To the Spirit of Mumbai

Today, the 14th of July 2011. 3 blasts in Mumbai. Kabootarkhana, Zaveri Bazar and Opera house. 21 dead and 101 injured at last count.

So, by now, newspapers, TV Channels are all blaring news about the blasts, the dead, injured, speculation, accusations, allegations, and what nots. So naturally, I will not talk about it.

What I want to talk about is Mumbai’s response. We read about blasts all the time. What makes Mumbai AAMCHI MUMBAI is our response to difficult circumstances.

I was on Twitter when the news broke. Within seconds, the #Mumbai hashtag was blazing with information so fast, that I couldn’t even scroll, forget read it on Tweetdeck. I had to go to the Twitter site, which doesn’t update without clicking.

What is special is the nature of the information. Sure, there was shock, anger, concern…. but the way the people reached out to help is something that will leave me with a memory of support. Rumors were squashed quickly, correct information was promoted responsibly – and not just on Twitter, on other social networking sites too.

As the horror of the blasts came into more focus, the spirit of Mumbai emerged before it. People were already rescuing the injured, moving them to hospitals, at the sites.

On Twitter, assistance self-organized. Here are some of the amazing ways in which people contributed.

  • Ascertaining facts, squashing rumors.
  • Organizing help for those who tweeted for it.
  • Asking people to minimize use of phone and rely on social networking and messaging, to keep lines free.
  • Advising people as to what to do – ranging from staying where they are when the police wanted the roads to be free of traffic for movement of emergency vehicles, to Tweeting updates on the condition of roads to facilitate smooth movement.
  • When people were advised to stay where they were, hundreds of people freely offered their homes and resources to assist those who may need a place to stay. Accommodations ranged from humble bachelor pads to homes with families and even some office spaces.
  • A blog was setup within an hour of the tragedy to assist coordination of information.
  • Someone took the initiative to compile all the offers of havens to stay and other help in one database according to locality.
  • Others spread information on blood donation needs
  • Clear thinking minds provided advice to keep heads clear and people out of trouble. Uncountable volunteers made sure it spread far and wide. People helping spread the information ranged from Mumbai, to India, pakistan and the rest of the world in a few cases.
  • Others compiled rescue and hospital related information – Police helplines, hospital phone numbers, etc
  • Mid Day did a splendid job of confirming rumors and tweeting only verified information, which was a big help in keeping things sane.
  • Some offered to coordinate finding out about people their families couldn’t reach and vice versa.

All this was a spontaneous civilian response. Mumbai, with its linear layout knows its vulnerability very well. It knows it must flow again, or face massive crowds to manage and even more difficulties. And so it was. The spirit of Mumbai rang clear through the most amazing spontaneous support I hear from this city. Be it floods, or the train bombings.

Every step of the way, the people cared for their own. From helping fight fires to loading the injured on to every available transport to urgently get them to hospitals and later helping the paramedics.

Some said that Mumbai was nothing special, and to stop calling it the spirit of Mumbai. I disagree. I experience something in this response that I don’t in other places. I have followed many crisis situations, I have been caught in Mumbai’s floods myself.

While everyone rises to an emergency, what makes Mumbai special is the extra mile people unhesitatingly walk. There is no need for someone to spontaneously think of offering the comfort of his home for whichever stranger chooses to stay. People can stay anywhere for an emergency night, as long as there is a roof.

And it is not only terror attacks and rescues. For example, during the floods, there was no life at risk in most places. People already at home could happily wait it out at home without harm. Yet, entire families were leaving their cosy comfort to set their dining tables in inches of water in order to create stalls and offer people plodding home water and snacks. Small kids, grown ups, all kinds of people. Tea, sherbet, biscuits, snacks. Stop by any table and take what you need. I spent the night in a film editing studio that suffered heavy damage in very expensive equipment. Its ground floor had three feet of water at the height of the flood and two overnight.

We watched the owner’s fancy Ferrari submerge in the building compound, and circuits shorted, its lights lit up under the water. And this man ordered food for the people stuck there. A local restaurant sent a man wading through waist deep water well after closing hours to deliver it. The fancy hi-tech telecine room, had muddy, drenched kids sleeping on its sofas. Kids that the guard had rescued from water that was overwhelming for them as they returned from school. Later, when water receded a little, people volunteered to escort the kids safely home. All of us strangers, caught together by circumstance.

When the entire rush hour crowd hit the streets after the train bombings, utter strangers gave lifts to other strangers for free. Again, many people weary from walking were invited to stay over in homes all over Mumbai. Again, many, many stories of people not just providing immediate rescues, but going out of their ways to create comfort for others in suffering.

I think this is for a reason. With our linear structure, somewhere, we are very conscious of the need for the life line of travel to remain unclogged and collectively experience the discomfort of it being blocked. Mumbai is one of the few places in the world, where a few well placed blasts can bring the whole city to a halt while it figures out its response. Somewhere along the line, we have learned to keep functionality over personal preferences and comforts. We have no hesitation to reach out to another with the shared identity of the city. Aamchi Mumbai is not just a catchy phrase, it is a sense of larger shared belonging – a family of sorts.

This also comes with its own drawback – we have a very short attention span. We flow around crisises so easily, reaching out, adapting, that we stop looking for ways for the crisis to not happen. All that is left of the tragedy within hours is the injured, the families of the dead and injured, and anyone who suffered a property loss. The rest of the city moves on as normal.

Perhaps, as many people argued, other places do what we call the spirit of Mumbai. They will have their own flavours. More important than negating all uniqueness to claim that people are the same, is to see what they are doing. If they are doing it in the spirit of love for their city, that is good enough as the spirit of Mumbai for me. It doesn’t have to be “better” or “worse” or for that matter even “different” or “same”. It doesn’t need compared at all.

All it needs is that applause it deserves for rising to the occasion in staunch solidarity. I don’t see at all why it can’t be appeciated if other places help their own too. I also don’t see why applauding the spirit of Mumbai means we are pretending that Mumbai doesn’t hurt. It is possible to reach out in grief too. I know, because that is all I did this night. And I did it for Mumbai. I’d have done it for other places too, but not in the spirit of Mumbai.

Repeating words I’d shared on Twitter:

You speak as though a hero can’t weep. Yes, Mumbai weeps her torment, and aids her own and stands in fierce defiance.

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