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THE OTHER HALF

Learning from Mumbai

BY KALPANA SHARMA

Ghastly events like the recent bomb blasts are a reminder that no place is an island anymore.

PHOTO: AFP

Atmosphere of suspicion: The city could easily fall apart.

PEOPLE living in this great metropolis of Mumbai are angry and sad. Not just because seven serial blasts that ripped through Mumbai's lifeline, the suburban train network, killed 186 people and injured over 700 on Tuesday, July 11. Not because the daily tension and discomfort of commuting on packed trains will be that much worse now — with the added component of fear. Not because in times of need we are always left to fend for ourselves with the State either absconding or held up elsewhere. Not because people in other cities are celebrating our "resilience" and "spirit" without knowing the first thing about the daily challenges that the majority of Mumbaikars face and overcome.

Impossible conditions

No, none of these reasons makes us sad and angry although some may annoy us. We are sad because despite petitions and protests, we still have to continue to travel each day like cattle instead of human beings. Because no one, but no one, is bothered about the impossible conditions in which the majority of us live, or the fact that because housing is not available within easy reach of where we work we must commute long hours and impossible distances in trains packed with three times the number of people than their capacity.

The terrible July 11 blasts have blown away more than seven carriages on seven local trains. They have blown the lid off the myth that people in Mumbai will somehow manage, come rain or shine or bomb blasts. Of course, many of us did get back to work the day after, and the day after that, and the rest of the week. As we have always done. And will continue to do.

And we did not turn on each other and accuse people who are different from us of being the conduits of terror. Instead, caste and creed were forgotten as everyone came out to help. But for how long will this last?

Ironically, the very commuters who some years ago condemned "them", the wretchedly poor slum dwellers living near railways tracks, and demanded that they be "sent back" and more of them not be allowed to enter the city, had "them" to thank for literally saving their lives.

For it is these slum dwellers — dubbed non-citizens by the First Class pass holders of Mumbai's suburban trains — who pulled out bed sheets, saris, whatever they could find and ran to the blast site to help carry the wounded to hospitals. Without such intervention, many more would have died.

Amazing stories

There were other amazing stories of humanity on that long and fearful Tuesday night. The media reported some of them; many more circulate only through emails and by word of mouth. Stories of ordinary men, women, children who cooked food, gave water and tea to stranded commuters, opened up their homes to strangers. No one asked them to do this. And yet they did not hesitate. Some rushed from one hospital to another to donate blood or help in any way they could. Others took tea and sustenance to the anxious relatives of those who were lying wounded or dead in the different hospitals.

We are lucky that our public health system is still in place and that privatisation of health has not replaced it. Because it is now clear that the proximity of so many government and municipal hospitals to the bombed railways stations helped save lives as the wounded got timely treatment.

The crisis has not ended. It is going to be a long haul before the physical wounds heal. It will take even longer for the emotional scars to heal. Yet, even as life gets back to "normal", the question some are asking is, will we remain united? Or are we united only in tragedy? Will the families of the "First Class compartment" people, who now face the onerous task of nursing back to health their grievously wounded relatives, remember what the so-called "non-citizens", Mumbai's slum dwellers did for their kin? Or will they revert to the "us" and "them" syndrome?

Ghastly events like the recent bomb blasts hold out many lessons for all city dwellers, not only for those who live in Mumbai. They are reminder that no place is an island anymore, that there are dangers and threats that are beyond the comprehension of ordinary people who would like to conduct their lives peacefully. And that irreversible changes are imminent in cities like Mumbai where so far, despite all the other problems, the agencies of the State do not intrude into our lives in obvious ways. Now they will. Our trains will have men with metal detectors checking bags, our train stations will have sniffer dogs, there will be more checks, there will be more suspicion, no one will be able to take anyone else for granted.

In such an atmosphere of suspicion, it will be much easier to sow the seeds of dissension, or difference, of division. A city united in tragedy could easily fall apart. Our anger at what happened on July 11 should ensure that this does not come to pass.

E-mail the writer: ksharma@thehindu.co.in

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