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26/7: A Memorial For The Mumbai Citizen We Never Mourn

On a low wall between the recently spruced up area where tickets are sold and platform No 1 at Mumbai’s Mahim railway station is an embedded granite plaque, visible to those walking in through the main entrance.

Written in the Devnagiri script and gold letterings are the words “Shradhanjali”, meaning In Memoriam. Just below in equal prominence is inscribed the name of President APJ Abdul Kalam. The plaque notes the bomb blasts that ripped through seven Mumbai local trains on July 11, and records the President’s homage to the victims on behalf of the nation.

In India, loss of public life is rarely mourned in a manner that represents an organised attempt at grief and remembrance. Not that we are a stoic society. Politicians and perhaps others who have commanded public memory are paid generous homage. While for ordinary citizens, remembrance is mostly a private affair, in homes and sometimes institutions.

Human Lives Are Precious

To be fair, there have been memorials erected after natural calamities, like at Nagapattinam after the tsunami-hit Tamil Nadu, or following armed conflicts. But terrorism, for instance, is different from natural calamities and conflicts. It calls for a different kind of response: the first being to demonstrate to terrorists that innocent human lives are precious, and that people will rally around, whether in anger or grief.

Rarely have we demonstrated this in the past. Government involvement in such tragedies typically kicks off with untimely VVIP swoops on hospitals and end with ex gratia payments. Rarely does the state or its constituents pause to truly remember for the lost life, particularly after the event and deed fade from memory, typically a few days.

There could be other reasons as well. But the fact is that you won’t find a memorial for the March 1993 blast victims or the August 2003 blast victims in Mumbai. Or for all those who died in last July’s floods. But contrast Mumbai’s fate to similar tragedies elsewhere in the world. From the Madrid train bombings and Bali’s bomb blasts, public memory is retained in the form of permanent memorials and annual services held there. Incidentally, the toll in Madrid and Bali was roughly the same as Mumbai.

Memorials Elsewhere And Services

In Madrid, a Forest of Remembrance was created in a park with one tree planted for each dead. Incidentally, Spain broke with tradition in 2004 (after the bombings) when it held the first state memorial service for people outside the royal family—at least in the history of Spain’s new democracy.

The October 2002 Bali bombings saw permanent memorials being erected in Indonesia and Australia, from where 88 of the dead hailed. In addition, there were many individual memorials put together by families of the dead, mostly teenagers. A function to put up a new memorial at the Bali blast site in 2004 was accompanied by a Balinese Hindu ceremony.

And there is 9/11. While there are ceremonies every year, a formal memorial will open only on September 11, 2009. Called Reflecting Absence, it will comprise two voids in the original footprints of the Twin Towers. Each void will have a pool of water filled by waterfalls on all sides. A forest of oak trees will surround it. The final design was selected from 5,000 entrants hailing from 63 countries.

2-minute Pause A Beginning

Is India ready to follow suit? This writer is not an expert at analysing the psychological reasons for the inability to unite in public grief. Suffice it to say that something changed with Mumbai’s train bombings. The city’s trains, buses, taxis, office-goers stopped to observe a 2-minute silence at peak hours last week. Even the usually charged pizza delivery boys alighted from their scooters to stand still. And thousands paid homage at railway stations.

The 2-minute silence did not bring the city to a grinding halt. But for a first attempt of this kind, it was notable. Citizens even complained they did not hear the sirens that were supposed to alert them to the moment. Now, there is talk of a wear-white day on July 26, the day floods and an incompetent local administration brought the city to its knees last year. Over 400 died in Mumbai that day and over a 1,000 in Maharashtra.

Many people have argued that Mumbai’s citizens should express anger at the administration’s inability to take care of its own. Ever since last July’s floods, the city has been let down at regular intervals. Living in Mumbai—a land mass that struggles to carry a population four or five times more than it can sustain—itself is a challenge.

Anger And Grief

More than anger, which sometimes can flame out, grief as expressed in permanent memorials may be a more powerful emotion. It reminds and binds, and forces those in power at the moment to revisit old memories. Expressions of remembrance also suggest recognition that the ordinary citizen’s life is indeed not that cheap. As most of us now believe. Public support and bonding are rising, whether for Mumbai’s train victims or wronged individuals elsewhere. The Mumbai train blasts seem to have provided the complementary force in tipping the scales. I hope I am not being premature in calling a trend.

This piece appeared in the Business Standard on Tuesday, 25th July, a day ahead of the first anniversary of Mumbai's 26/7 floods disaster

Comments

Anonymous said…
Wear white ? Nice, very nice. And while we are at it shall we also conduct a mock funeral of the BMC at every municipal cemetery , burial ground and crematorium ?

Ila
Bombay Addict said…
Govind - thanks for this post. This is a thought process I feel very strongly for and completely agree with.

