Prawn Nagar – Dharavi, Mumbai

December 30, 2009


Softer landing for District 9’s Prawns in Dharavi

If the aliens hadn’t found their way to District 9 in Johannesburg but turned a few latitudes east, across the Indian ocean, over a tiny sliver of land jutting out obscenely and defiantly off the v-shaped south-Asian sub-continent, their fate in cinematic history would have been something else.

Imagine the spaceship hanging over the hot and humid city of Mumbai, specifically over its most mythified neighbourhood – Dharavi.

Its enterprising residents would have absorbed the presence of the craft and its seafood resembling occupants with relative ease. The metallic tentacles of Dharavi’s legendary recycling industry, would have eventually penetrated the most sophisticated barriers and shields to slowly and steadily dismantle the alien structure for absorption into a million-dollar industry that does not allow even the most ordinary piece of scrap to go unsold. How could tons of exotic metal be left to hang in mid-air? Notwithstanding any degree of technological superiority…Bits and pieces of the metal would have found their way into spare body-parts of second-hand cars, ships, toys and assorted machinery. The unusable celestial leftovers may be left to hang in space with no one caring much for aesthetics. Instead somebody would start a little sight-seeing tour by making an improvised crane-bridge to take curious onlookers and tourists for a closer look.

And what of the aliens themselves?

They would have managed to build a tiny little habitat between the crevices of the impossibly dense habitat. Maybe on the toxic watery edge of the mangroves. Not having access to tinned cat-food in Dharavi, could well have found the fish in the sewage water a worthy substitute, considering that a few older residents still fish there even now. And they would have found something worthwhile to do for sure. Their presence would have inevitably fired several wild allegations.


Prawns are said to be hiding in the Mahim Creek near Dharavi

Economically they could make leather goods in Dharavi even more globally competitive with a dash of their own technology. Of course, this could mean a legal crackdown – since scientific tests about the safety quotient of alien substance aren’t possible. But Dharavi’s grey zone economy would take care of that and eventually the aliens would become integral to the neighbourhood’s oldest and most prosperous economic activity, getting swallowed into its several residential, community based enclaves, taking the disputed figure of eighty –eight nagars to eighty nine.

It would have been difficult for any curious journalist to actually discover Prawn-nagar as the boundaries between enclaves are not easy to discern. The only way she would know she’s arrived would be on seeing a bunch of young prawns playing cricket with local Dharavi boys. They would point her out to a set of structures around a small clearing where a few adults would be having a heated argument with neighbours over the right to build a shrine in memory of their lost home – in the form of a replica of their ship.
The shrine would be the only way to connect to their past. No chance of returning home now – given the remains of their emaciated, skeletal, once proud extra-terrestrial space vessel. The other reason nobody would want to return is because the cost of homes in Dharavi would have increased four-fold by now.

Typically, the temptation of making more money eternally overrides any possibility of return.

The journalist would most likely be reporting the possibility of a riot because a prawn-girl and a local – earthling boy had fallen in love and were nearly lynched by both communities, only to be contained by an elderly local activist trying to broker peace.

The prawns would soon be part of political demonstrations trying to save Dharavi and a politician would eventually have got them voting rights. Against the will of a local right-wing party which tried hard to fight their presence tooth and nail – equating the aliens with worse – those from the states of UP and Bihar.

Sooner or later though, a clever prawn leader would have won over the local right wing forces by declaring Marathi as their earth-tongue. He would then have proceeded to pledge support to their drive against the real aliens – the hapless migrants of U.P. and Bihar.

That would pretty much have been the story.

Look out for regular updates from Prawn-nagar, Dharavi, Mumbai on airoots…

Kolhapur Photo Diary

December 28, 2009

Kolhapur is a small town in the south-west region of the state of Maharashtra, not more than four hours drive from Goa. It is part of a district with the same name, on the prosperous sugar-cane growing belt which makes the rural areas relatively more prosperous than the town itself. Kolhapur is known for several artisanal goods such as leather slippers, pots (there is a local Kumbharwada, potters colony right in its inner city area) and once even had a bustling movie industry (around the early and mid-twentieth century), besides being a well known patron for classical music. It fascinates us not as a town alone, but as an urban system that includes a well-off country side and some distinctive architecture thanks to its princely lineage, ruled as it was by a king until the Indian independence. But most significantly of all, a group of enthusiasts who love their little part of the world. We found an architect who conducts studios with international students along with doing his practice, a high level of civic pride with the presence of several action groups including ‘Kolhapur Calling’ and several young people trained in Kolhapur’s well known educational center – Shivaji University – and its college of architecture D.Y. Patil.

