Tuesday, January 20, 2009

26/11, not "India's 9/11"

Evolving Experience

As I become more immersed here in Mumbai, and speak with more people, I begin to get a greater sense of immediacy of the co-existing remoteness and omnipresence of terrorist experience. I am also gaining some foothold of perspective after a few days of more chaotic experience.

Nearly every aspect I've encountered, from the systemic to the individual, is suffused with this dichotomy, at least as it presents itself to me from my multiple vantage points. In order to have any kind of reasonable understanding of what is happening here, it is necessary to have an understanding of the culture and historical context, not in a remote intellectual way but in a real, felt sense - and that is not a fast or simple process.

Sense of Threat

My inner thoughts reveal my own fears and complex experiences. As I put my passport in my pocket when leaving the guest house, I wonder if I should leave it at home - it could be my own death warrant. As I walk through Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, it seems normal but there are fortified police ramparts with piles of sandbags and everywhere I go there are security checkpoints and hastily erected metal detectors which are easily bypassed. Amidst the chaotic bustle of CST, in my mind's eye I imagine people scattering in fear and wonder what I would have done.

This reminds me of something I've learned from living through traumatic events: the difference between normality and chaos is a split second; an irreversible process.

Feelings about Authority and Safety

The rifles the police carry are often ancient, hardly effective against automatic weapons let alone grenades, and many of the police while out in numbers appear inattentive, almost lackadaisical. People with whom I've spoken are divided: the increased security is reassuring, but it is an illusion. "The police weren't attentive to everyday matters before, let alone an organized guerrilla attack, so why should they be now?" is a familiar sentiment.

Why now? Why this time?

To illustrate: 26/11 is perceived as being a tipping point, a shift in perspective to a move active stance, compared to after prior terror attacks. When someone voices this opinion, someone else adds that it is not so different, often bitterly citing a sense of prior complacency, and anger at the greater attention paid to the Taj and Oberoi, in contrast to CST.

Compared to the everyday trauma of poverty, disease and starvation, some have wondered of what import is a terrorist attack, here, in NYC, or anywhere else for that matter. The arguably misleading label of 26/11 being "India's 9/11" evokes ardent disagreement and seems invalidating and minimizing. An important lesson in empathy and understanding. If we reversed the temporal sequence, would we call 9/11 the "USA's 26/11"? From a group psychoanalytic point of view, one possible hypothesis is that this blurring of ownership of traumatic experience arises from an ambivalent part-identification of Mumbai with New York (and LA), which also resonates with ambivalence regarding prior colonial influences and occupations and the effect on the national psyche.

Getting Past the Surface

While I cannot show childrens' drawings for reasons of confidentiality, these contrasts are poignantly illustrated from a therapy group depicting a swarm of people around the Oberoi, stick figures some carrying cameras (signifying the media) next to a drawing of CST with one or two stray stick figures near it: the caption reads "Are we really patriotic?" and in smaller letters underneath: "Who's fault is it (anyway)?"

Some Mumbaikers suggest that this essential shift in awareness is because terrorists targeted symbols of wealth and Western influence. Yet others are not so sure this fully explains the difference in tone. The drawings of some children express hatred and blame all around, toward Pakistan, terrorists, and the Indian government; at the same time in others there is sympathy toward the police, and gratitude. Some drawings demand revenge, and depict scenes of violence and destruction. One simple drawing is more somber yet emphatic, the page nearly empty except for the Indian flag, with the caption: "Sad that we needed such a big wake up call!!!" Nearly all the drawings I saw are scant, mainly black line drawings, and faded colors. The children who drew them are from upper class families.

Tenuous Conclusions

It seems a fairly safe conclusion, perhaps a tempting one, that something has truly been altered, though some have wondered if things will go back to pre-26/11. I am not willing to make any real conclusions in the face of an evolving process. People have told me there was a long delay, longer than usual after prior terrorist attacks, before people returned to their normal daily routines - but that particularly long delay was 4 days.

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