The air had been eager from the moment we arrived in Chennai for my cousin's wedding. We were there in November, typically one of the wettest months for India's southeast coast. It took a week for the rain to begin to fall in torrents, like angry fists. Two days after the wedding, I awoke to the roaring static of the rain, something like a lost radio frequency. Great, I thought, I'll be stuck inside all morning, if not all day. After all, where there's heavy rain in this part of the world, there's flooding, disease, and death.
Death. On TV, in big red and white lettering:
Terrorists Strike Taj Hotel in Mumbai. The scene was surreal-an onion dome of
the 105-year-old hotel engulfed in smoke, barricades erected on Mumbai's most
tourist-trafficked plaza. I couldn't help but recall my last trip to India when I
visited the nearby Gateway of India and the Taj. Our necks craned and swiveled
to take in the architectural marvel in its entirety. Children flitted between
noisy tourist groups, enamored of their newfound running space. There are
moments like dioramas that pop out of the background of the past. This moment,
between icon and the Arabian Sea, was one of
them. My aunt and uncle watched the news in horror, and like me, they were
silent. As the day passed determinedly into the next, we were shocked to
discover that the attack on Mumbai had not been suppressed; in fact, it was
just getting started.
The rain grew heavier the second day. I had the privilege of staying in a newly constructed apartment building with an enclosed garage space, which prevented the rainwater from accumulating. Our unlucky neighbors, on the other hand, were wading through knee-deep water in their backyard in order to retrieve things that had been left outside to dry-their kitchen utensils and chilies were now soggy and limp. My family and I swung between local and national news channels for updates on the rain and the terror attacks. The local news reported that Nagapattinam had received up to 40.8 centimeters, or sixteen inches, of rain. The locals clamored in front of the camera. "Sir, we can't even get into our house, sir," a woman screamed in Tamil. "The government has done nothing to help us; they're ignoring our problems, sir." My relatives shook their heads, sympathy rolled with aggravation. "What can the government do? It's not their fault it's raining!" The cyclone was now named Nisha and was responsible for almost eighty deaths so far. Swetha Regunathan is Assistant Editor at Guernica. Her writing has appeared in The Jackson Free Press and Quarto.
This essay first appeared in Guernica's March 2009 edition.
On day three, I paced the apartment in resignation. The news was that the
Mumbai attacks weren't yet resolved, that the Taj Hotel had yet to be secured.
Later that day, we learned that the five hostages at Nariman House, members of
the Chabad-Lubavitch, had been killed. The rain beat outside like a steady
drum. I was stuck inside the apartment for yet another day with nothing to
watch but the rain battering our neighbors' yard. Our windows faced their
house, not the streets, and so my real window was the television. It was on
account of my own neuroticism that I didn't venture out of the house and try to
wade through the flood waters; I couldn't help but be deterred by thoughts of
what might be in the water. It seemed like a giant cesspool of all that settled
on the city's streets-animals, human waste, trash, dust, grime, slime, and
other debris. My uncle, safe in his garage and car, relied on his driver to go
to work. The driver had to find his own way home. So entirely dry and intact,
my uncle's home seemed an island.
Relentless cyclones have a way of making you sit very still, of making you think. I recalled the morning of 9/11, when commuters to lower Manhattan wailed into the news cameras. Destruction of this scale was the stuff of movies, we were told by the news anchors, the commentators, and the pundits. If terror attacks are cinematic, it is because terrorists themselves know about the mainstream media-that it is, in fact, very much like the movies. It is star-studded, uses imposing graphics and special effects, and everyone watches. The confluence of terrorism and the media is prime entertainment. Not all movies have a happy ending.
It seemed a conspiracy for the two phenomena to concur, and yet, both seemed eerily unaware of the other. The attack on India's financial, cultural, and entertainment capital drew waterlogged Chennai to its television sets. Never mind that Mumbai was in faraway Maharashtra, that its people spoke Hindi and Marathi, languages that belonged to an entirely different linguistic group than Chennai's vernacular Tamil. But while most of India, and indeed the entire telecast world, watched Mumbai try to rein in terror, only part of India watched cyclone Nisha wreak its terror of rain.
The ticker at the bottom of CNN-IBN (the American network's Indian cousin) streamed viewers' comments about the terror attack from around the country. I read their expressions of sympathy and outrage and noticed the prevalence of the word "senseless" as an adjective to describe the violence. To be without sense was to be as a force of nature-coming and going without perceptible rhyme or reason-like heavy rain. I started to wonder where one disaster ended and another began. Wasn't it true that the terror attack was, by some measure, a natural disaster? After all, wasn't terrorism as shapeless as rain? Wasn't wiping out terrorism as unachievable a feat as stopping the rain?
