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Mumbai and the Marathon

Posted by: Manjeet Krpalani on January 19, 2009

At 6.45 am sharp on the morning of Sunday, January 18, 2009, 36,000 enthusiastic runners began the Mumbai Marathon. On the outside, it seemed the same as the marathon run in January 2007, and 2006 and years before that. But the air this time – though more polluted – was energized as never before. It was the participants – who came from all over the world – who were determined to show that life would go on, and terrorist or not, here we come.

As we ran – both BusinessWeek staffers were repeat participants in the 21 km half-marathon – the hot, muggy Mumbai wind in our faces, our exhilaration mounted. Perhaps we’d meet those terrorists as we rounded the corner from Churchgate on to Marine Drive, or perhaps they’d be waiting for us on our return at Victoria Terminus station, that glorious Victorian monument and railway station where just nine weeks ago, the terrorists had assassinated scores of innocent railway commuters. Perhaps they were watching us from behind bridges and trees, noticing human patterns of behaviour that we don’t see, and plotting their next attack. But at that moment, we didn’t care; we just ran.

Cheering us along the way were cheerleaders from the airline Kingfisher and main sponsor Standard Chartered Bank, hip bands from associate sponsor Tata Consultancy Services and solar powered groups from the United States, children handing out biscuits and water bearers from everywhere. Lots of citizens and celebrities and city officials lining the streets to cheer us on, and even more watching the event on television. There were 3,000 more participants than last year’s marathon event, several more corporate participants, and 20% more funds raised - $2 million this time for causes ranging from a children’s hospital to Aids, to security and the aged. “Just for this one day, 26/11 was wiped out,” says Bruno Goveas, spokesperson for Procam International, the event organizer.

The throng seemed typical Mumbai: rowdy, spirited, nonchalant, and a little defiant – what Mumbaikars call ‘bindaas.’

I wondered about the enthusiasm: was Mumbai over the shock of the attacks? Has it moved on, callously, this city that worships money above everything? Has the bloodshed been forgotten in the flow of utility and the fact that people have no options but to carry on?

After the marathon, I called my friend Micky Bhatia, a psychoanalyst who works for an NGO called Psychonalytic Therapy & Research Centre which among other things runs a low-fee clinic in Horniman Circle – the heart of south Mumbai – for the poor.

No chance, says Bhatia, Mumbai is nowhere over the hump yet. People are still afraid, and the city’s children are especially traumatized. Ever since the attacks, Bhatia observes through her work that children are clinging to, and sleeping with their parents at night instead of sleeping separately. “The Marathon shows that people are trying to cope despite the fear, and this is prevalent across all socio-economic strata,” she says.

Yes, something inside us has changed. And Mumbai is expressing it in different ways. It came together this past weekend. The day before the marathon, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was in the city as the chief guest at a corporate awards function. The event was due to have taken place on Saturday, November 29, at the Oberoi hotel, three nights after the terrorist attack there – and according to intelligence reports, was the original target of the terrorists. So it was a poignant event.

But the prime minister’s arrival delayed traffic. Keen to get him to his destination as fast as possible, Mumbai’s traffic police stalled traffic on the main roads and highways for an hour. This is commonplace in Delhi, but it is unusual in Mumbai. Furious Mumbaikars, after waiting 45 minutes, got out of their cars, and at the main Worli junction, staged a protest on the street, blocking it and refusing to let the prime minister through. Young teens, already seething from the terrorist attacks, stepped out of their cars, buses and taxis, and spoke their minds about the state of India’s poor politics to the captive, traffic-logged audience.

Finally, humanity solved the problem. As the prime minister’s entourage neared, the city’s policemen approached the protestors as fellow citizens. We understand, they pleaded, we are with you, but please, please don’t block the roads, or we’ll be given the stick when we return to our stations in the evening. Finally, the roads were cleared, but not before India’s leader saw the angry fists of Mumbai’s stricken citizens.

We’re back, sure, but it’s different this time. This time, we’ve not forgotten, nor have we forgiven. We’ll move ahead, but we’ll not move on. Not yet, and not for a long, long time.

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