Local Architectural Flourishes

Local Architectural Flourishes

The ubiquitous black stone frequently used in coastal Maharashtra

The ubiquitous black stone frequently used in coastal Maharashtra

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Lost Lady

Lost Lady

On the fringes, but in the urban system? Dhangar Nomadic Shephards

On the fringes, but in the urban system? Dhangar Nomadic Shepards

Brick Kilns - made right outside the city

Brick Kilns - made right outside the city

Digital Bungalows: Thats what the poster says!

Digital Bungalows: Thats what the poster says!

The Urban Conference

December 17, 2009

One of the most influential practices in the modern world is that of the ‘conference’. It is an easily funded event that helps bring together themes, ideas, practices, resources, and political will into a consolidated moment. A conference can circulate themes across vast territories through its participants attending it from all sorts of places. The media picks up strands of arguments and disseminates them further.

There is a new and curious kind of conference making its presence felt these days. The grand ‘Urban Conference’ which is – at one and the same time – an intellectual meet where all kinds of complex ideas are discussed, and a trade-fair in which those very ideas are audited through pure commercial interests. They are then rejected through sophisticated debate or endorsed wholeheartedly before being dispatched to the media. They commission their own research – often of high quality – but manage to moderate the findings in subtle ways. The conference itself validates its own research and gets it closer to policy makers in one swift and efficient move. In the grand ‘Urban Conference’ intellectuals rub shoulders with builders who rub shoulders with financers who rub shoulders with politicians who rub shoulders – or are supposed to – with citizens at large. The attempt is to sell an idea and get everybody to buy it in the surest possible way, through intellectual argument, monitored by money.

Sometimes established architects are pushed in the forefront, being made into unwilling stars of these glittering events. After all, they are the perfect candidates – intellectual, creative, skilled, hands-on and media savvy. They can be highly persuasive and useful since they are natural connectors of disparate worlds. They can make a suspicious academic who has spent most of her life critically discussing urban markets, feel comfortable with a brazen real-estate developer who slowly appears to her eyes as ‘a nice guy after all, with an interesting point’.

These convivial conglomerations of city makers – engineers, intellectuals, architects, academics and finance companies – discuss subtle and abstract themes (The Urban Age, India Habitat Summit). However, they are also skillful diluters of their own research through dazzling gestures that eventually reward grand infrastructural and architectural projects needing huge amounts of money and finance. One has often seen many brilliant and critical economists and historians sitting defeated in one corner sipping their wine, silenced by the promise of yet another sponsored trip to another destination.

Today – after the artificial propping of the Dubai real-estate bubble – fuelled so clearly by speculation gone haywire, it will be only a matter of time when such conferences start to play a bigger role in creating a global Mumbai real-estate bubble (enveloping the mad bubbly market that our city already is with regard to housing) in the Asian region. Mumbai can well be the next willing bakra on the roulette of global speculation. It is easy for this beleagured infrastructure challenged city to be seduced by such promises and make short-sighted choices in the process.

In fact such an impending conference is sending feelers already. It has a clear agenda. It wants to sell the idea of the vertical city – build taller and higher – as a one-stop shop for all the city’s ills. In an ad, it has even subverted the spirit behind the work of one of India’s leading and most respected architects, who wrote a book about the importance of low-rise high-density clusters in Mumbai, by labeling his session as ‘High Rise, High Density’.

Such is the power of these grand conferences! Exercising a little caution in dealing with them won’t harm us.

Rethinking Urban Policy in India

December 15, 2009

The Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission is a well-meaning programme that has put in some deeply thought out incentives for hundreds of towns and cities in India, including Mumbai, ostensibly to improve their civic life.