One of the more controversial stories in the Bible is the tale of Samson, who brought down an entire temple of Philistines with himself inside. The story is one of the first recorded instances of terrorism, the first to enter the cultural imagination. The faithful interpret Samson's act as an act of God. This is the same term they used to interpret the plagues on the Egyptians, which took such forms as a hailstorm and three days of pitch darkness. For the faithful in past and present times, both terror and natural disaster have been demonstrations of divine temperament.
As science eclipsed religion in the realms of epistemology and education in the West, natural disasters shed their ancient connotations and began to be understood as expressions of spontaneous yet systematic phenomena. In modernity, meteorologists and climatologists work with government agencies to prepare relief plans, city evacuation routes, and other resources for survival. While the occasional weather-related death still cautions residents to prepare wisely for the next big blizzard, hurricane, or tornado, these numbers are kept relatively low thanks to the attention they receive from the media and independent organizations. Katrina looms in the national conscience because of the failure of a government to protect its people in the way of prevention (sound infrastructure and proper levees) and evacuation. In the post-Katrina age, the U.S. government knows the people of New Orleans, the Gulf Coast states, and indeed the nation will not stand for incompetence. But I often wonder if Indian citizens' soaked, parched, catastrophied voices carry as far, if my relatives' reluctant acceptance of these deaths echoes the sentiments of most Indians, and crucially, those charged with doing all they can to protect their fellow Indian citizens.
The history of terrorism in the cultural imagination is much more difficult
to trace than the history of weather, for terrorist acts communicate sundry
credos, causes, and motivations, whether religious, ethnic, economic, or
irrational. Other famous terrorist groups in history include the Sicarii
Zealots (a radical Jewish group that tried to expel the Romans from Judea); the
perpetrators of France's Reign of Terror (who arbitrarily executed clergymen,
peasants, and aristocrats for being "enemies of the people"); England's Guy
Fawkes (who attempted to blow up Parliament with a crude gunpowder bomb in
order to reinstate a Catholic monarch); the American Revolution's Sons of
Liberty (who tarred and feathered those considered to be loyal to the British
crown), and the IRA. What these and other instances and
movements of terrorism have in common are the aim of creating a climate of
fear, an ideological or political motive, and a loathsome disregard for human
complexity, nuance, and suffering. Terrorism is indiscriminate, like the
weather. The bottom line is that terrorism has itself existed in tandem with
human civilization; it seems to have twisted the world, made our moral groundings
a bit shakier. Yet the emergence of the counter-terrorism movement in the last
few decades assures us that the war on abstraction can be won.
According to an article in Reason Magazine, Michael Rothschild, a former business professor at the University of Wisconsin, estimates that "if terrorists hijacked and crashed one of America's 18,000 commercial flights per week that your chance of being on the crashed plane would be one in 135,000." These odds are significantly slimmer than the National Safety Council's one in 1,749 odds of dying from "exposure to forces of nature." Natural disasters may make for a few high-grossing summer blockbusters when covered by major news networks, but it doesn't draw us in and pique our worst fears the way terrorism does. Terrorism is human. It is and isn't anonymous. It presumes motive and anger and evil. It's epic and emotional. It plagues us like locusts, and it informs our art. Slavoj Žižek said in his essay "Passions of the Real, Passions of Semblance" that "the landscape of the collapsing [World Trade Center] towers could not but be reminiscent of the most breathtaking scenes in big catastrophe productions." India's film industry, the largest in the world, has itself dealt with terror on-screen. A recent string of terror-themed releases, including A Wednesday, Mumbai Meri Jaan, and Dhokha, among others, capitalize on the complex emotional tug of terror attacks. It is no small wonder then that terror shows up in our nightmares while the earth kills us in our sleep.
Still lured by the persistent patience of the rain on night three, I sat by the window of our dark flat; I listened to the hushed syncopations of an Indian-accented English newscaster behind me on the television set. Security operations in Mumbai still raged on. We learned the final death toll in the next few days: one hundred and twenty. But that was just Cyclone Nisha. In Mumbai, one hundred and ninety-five would no longer eat at Café Leopold or gaze at the Taj Hotel. The people of Mumbai refused to be "resilient" this time, pointing their trembling fingers and raising their voices to the Indian government. Never again, they insisted, would a massive security failure ravage this city. Never again would terrorism be dismissed as an unfortunate side effect of life in Mumbai, a pesky problem like mosquito bites or rain.
As my father and I rode to the airport later that week, I noticed the streets had completely dried up. It was as though the storm had never happened. The only residue of the heavy rain, the only haunting remnant of the storm that had trapped us for days, witnessing the spectacle of death and destruction visited on those trapped in Mumbai, was the cool night air on my face.