There is a Leunig cartoon from a long time back where a man is watching a sunset on television while the real sunset is happening outside the window. I am reminded of this while watching the siege of the Oberoi Trident hotel on TV while the real siege is happening about 300 metres away on the waterfront promenade visible outside my hotel window. The best (and safest) view is on TV but the window is more compelling and the siege continues.

This is a spectacular and busy waterfront promenade lined with several kilometres of mostly art deco apartment buildings and a few modern hotels. The promenade is a middle-class parade ground with a steady stream of joggers and walkers from about 5am to 10am and then again through the cool of the evening. At 7am this morning it was completely deserted except for a small section crammed with news crews, military and one lonely street sweeper on the eerily deserted streets. About 200 metres of the waterfront promenade has been blocked off and there are a lot of rapid response forces hanging around in their strange blue camouflage uniforms (blue jungles?).

A thin orange rope is fixed across the road to stop traffic. There seems little control and the occasional person walks along the promenade — some early morning rituals are hard to break. On the way back along the promenade I was approached by a middle class French couple who wanted to know whether I thought they would be permitted to return to their Trident hotel room — “Believe me, you don’t want to return to your hotel”, I said. 

I have been reading the novel The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga where one of the characters sums up much of India’s bureaucracy and infrastructure with the phrase “What a f-cking joke”. Yesterday my wife and I went to the Victoria Terminus (CST Station), a huge monument of Victorian colonial architecture and one of the busiest train stations in the world. If you want civic architecture to affirm the legitimacy and benevolence of colonial order, it doesn’t get much better than this. The ‘security system’ is a series of frames to walk through with a flashing sign on top that say ‘walk’. But the security guards are busy and plenty of people walk around them — clearly bad people read English and follow rules. The Times of India carries photos of gunmen wandering through these gates with automatic weapons after killing anyone they could inside. Every day millions of people walk either through or around hundreds of such screens in each major train station, depending on how busy it is or whether they are carrying large metal objects — as the saying goes “What a f-cking joke!”

At the end of a sweaty day we went to Leopold’s Café for a beer — the famous social hub in the popular novel Shantaram. It’s on a corner with large open doorways to the street; an interesting place but now full of tourists. We left thinking we might come back for dinner but meanwhile, Sandy (who has visited before) says I must visit the Taj Hotel. This is another hugely impressive piece of colonial architecture, a former flagship for the empire. The security screen at the entrance has a guard to whom we pass our bags, he carries them around the screen and gives them back — a one second peek into mine and doesn’t look in Sandy’s. We climb the stairs and poke our noses into the poolside court — a sequestered paradise for ‘residents only’. We explore the shopping mall inserted inside the old building — garments here are on sale for about 1000 times the price of the similar product on the street. The toilet has a personal attendant who shows me to my cubicle, then my handbasin, and finally feeds me tissues to wipe hands. We hang out in the lobby for a while then we’re off to have dinner. The food tastes great but by 10pm I am on the toilet again with diarrhoea — we have surely chosen the wrong restaurant.

Our waterfront hotel has seen better days, tiny lobby, creaky lift with attendant, huge double room right on the seafront promenade, great view, but hot water only in the morning. Trying to get to sleep about 10.30pm, there is a huge bang. It is odd how we invent theories to match facts. Instantly, I thought it was a bomb, but very soon I thought just someone next door who has slammed a very heavy metal door very hard. Another loud noise exactly the same and the slammed-door theory seemed less likely. About 1.30am Kess (our daughter) calls from Melbourne, the Taj hotel is on fire, Leopold’s cafe is a massacre. The Oberoi Trident Hotel is under siege and only three blocks away. Some more smaller explosions follow, perhaps gunfire.

Out the window the broad promenade on the seafront and the nearby streets are quiet, businesses closed. Even by lunch time there are very few people on the street, nearly all businesses are closed, as is our hotel, a large roller blind across the entry. We go out for coffee and a cruising TV crew sees us on the street and wants an interview. The intro is in Hindi, and the questions are all about how panicked we must be and how long will we stay. Sandy says we will stay three more days but what a tragedy for India. This is not line they wanted and they go to find some other tourists who say they are cutting their holidays short.

The real danger looks to be what the response will be from a disaffected and impoverished underclass. The ethnic nationalist Shiv Sena party rode to power on the back of the 1992 riots and could easily see another opportunity to unleash a reservoir of anger. In Suketu Mehta’s book about Mumbai Maximum City he says:

The vandals are young men who, after working twelve hour days as peons in some office where they endure humiliation and even a slap or two… when they get home to the slum, their mothers and their fathers and their grandmothers will ask them what income they have brought home. Such a man lives with a constant sense of his own powerlessness, except when he is part of a mob, part of a contingent of seventy patriots fighting for the country’s honour… All the accumulated insults, rebukes and disappointments of life in a decaying megalopolis come out in a cathartic release of anger. It’s okay to be angry in a crowd; the crowd feeds on your anger, digests it, nourishes your rage as your rage nourishes it. All of a sudden you feel powerful. You can take on anybody. It is not their city anymore, it is your city.

As I write the city still belongs to the voices of calm and authority. The siege outside the window continues but will surely end soon. The television is reassuring — tourism may be affected but the markets will be fine. Hotels are asked not to take any new guests, presumably those of us already ensconced are okay. The front page of The Times has a headline: “It’s War on Mumbai”. Relegated to page 3 is another story: “Razing drive ends in violence”, where 636 slum houses were forcibly demolished yesterday to make way for new University of Mumbai facilities. By law it is illegal to demolish slum dwellings occupied before 1995 without rehousing residents. In this case the High Court has ruled that they can be demolished because the University has a good reason: it is vacating land necessary for an extension to the High Court. As the saying goes “What a …”

I was reminded again of the Leunig image when I read the version of the above story that was published as an opinion piece in The Age on Saturday. They edited out all of the material from Maximum City, The White Tiger and the demolition of slum dwellings. The byline said I am on holiday when I am actually studying squatter settlements. As the saying goes…

Kim Dovey is a Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at the University of Melbourne who is currently in Mumbai studying squatter settlements.