Word from Mumbai

I woke up on Thanksgiving Day on my beautiful Arambol beach, hundreds of kilometers from Mumbai, and heard some Belgian tourists complaining that all flights to Mumbai had been canceled. I grabbed a newspaper over my veg hakka noodle brunch at the Rice Bowl and I couldn’t believe what I was reading: dozens shot dead in Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, where I’d just caught the overnight express train to Goa; tourists held hostage at the Taj Hotel, where I ogled glamorous dresses in shop windows; a grenade attack at the movie theater, where I saw Hellboy 2; a boatload of explosives at the Gateway of India, where I first spied the moon from this country.

All told, hundreds are dead and many more are injured in the tourist district—where I was just trying to book a hotel for my mom’s visit in January! The army descended on the city and police are being sent from all areas. I feel physically safe on the remote beach where I’m staying, but can’t help but wonder what planet I’m on over here. I knew there were bomb blasts and terrorist activities in India, but was comforted by thinking they were all confined to areas of unrest in certain northern states.

Now, the worst terrorist attack to date has happened in the glorious, modern, enlightened South. Mumbai is not a political city. It’s the city of Bollywood movies and nightlife and romance, a city where West and East mingle on dance floors and in upscale boutiques. Like our own Los Angeles, Mumbai is dirty and crowded, but it is the land where dreams are made. This is a strike on India’s heart, its imagination, its port of entry for the Western world. I am so sad for the people of the city, and also for India, whose tourist economy already was suffering in the wake of the global financial meltdown.

This morning, my shopkeeper friends in Arambol sat in despair, heads in their hands. Business has been almost nothing this year; the number of tourists in Goa has declined drastically as Europeans and Americans tighten their belts and forgo vacations. My friends here work 14-hour days at their shops, seven days a week, but most days yield only a few hundred rupees ($20-$30). The last few weeks, our conversations on the guesthouse steps centered on troubles paying the rent and how to possibly encourage more sales from the few budget-conscious tourists still daring to travel these days. I’ve tried to do my part, buying extra dresses and unnecessary ice-cream cones with my increasingly more valuable dollars, but I’m just one girl.

The great hope for financial salvation here in Goa is the upcoming Christmas season. Tourism peaks at the end of December, and everyone’s been crossing their fingers for a pack of rich travelers to descend on the beaches for a couple drunken weeks of spending, offsetting the year’s losses. In Arambol, where I live, there are no direct charter flights. The tourists who usually visit come down from Mumbai. Now, no one is coming to Mumbai. God will provide, my friends say. This is the comfort they share, ignoring the fact that—as two Muslim jewelers, one Christian ice-cream merchant, two Hindu clothiers and one American tourist/religious mutt—we all believe in different gods.

Here in Arambol, watching the sea advance and retreat from the guesthouse steps, we instinctively know what the terrorists have yet to understand: that our theological and political differences are infinitely less important than our friendship, our mutual prosperity and our desire to live together in peace. May this wisdom spread throughout India—and the world—before another life is lost. God willing. Insha’Allah. Om shanti.