NEWS

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January 9, 2009

Mumbai attacks reverberate with U of C students, community

When fourth-year Anuja Parikh first got word that terrorists had attacked her hometown of Mumbai on November 26, she immediately called home. To Parikh’s relief, her mother was out of the city for the day.

“So I assumed everything was fine, and she said, ‘Um, not really, because Dad’s at the Oberoi hotel having dinner with two of his friends’—both of which I’ve known since I’ve been growing up,” Parikh said.

For all international students from Mumbai, the day before Thanksgiving was filled with frantic calls to family and friends back home. Most students, like political science Ph.D. candidate Mona Mehta and College third-year Kushal Bhammar, breathed a sigh of relief after confirming their loved ones were safe.

For Parikh, however, there was disturbingly little news at all. She had no word from her father for days.

“It really didn’t hit me for the first few hours,” she said. “I was just like, ‘Yeah, I’m sure Dad’s fine; he’ll be out in an hour.’ Then one hour passes, then two hours, and then you go into panic. I really shocked myself out.”

Around 3 a.m. on November 29, Parikh’s father was one of four hostages who emerged from the hotel alive after coming under fire by the terrorists.

“There were 15 to 18 people, from what my dad remembers, who were made to walk up to the service deck—up to the 18th floor, from the first floor all the way up,” she said. “My dad somehow got lucky, and he got away with just a bullet graze…one to his neck, and one to the hip. But the two friends he was with died on the spot.”

Even students whose immediate family and friends were untouched by violence felt tense. Mehta, whose dissertation focuses on Hindu–Muslim conflict in Gujurat, had an immediate fear of the attacks’ political and social consequences.

“I worried immensely, as soon as this happened, about the implications this would have for Muslims in India,” she said.

Bhammar, an economics student, remembers that the attacks wore on his nerves as well.

“I had an interview at that time,” said Bhammar, who is applying for banking internships. “It was bad—there was so much on my mind about the blasts, I couldn’t really talk on the phone.”

As a student of South Asian politics, Mehta found that the attacks became a feature of her work life as well as her personal life.

“Ironically, right as things were unfolding, I was teaching the last week of my class on India and Pakistan,” she said. “We were discussing the events that led to the formation of India and Pakistan, and the ideas, differences, conflicts, and tensions—and those kinds of historical debates were playing out.”

Some students aired their opinions about the South Asian political situation at a talk held by the South Asian Students Association (SASA) during the fall reading period, in conjunction with a candlelight vigil for victims of the attacks. Mehta helped lead the talk, in which students raised several questions about what India’s foreign and domestic response to the attacks would be.

Third-year and SASA president Jalpit Amin said a few students at the talk spoke of retaliating against Pakistan, but the majority of students were hopeful for more peaceful relations.

“Violence was a big no-no,” Amin said. “Mona Mehta said it’s not a good idea, especially because both India and Pakistan have nuclear arms.”

Bhammar and Parikh described themselves as “glued” to their televisions as information about the attacks first began to surface. For Mehta, who did not return home over the winter break, technology helped bridge the 8000-mile gap between Chicago and Mumbai.

“There was a lot of frustration that I couldn’t be there with my family when all these things were happening, but at the same time, I felt like the Internet and new modes of communication radically reduced the distance,” Mehta said.

But Parikh found much of the news coverage as frustrating as it was difficult to switch off.

“I was watching the way they were interviewing people who were standing outside—they interviewed my mom,” she said. “They were just heartless.… I was yelling at my TV screen for three days, abusing every newscaster.”

For Parikh and Bhammar, going home to Mumbai brought a mixture of relief at being with family and sadness at the condition of the city.

“People are upset about it, but no one wants to bring the topic up again and again,” Bhammar said. “How 9/11 still has an impression on people’s minds, that’s the way 26/11 in Bombay still has an impression.”

Parikh, who lives down the street from the Oberoi hotel in southern Mumbai, found the usually busy streets relatively desolate when she returned.

“It’s not because people were scared—people were heartbroken,” she said. “It was so sad to see one of the most populated cities in the world so empty.”

International students agreed that support from both the University and friends at home was a comfort.

“Any time something happens around the world—for example, when the earthquakes happened in China recently—they send out e-mails saying, ‘We are here for you if you need anything,’” Mehta said of the University’s Office of International Affairs.

Parikh was surprised at how readily her professors gave extensions and make-ups when she told them she was flying home before finals.

“I would have taken an incomplete, and I asked for their help,” she said. “And everyone said, ‘Just go.’”

Over the break, Parikh in particular was swamped with supportive e-mails from friends who had heard about her father.

“Under those circumstances, you expect people to come to you,” she said. “But the degree to which everyone came together was fascinating.”