For days, we sat around the TV. We heard—for the first time, and then over and over again—about the night of November 26, 2008, when 10 attackers, well-armed and well-trained, entered Bombay on a small boat. They stayed for four days.
From the TV, we learned about Leopold Cafe and CST station, about Nariman House and the Trident and Taj hotels. We heard of the firing into Leopold, of the many left dead on the floors of the train station. We followed for days the siege on Nariman House and the two hotels, trying to imagine the horror that must have been going on inside only from what we could see on the outside—a fire in the window here, billowing smoke there.
I learned, for the first time in my 12-year-long life, that there were good ways to do the news and bad ways to do the news. I learned the word “massacre,” because one news channel ran the phrase “Mumbai Massacre” under their coverage, as if these November days needed a proper title. I remember one channel interviewing someone claiming to be an attacker holding one of the hotels hostage, live on air. There were hours of footage on loop, and hours of filler. Somewhere between all that news, I also could hear the thudding of bombs in the distance.
I could see the Trident from my bedroom window. It wasn’t close, but it also wasn’t far—the way a lot of things can be from the 21st floor of a Bombay skyscraper. Every time we tried to take a break from the news, a soft boom, horrifying because we knew what it meant, came in through the window, echoing through the city’s quiet. We’d rush back to the TV.
I remember feeling lucky, so lucky, lucky, lucky, because it—anything, everything—is nothing but dumb, dumb luck.
On the third day, we went out. A few of our close family friends had decided to meet up for lunch—despite it all, because of it all.
We were meeting at one of the families’ apartments—the drive from our house to theirs was normally maybe 10 minutes. It was shorter today. The route—down the road where we lived, past the little corner store where I bought my stationery, turning left toward the road where we used to live, up past the large park by the sea where Dad sometimes used to go running—was empty. Everyone had abandoned the city: abandoned, at least for now, at least for a bit, the collective project of sharing this space together. For now, we all wanted to be indoors.
The quiet was heavy, because it reminded you of what it was replacing: cars and pedestrians and shoppers and kids and noise, noise that you learn to ignore until it is gone. Places you know so well look different, like those optical illusions that look entirely new when you change perspective. I think that’s why characters in horror movies are so scared when they enter an abandoned house or theme park—it feels like only monsters can take away that noise. I was scared for the entire eight-minute car ride, my heart and stomach clenched tight.
The lunch felt oddly normal. In the living room, the parents were laughing and chatting by the window, where they always sat, overlooking the sea. Us kids—all between eight and 12—were probably in the other room, watching a film. One of the couples, I learned there, bailed on a reservation at the Taj Hotel last minute, on the 26th. It was clear that everyone was thinking the same thing: we are lucky, lucky, so lucky, because what else do you call having your life saved by a cancelation?
This feeling of luck stayed with me for days. But it quickly faded away, and left behind only fear. Fear that people can only be lucky for so long.
Less than a month later, my friends and I couldn’t decide what to do after the last day of exams, for the end of term. The last couple of times we had gone out to see a movie—12-year-olds relishing their newfound freedom to go watch films by themselves. This time, no one wanted to go.
Some offered bringing a parent along, addressing what no one would say, what still feels hard, or maybe silly, or maybe insensitive, to say: We were afraid that we’d be blown up from underneath our seats, that someone would walk in with machine guns, that we could die watching High School Musical 3. (Indian release date: December 19, 2008.)
“What will a parent do if someone walks in with an AK-47?” one of my friends asked. No one had an answer.
Two and a half years before the November attack on the city, on July 11, 2006, seven explosions shattered through Bombay’s local train system. Our vice principal didn’t come in the next day, or the day after, or for the next few weeks. When he returned, he seemed okay—only his hand was bandaged up. We could not remember, though, if he had always been that quiet.
This is all to say, 2008 was a culmination of a lifetime of lessons in fearing the outside. It was the natural climax of a city that now had, and still has, metal detectors and pat downs at malls, at restaurants, at some Starbucks. No one trusts the outside anymore.
For a long time, this is how I saw the city: Every time we went out to any public space, l immediately looked for exits. All crowds were places of potential danger, targets for those looking for large numbers of bodies and terror. This city was irreversibly marked by violence.
How much of this has passed, 10 years later? The intensity of fear that emerged post-2008 faded gradually over the next few months. For me, the city is no longer just an amalgamation of sites of potential terrorist violence. (This is, of course, an incredibly privileged vantage point. The city is, and always has been, one massive site of violence for poor, laborer, and Dalit bodies.) But sometimes there are moments where I am suddenly and inexplicably terrified: a seemingly unattended bag on the local train, a crowd packed too closely together, someone walking quickly and briskly out of a movie theater.
After Bombay, I lived in Singapore for four years, which, in its present day relative quiet, felt safer. But New York is like Mumbai; it has a history of grief, and a constant prospect of violence. In my time in New York, there have been a number of terror attacks—Chelsea, Hudson River Park, the Times Square subway station.
And while these don’t impede the way in which I move around the city, those moments of fear, of suspicion and distrust, come back.
Over Thanksgiving this year, when some of my high school friends were visiting New York, we walked down Fifth Avenue the day after Black Friday. We navigated our way through what was basically a stampede—out of the Empire State Building’s packed lobby, up past the Public Library, to Rockefeller Center. We stopped at the ice rink: Under the lights we saw kids racing, and couples holding hands, and nervous teenagers holding the barriers, and pros gliding, and many, many people falling. There was barely room on the rink, and barely room around us. It was almost Christmas, impossibly happy, impossibly festive. I didn’t trust it. I spent the evening with the familiar dull fear in my stomach: too many people, too close together.
To come away from all this without loss is to come away from all this unscathed, is to be lucky. But luck comes with fear, with a vague sense of unrest in the public, with a distrust of the outside, which lingers, across continents and years later.