When political gets personal. Reactions to Mumbai

Ever since the news came out about the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, I’ve been reading about people’s personal experiences and reactions. They remind me of one reason why the World Trade Center made such an impact when the towers came crashing down, as well as why travel to distant places makes the world, and what happens in it, seem so much more relevant.

When the towers were attacked and the world reacted, it reminded me slightly of the reactions when Princess Diana died. The reactions weren’t the same, or for the same reason, but Diana’s death was one that had significance to people everywhere. There was an emotional connection. The towers and Princess Diana were symbolic in a way that that most recognize their importance. There are few events that hold the entire world’s attention.

When Princess Diana was killed in that awful car crash there was a riveting affect. People tuned in for days. The World Trade Center will never quite fade away. Can’t you still see it’s shadow whenever you see the skyline of Manhattan and recognize where they should be? Then there are the people who were lost who will remain forever as a part of a shared history that we haven’t been able to set aside because how can we?

In other circumstances, when images aren’t so iconic, but other dreadful events occur in the world outside the boundaries of our day to day existence, we might say, “How dreadful,” when we look at the TV screen, but then go about pouring ourselves a cup of coffee, or wonder if we have enough clothes to last a few more days–or do we need to do a load of laundry after all?

When I heard about the troubles with terrorism in Mumbai, I felt connected somewhat because of my own experiences in India and because I have friends who are living there. They could very well be in Mumbai right now. The places that have been targeted are the very places they might have gone. But, I am still a bit distracted from Mumbai from my Thanksgiving feast and the fact that I am in Cleveland and heading to Denmark in a few days.

Others, though, have had a much more dramatic reaction because they were just in Mumbai–or they are there now. For them, there isn’t a distraction. One account is by Carl Hoffman, a contributing editor of Intelligent Travel. Hoffman was recently in Mumbai at the Leopold Cafe and Bar, one of the establishments where patrons were attacked. At the time of the attack, Hoffman was safely in New Delhi, but the news has carried personal meaning. I’m sure he can picture each table, the ambiance and where he sat. Perhaps he can still taste his drink or what he ate.

Another account that caught my attention is Steve Simms’ story. His story was told by someone else in this New Zealand Herald article. Simms is staying in a hotel across the street from the Taj Palace and was watching it burn. Normally, Simms stays in the Taj Palace, but there weren’t rooms when he arrived so he stayed across the street. From his hotel room at the time the article was written, he could see the window of the room where he normally stayed in the Taj Palace.

Both of these men’s accounts is an indication of what happens when you travel. You have a personal response to a place that does not fade easily.

When we travel, places no longer remain abstract. It becomes harder to just do our laundry or have that cup of coffee. When we hear the news in the world, every place has aspects of the Twin Towers or Princess Diana. As the world becomes smaller, disasters in the far away corners of the world feel as if they are in our own backyard.

Reading their accounts is one way that we can find out that we do care after all, and whether the laundry gets done or not is not particularly important. Right now there are places in Mumbai that may or may not be the same–ever.

Of course, there are the other people who have never been to India, but who are forever connected, even though they may never set foot in Mumbai. They are the people like those in Brooklyn who are anxiously waiting to see if their beloved Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife, Rivka are safe. This rabbi and his wife are among the hostages. Their two year-old son and his nanny escaped. [see New York Times article.] For them, the connection to Mumbai is personal, although they may have no idea about the significance of the Taj Palace.