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