political terrorist and his ilk are running amok mere kilometres away – I was wandering the seaside promenade, surveying a ruined fort, gawking at transportation infrastructure, and sampling superb Indian-grown coffee in the lobby of the five-star Taj Lands End hotel.
Across the road and outside its air-conditioned walls, an imposing fifteen-storey structure of another ruin prompted me to ask my server what had happened to it. “Monsoons?” I prompted, feeling a little smug and wise as the season was just finishing and I’d learned that many buildings and roads required seasonal repair after the summer rains.
“No,” she replied, looking out the window, “Bomb.”
“It used to be the Sea Rock Sheraton and a very famous and popular hotel. It was attacked by terrorists almost ten years ago…” She looked down to where I sat with my cup and saucer and fancy cookies. “Perhaps you heard about it?”
I made a mental note to Google it when I got back, and left the hotel to take shady side roads back to the apartment. I felt comfortably lost until I reached an idyllic intersection with a corner store, small park and Citibank. That’s odd, I thought, I’m absolutely in the right neighbourhood, but I don’t remember this intersection being so…quiet. I followed the Mehboob Film Studio wall to the St. Raque Road corner, then to the laneway in front of Deepika and Emil’s building.
That’s where Deepika caught me breezing in, and that’s when I learned that transit workers had emptied the streets because their lives were in danger. Deepika – eight months pregnant – told me that her taxi driver had parked his metered vehicle and borrowed a friend’s car so he could help her get home safely from work.
Emil came in soon after that, and my coffee felt bitter in my stomach as we gathered around the television and watched police lead a smug Thackery from the courthouse to spend a single night in jail.