Anil Dharker: In Mumbai's teeming history lies the hope for our recovery

The resilience of this great cosmopolitan city has been tested like never before

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At the Parsi fire temple a few minutes from the Taj Mahal hotel, the second sitting at dinner was coming to an end. A large Parsi wedding – and all of them are big, fat Indian weddings – has three dinner sittings, where the guests, after lining up to give the bride and groom "the packet" (an envelope containing cash), go to the bar for a large Scotch and soda or two, then wait their turn to be seated for dinner.

The star of the meal is the patra ni machi, fish coated with green chutney and steamed in a banana leaf, but it's only one course of a many-splendoured meal. As the second sitting finished their last bit of dessert, and the third lot of diners were about to begin their meal, some of the first-sitting guests began to dance to the band which was belting out old Abba numbers along with Frank Sinatra singing "My Way".

And then the news came. Leopold's, an old Irani-style cafe in Colaba, popular with the firang (foreigner) back-pack crowd, had been attacked by gun-weilding terrorists. Then, in quick succession, the Trident and the Taj, the city's two best known hotels, were under siege. The third sitting continued, but in complete silence.

The Parsi wedding, with its sumptuous banquet, has been an intrinsic part of the city scene. As have the Punjabi sangeet, the Muslim nikah, the Mahrashtrain lagna, all disparate parts of a composite whole which has survived many attempts to destroy it.

That's because Mumbai is a resilient city, much of its resilience coming from its cosmopolitan fibre: the industrious strain that comes from the people who have settled here from the South of India; the North Indians with their willingness to undertake the most menial of tasks cheerfully; the entrepreneurial Parsis and Marwaris who set up its cotton mills and industries; Gujarati traders and businessmen ... All these came together to produce the DNA of Mumbai and its rubber ball-like ability to bounce back from wherever it was thrown.

Yet on Wednesday night, that resilience has been tested like it's never been tested before. Mumbai is not new to terrorist attacks: bombs have been placed in buildings, in trains, in the marketplace. These bombs have killed many people too. But the killings were random and the dead were, by and large, the men on the street.

On Wednesday, those young men – armed to their teeth, answering to heaven knows what call from where – who stormed the Taj and the Trident, targeted the citadels of the privileged. They also targeted foreigners, who may be fleeced but are never under threat in India. In choosing the Taj Mahal Hotel, the terrorists also chose the city's most iconic building, one which is called the Taj needing neither suffix nor prefix, so much so that if you ask a local about the Taj Mahal, he will spontaneously say, "Oh, that's in Agra." By attacking the privileged and the movers and shakers of the city at their iconic symbol, the terrorists were making a statement to the world and shaking the city to its core. Will it ever recover? Yes, Mumbai nee Bombay, has regrouped in the past. It has withstood the attempts of the Shiv Sena, a regional party of the State of Maharashtra to change the metropolis.

The Sena came to prominence in the 1970s by playing on the universal fear of the "immigrant". The outsider was the "Madrasi", anyone from one of the Southern states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Karnataka. Easily distinguishable by his Dravidan features and darker skin, and his ability to work hard, well beyond the call of duty (sounds familiar?). Later when the Sena realised it needed the "Madrasi" vote, its bogeyman became the Muslim. And now an off-shoot of the Sena, the MNS (the Maharashtran Nav Nirman Samiti) has made the North Indian the object of its ire.

Workers from the northern states of Bihar and UP have been driven off factories and offices, often violently. And generally with disastrous results because they are the ones doing the menial jobs the locals do not want, and they are the ones driving the city's decrepit taxis and they are the city's masons and carpenters, none of them glamorous jobs, all of them involving hard work in Mumbai's heat and dust.

If only politicians knew their history! When the Peshwas, the Maratha rulers held sway in the region, they were based in Pune, 150 kilometres away and not in Mumbai. Mumbai was a marshland, which is why nobody wanted it till the Portuguese came, and they too happily gave it away to the British as part of the dowry of Catherine de Braganza when she married Charles II.

The British were the ones who saw that Mumbai would make an excellent port. They developed it, built a walled city by constructing a fort (the central part of the city is still called Fort) and invited people they thought would be useful by giving them tax breaks, land and other incentives. This is how Parsis came to the city, and the Tatas, the Wadias and The Godrej's who went on to build industrial empires. Other "invitees" included Muslims from Surat who were well-off businessmen willing to invest in new ventures, and Gujarati traders famed for their business acumen. There weren't any Marathas orMaharashtrians in this mix. In fact, the original inhabitants of Mumbai were its fishermen, the Kolis, who were of – no prizes for guessing – of Dravidian origin. The Marathas came later, refugees from Peshwa wars. No wonder politicians do not remember history.

In short, Mumbai belongs to no one. Or it belongs to everyone. To the Parsi, the Marwari, the Gujarati, the Punjabi, the Englishman and the European and yes, the Maharshtrian. That's why whatever wedges have been hammered into it from the past in an attempt to divide it have not succeeded. The terrorists holed up in the Taj and the Trident have tried their best to hammer yet another nail in. But something tells me they will not succeed.

This is not just based on a sense of hopeless optimism. Yesterday morning, after watching television news channels giving details of the horrific happenings in the city, morning walkers were out as usual, many at their usual staring point at Nariman Point, not far from the Trident. Where fires were raging and occasional shots could still be heard.

Though traffic was thinner than usual, come office hours cars, taxis and buses were on the road while commuters had boarded the trains at their usual time. Many offices had opened at their normal time and seemed determined to put out an invisible banner which said, "Business as usual". Not just that, at the sites where terrorist activity was still at its fiercest, people were milling around, some no doubt out of morbid curiosity, but many more because they wanted to help in any way they could.

This was reminiscent of the time when synchronised bombs had ripped apart Mumbai's train service; before any official help could arrive on the scene, passengers devised their own rescue service, making taxis and auto rickshaws into temporary ambulances. That's the spirit of Mumbai. And it will not be put down.

Anil Dharker is a Mumbai-based columnist and author whose books include 'Icons', a study of leading figures in contemporary India

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