Death, fear, torture, executions, hostage situations, loss of loved ones, panic, helplessness, hatred – this was stuff we were supposed to watch on a television screen I thought. So after a point, when things would get too dark or depressing, one could switch off the movie, read a comic book and go to bed with a smile again. Except that the nightmares have now spilled on to our streets and trains and buses and hotels and markets and homes, leaving us floundering for a remote to switch it all off somehow.
I vividly remember my first ever brush with terror as a kid, when I happened to read an article on the plague epidemic in Surat. It was an India Today article, I think, with the story suitably sensationalized to scare a twelve-year old with no prior exposure to the gory side of life right out of her wits. I came home sobbing uncontrollably. ‘Are we all going to die?’, I wanted to know. ‘Don’t worry darling, nothing will happen to us, I’ll keep you safe’, Aai promised me, enveloping me in a bear hug. All problems solved and my fears melting away in a flash, I ran off with a hop, skip and a jump to play outside with my friends.
Today, I watch my parents struggle to reassure themselves. Baba sounds listless even a week after the Mumbai carnage. ‘Is something wrong?’, I ask, half-knowing the answer. ‘What happened in Bombay is troubling me’, he answers, simple and straightforward. I have no idea how to respond to this.
My mother is far more resilient, embodying the famed spirit of Mumbai perhaps. She and my mausi were out shopping in a crowded South Bombay market this weekend. ‘Aren’t you scared?’, I want to know. ‘How do I live my life if I sit at home scared?’, she counters. And cites the example of a non-Mumbaikar who missed his train and died on his way to spend the night with his relatives in Mumbai, a few minutes away from our home. ‘I will go when my time has come!’, she says and truly seems to believe in it. Yet what other choice does she have?
Does Aai actually feel safe, I wonder? As long as she doesn’t think about the dangers, she probably does. After all, South Bombay is where she grew up and went to school and college and shopped and laughed and lived life. It is where my parents met and fell in love. It must be tough to think of such a place as anything but a warm and loving home. So her resilience and spirit, as that of most other Mumbaikars, is more a strange combination of escapism, fatalism and harsh ground realities than anything else I think.
My father and I, on the other hand, think too much, which is our biggest problem, my mother and the husband would say. I, for one, am terrified to board a flight to Mumbai a couple of months from now. ‘Isn’t the city your home? Will you stop going home because of these incidents?’, the husband asks, dismissing my fears with his characteristic nonchalance. How do I explain to him the hopelessness and sense of doom engulfing me?
Are these feelings a part of growing up? Surely each generation must face their own difficulties? For my parents, it would have been the Emergency, for my grandparents, the struggle for independence. Yet we all think of our problems as the most troubling. No doubt the times we face are more violent than most. But surely there is an end to this too? I fervently hope so. How else will I reassure my kids the way Aai reassured me that scary summer day?