Within Mumbai city its impact has not always been so visible – barring a few newly designed buses that were purchased under its name. The programme has however seen all kinds of mixed responses elsewhere, including in the wider Mumbai Metropolitan Region. In many cases it has encouraged a huge hunger for new urban land by taking over and converting the countryside into real-estate investment zones. Its justification? India is going to be even more urbanized in the coming decades and it is important to be prepared.

However, to understand the full impact of the urban renewal plan, we need to step back a bit and see it in context of other policies as well. For example, water management and irrigation projects that were once directed towards rural areas are slowly shifting gears and becoming supply points for new urban centers. Rural areas, not withstanding the massive political investments, are actually being drained of their vital life-force – water, in the name of getting ready for an avalanche of urbanization set to double the population of our cities. This is backed by a move to facilitate a huge corporate centered investment in the area of exploiting natural resources (iron, bauxite, gas) to speed up development by going into and beyond the countryside.

In the name of making up for a bias against the urban – these policies only justify a wholesale takeover of the countryside. What will this land up doing? It will encourage more migration of the poor to specific, job-yielding cities. At the same time a lot of rural land will be made available for setting up new cities not really meant for poor migrants.

End result? Many if not most cities will still be bursting at the seams and no amount of investment in infrastructure will be able to cope up.

The fact is that urbanization took different forms in different countries if you are willing to look closer. In Italy, hundreds of small towns, with well connected routes into the countryside distributed populations more evenly. America’s urbanization is complex, with the experience of ‘suburbia’ making people live in rural-urban limbo while being well connected to urban development. In Japan, many villages got integrated into urban systems through sheer population expansion and great transport networks.

In India too, it is vital for us not to create a sharp divide between rural, urban and tribal regions at a policy level. Instead of isolating a town within a rural district which will only gobble up funds endlessly, (as the JNURM tends to do), there is a serious case for looking at existing administrative districts as specific urban units in which villages, towns, forests, food-production and management of natural resources are managed and integrated more locally. This will allow for a more decentralized pattern of urbanization.

It’s definitely a time to re-think urban policy. JNURM has been a good start – but its nowhere there.

It seriously needs to ask the following questions:

1) Are there adequate safeguards to distinguish legitimate urban investment to aid civic improvement, from purely commercial infrastructural, especially land-hungry projects? There are enough indications revealing how real-estate companies have jumped onto the rhetoric of urban development to produce planned cities by driving out agriculture from existing land use practices. Often they do not respond to the economic needs from within the local context – but derive their economic clout from speculative flows a la Dubai. They get bailed out, but the people dependent on the land rarely do. They land up at the threshold of cities hunting for jobs.

2) When isolating a town or city within a district, are the existing channels of connections with the villages and towns being paid adequate attention to? Are the villages and towns that are part of the urbanscape of a district being adequately integrated into urban policy decisions or will the town’s need for more infrastructure translate into conflicts with the countryside around it? It is possible to effectively integrate villages into urban systems, and modernize them through communication and transport networks and not necessarily through encouraging density of habitation.

We need to seriously define urban spaces not in terms of population density or modes of occupation alone but in terms of economic exchanges of goods, services and people across rural and urban zones. In the case of cities in India and maybe even China, understanding the concept of Urban Systems may be more accurate in terms of evolving ways of looking at urban life. An urban system may be defined as a cluster of habitats and economic activities that are networked and work functionally on an everyday basis. An administrative district can possibly be seen as an urban system, especially if people commute from far of villages to the towns everyday or markets of food and other natural resources show co-dependency between designated towns and villages.

It is vital to question the argument that one close set city is environmentally more sound than clusters of villages and towns. What is more pertinent to ask is what’s happening to the ’spare’ land around a big mega-city. In many cases they are example of unsustainable water-management projects, sites of extraction of mineral resources and other environmentally un-sound practices.

Conversely, agricultural practices by themselves do not indicate a ‘rural’ eco-friendly economy. Most commercial agricultural practices are commercially linked to markets that are often part of ‘urbanized’ centers – and encourage de-population of rural areas so that the land can be more effectively exploited for commercial gains. Again – far from being environmentally sound. In fact many developed economies with a high level of urbanization have a massive case of environmentally unsound practices in their vast, empty but not – so – pristine agricultural lands.