Rather than life "going back to normal" the next day, I firmly believe we could do with something out there in the city - a memorial, or whatever.. - to remind us and (paraphrasing you) to mourn the Mumbai citizen we never mourn.

Thanks again for this much-needed post.
hmmm... said…
i had gone to matunga road to cover the two minute silence. till then i wasn't quite sure. but i saw a man, who had got flowers on his own, stood silently till his turn came and prayed with his eyes full and left without talking to anyone. yes, we should have memorials and moments to remember.
Balaji said…
As a nation, we have easily forgotten the valiant soldgiers who gave their lives protecting our country during the Kargil war. If that did not evoke anything from the govt, I don't expect a lot here a too, I am sorry to say this...But that is what I feel.

Memorials and buildings...does it have any value...I am not sure...I have seen many statues being erected in the name of one politician or the other, in one year, you can see birds shi*** on it. That much for respect.

I feel the lives of people who dies in the blasts are more valuble than the birds shi*** on it.
Anonymous said…
Govind, very thoughful post. it brought tears to my eyes. Though I wish that we dont have to build in any more of those memorials in future, these gestures bring out the humane side of us.
PS said…
If we start building such memorials, I think India will become the 'land of memorials' very soon. A friend told me that 6-8 people die on mumbai's suburban rails every day. Is that true? Given the number of man made calamities in India(the mumbai train blasts were our creation, we should accept mumbai's city administration failed in thwarting it) we would have too many memorials. So yes, let's build this nice little president inaugrated memorial and get all teary about it. But we should also be ready with bricks and cement for the next one. For by getting all emotional, either in anger or grief, we are missing the real issue. What we need fom the president is a call for action; a plan to deal with safety and security in India's cities. I think, for India, a stern plan for action is enough of a Memorial. We don't need these 'heart wrenching' brick and mortar edifices. Let's first plan on how to avoid such acts of terror.
Bombay Addict said…
@ PS - Up that number to 10 per day because an estimated 3,500 people die every year on Mumbai local train tracks (links, here, here and also do read Atanu Dey's hard-hitting piece which has a higher number of 4,000/year).

Do correct me if I've misunderstood you, but are you clubbing these train deaths/accidents with those caused by an act of terror under a category called "man-made calamity" ?. So, are you saying that since 10 people die every day on a train anyways, why should we think of a memorial to remember the 200-odd who died in 12 minutes because of a terrorist act ?

The other thing I wanted to ask was - Why should grief at the loss of life due to a dastardly act imply that we're missing the real issue ? Can't we, as citizens, get angry enough to call for an action plan, while at the same time remember the dead ? Are these mutually exclusive actions ?

Sorry, but I'd choose to differ from your point of view.
PS said…
What I meant is that building a memorial without any plan to make sure such dastardly acts don't repeat themselves is utter nonsense. India has a tendency to be emotionally overwhelmed in times of such crisis and memorials are a way to psychologically bury such acts or terror. Like as if the act of building the memorial somehow takes care, in a symbolic way, that such horrid acts won't repeat themselves.

I cited the deaths of people on Mumbai's local train tracks as an example of callously we deal with human life. Do you say there is can be no plan to avoid such deaths? I believe there can be, but it is the value we place human life that keeps us from doing anything about deaths on the these tracks. So how about a memorial for those 10 people who die on the tracks? That's 4000 memorials a year. So as you can see, grief, tears and memorials are inescapable emotions, but these are absurd and silly if we do not plan to make sure we do not have to keep building memorials.
Anonymous said…
Loved this post.

This city, for all the spirit it has, like every other metropolis insulates people from their extended families and even their own nuclear families. Time demands so much out of us .. Admit sometimes you do not want to even strike a conversation in the morning with your spouse lest it makes you run late! In the absence of our large families that is typical to Indians, we need to open our hearts a bit more. Lets stop looking at the clock as much as we do…..

Remembrance, solidarity, respect and gratitude (somewhere in our hearts... let's face the truth, relief that none of our loved ones' names are on that plaque) whatever the emotion that it stirs in us, atleast we made a poignant effort to stop, introspect and grieve. The two-minute silence gave us some sanity amidst the chaos and humdrum of never-ending city life.

When I was in London, I went to a park dedicated to the victims of 911. On a wooden beam were engraved the words -GRIEF IS THE PRICE WE PAY FOR LOVE. You just had to stop and pray for those who lost so much in mindless violence and for all the bounty we take for granted in our lives. That is what that place did to me and I am sure for thousands of others....

it must be heart wrenching for all those families...we need to keep thinking of them, not just once a year....whether it is commemorated with a park, plaque we must not let these events ever be forgotten...they are valuable lessons for us to learn something from....
Prasad said…
Wow - what a great post. Thoughtful and pensive. I hope we as a society will start adding value to human life. There is always a beginning. Thank you.

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