Learning to live with tragedy

Humans are an inexplicable species, finding perverse, even vicarious, pleasure in others’ misery. While natural catastrophes might have a raw appeal — the wrath of nature is simultaneously terrifying and splendid — organising one’s travel itinerary around terrorism-driven disasters is difficult to understand. Who are those who plan their vacations to places that have witnessed massacres, tragedy and sorrow? Just as there is a difference between gawkers and those who come to pay homage, there is something to be said for the human spirit that is able to overcome combat and negative forces.

It was 10 years ago that a group of terrorists held Mumbai hostage in one of the most terrifying acts of violence in the country. I was due to go away from New Delhi for a month before which my wife had planned a wedding anniversary bash. The party was a couple of days away when the terrorists struck in Mumbai. Even as news filtered in and we switched on television sets to watch the magnanimity of the tragedy unfold, it was with the hope that it would all be over by the following morning. But the situation appeared to worsen by the next day. By now we knew friends who were missing and acquaintances who were dead. Reality — and the suspension of belief — replaced television news.

How we behave says a lot about us in times of stress. Even though we were in New Delhi, we were holding our collective breaths along with Mumbai. “You mustn’t leave,” my wife insisted, as packing a month’s clothes and provisions occupied my time. Her reason was that my destination — Pondicherry — was by the sea and vulnerable to a similar attack. Airport security had been beefed up, flights had been cancelled, there was a sense of war in the country. Was it a time for the family to be together or apart?

Though we didn’t talk about it, it worried us that we had a gathering planned. Invitations had been issued, and accepted. Ought one to cancel it in solidarity with our brethren in Mumbai? Even to think about a celebration at a time like this seemed callous, but we weren’t willing to discuss this even among ourselves, leave alone with friends. Finally, it was decided we would make at least some preparations, should friends decide to turn up — as they did. We had a full house that night. By then, the siege had been broken at enormous human cost. I would like to say that the note was sombre that night, but the truth is everyone felt the need to celebrate, even if it was tinged with hysteria.

Travelling to Mumbai some months later was tougher. As luck would have it, on my first visit back to the city, not only was I booked at the Taj hotel where so much of the tragedy had occurred, I was allotted a room in the palace wing where most damage had been done. I wish I could say sleep came easily that night — it didn’t. Hadn’t people we’d known lost their lives here? The Trident was where my office booked my frequent stays in the city. I rarely left without saying a silent prayer at the memorial by its poolside. Going to Leopold’s was fearful the first time, and though I’ve been back a couple of times since, it’s never easy. Like the city, and like those whose lives were affected by the attack, we’ve learned to live with the colossal tragedy, but closure will take a longer to achieve.

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