Bombay beats bombers on a phone and a prayer

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The Independent Online
USING ancient telephones rigged to a coloured spider's web of cables and a share price quotation board that flickered temperamentally, the Bombay Stock Exchange opened for trading yesterday, just three days after it was gutted by a bomb.

That the stock exchange was able to function at all was testimony to the Indian genius for improvisation and the government's resolve not to let Friday's terrorist bombings paralyse the country's business capital. More than 40 traders, street hawkers and runners were killed by an explosive device hidden in the underground car park of the 28-storey stock exchange building. More than 250 people died and another 1,300 were injured in 11 blasts that erupted all over Bombay.

Normally it can take more than a year to install a telephone line in Bombay. But within 48 hours, state telephone technicians following orders from the Prime Minister in New Delhi had wired up 700 impossibly old telephones perched on the ledge of a large, sheltered terrace open to the Arabian Sea breezes. One broker went around picking up the telephones and banging them down in disgust. 'I'd say only one out of ten works,' he said.

By opening time, delayed until 3pm, all telephones were ready. The brokers prayed to an idol of Ganesh, the elephant-headed god who is worshipped for prosperity, and the trading buzzer sounded. There was silence for five minutes to mourn dead friends and co-workers. When the buzzer sounded again one embittered broker began scuffling with another, yelling 'Muslims, get out]' Some right-wing Hindu politicians have accused Pakistan of complicity in the bombings, but yesterday Islamabad denied that it was involved in any way.

'Trading was slow,' said a broker, Fakri Sabuliala. 'Nobody's in the mood to do much business, but we just had to show that this terrorist calamity won't stop us.'

Police yesterday defused another bomb, even more potent than the one that devastated the stock exchange, left on a parked scooter in a busy street of diamond and gold merchants in Zaveri bazaar. A similar scooter bomb had been spotted on Sunday near Dadar railway station. It is not known whether these two bombs had failed to detonate on Friday or whether they marked the beginning of a new terror campaign. Anyone attempting to kick-start the motor-scooters would have triggered off a massive explosion. Scores of reported bomb threats also held up the traffic for hours on the city's main arteries.

So far the bombers have eluded the police. Two youths suspected of leaving bombs hidden in briefcases in three luxury hotels on Friday shot their way out of a police raid on their home yesterday. Another leading suspect escaped to Dubai. Acting through Interpol, Indian police are seeking the return of a Bombay accountant and hotel owner named Yakub Memom, who booked rooms in the Sea Rock and Centaur hotels at Juhu beach and the airport, where explosives were planted.

US forensic experts are expected to arrive in India today to determine whether the plastic explosives used in Bombay were similar to those used in this month's attack on New York's World Trade Center. An anonymous caller in the Punjab city of Ludhiana said that Sikh separatists had set off the Bombay explosions, but investigators are not giving the call much credence.

Indian police are also investigating links between the Bombay bombings and a similar though smaller chain of explosions last month in Agra, the north Indian city where the Taj Mahal stands. The Agra bombings, in two hotels, a coach and the New Delhi-Agra train, were downplayed at the time since only two people died, and Indian authorities were reluctant to panic foreigners visiting India's leading tourist attraction. But the methods, the timing of the blasts and the targets were all similar to those used by the unknown terrorists in Bombay.

(Photograph omitted)