For countries like India, and possibly China, the mega-city approach may not be the best foundation for developing a sound urban policy. Nor would it be enough to treat small towns as versions of mega-cities in terms of their infrastructural needs. It makes better sense to look at existing networks of economic exchanges in which towns, villages and cities are seen in a more localized and integrated way.

For this we also need to question existing patterns of urban development which are being more and more co-opted by real-estate and infrastructure companies and spend time understanding how construction activities need to respond to the intricacies of economic life and needs outside the spell of speculative seductions.

Conceptually we need to accept that mega-cities as self-sustaining universes are only one example of urbanization. Networks of cities, towns and villages can together also count as a form of urbanization. In these days of carbon – sensitivity, we definitely need a kind of urbanization that escapes both – the tyranny of rural ideals as well as the one-track road towards mega-citification that we see so prevalent today.

Violence as Spectacle in 26/11 Attacks

December 5, 2009

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Any spectacularly violent event lays down the rules for both, a collective response, as well as any attempt at analysis. The meta-structure for these rules typically includes polarization, taking sides, and extreme reactions. Violent acts (glorious, perverted, desperate, passionate, defensive or aggressive), separate, crystallize, draw lines and reinforce boundaries in the most effective way, and in the shortest time.

When a worldview or ideology starts to become fuzzy, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, nothing like an aggressive attack to harden boundaries once again, reinstate the centrifugal forces around which the group, mindset, perspective or belief coagulates, block leakages and enforce strict immigration rules at the gateways.

Drawing boundaries works both ways. At one level it creates divides and reinforces antagonism, and it also encourages loyalty, faith, or firm commitment to ideology. Eventually it has to contend with the level of Puritanism – or purity of intent – through which we negotiate the extremes or ideals dictating those choices. Even Gandhi’s brand of ahimsa – non-violence – complex as it was, worked as a mirror image, with clear boundaries and little scope for fuzziness. Consequently, its logic could not escape the all-pervasive totalitarianism that characterized his age and made it work in violent ways as well – through self-inflicted fasts, denial of physical needs and other bodily experiments (with “truth” or desire).

The function of political violence seems to be to make the immediate moment omnipotent, postpone reflection, and harden any threat of ideological or intellectual ambiguity. This inevitably results in recurrent, cyclical episodes (violence typically ‘spirals’) that use the most recent memory or event to justify the immediate act of retaliatory (its always retaliatory in the mind of the perpetuator) aggression and strict adherence to the official line. As George Bush put it in his address to the Congress right after the 9/11 attacks: “You are either with us or against us”[1].

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Not surprisingly, analysis in recent times have taken unambiguous sides, becoming increasingly indistinguishable from the official line as they get closer to the source of aggression (Osama Bin Laden or George Bush) or are so sharp and critical from within that they generate simultaneous suspicions on both sides of the fence (the modernist location of radical Islam as brilliantly argued by Faisal Devji[2] for example). This is not a sign of weakness in the analyses as much as an indication about the nature of the subject in question – acts of extreme violence leave little breathing space in their aftermath. As a result, discussions revolve around simplistic assumptions. Which type and level of violence is most appropriate as a response? A conventional war or “surgical strikes”? Or the ethics of facial profiling v. the risk of being attacked from inside are all carefully weighed.

Statesmen ponder on how to respond to ambiguous political agents and potential “terrorists”, or evaluate how much security is enough or too much. It is often about channeling the thirst for revenge into as acceptable a route as possible, claiming that it is all about preventing the spread of violence. In reality it ultimately becomes about pushing the envelope, bending freedoms inwards till it reaches breaking point.

This essay analyzes our own disturbing fascination with the kind of violence displayed in the Mumbai attacks and the audacity displayed by the militants. In order to do so, we first locate the Mumbai attacks in the broader context of violence in youth culture (in television, movies, games, and music), and then explore how such concepts as audacity, magic and charisma can help us understand not only where our fascination comes from, but also open venues for radically different kinds of responses.

Our account of the event is based on our experience of the Mumbai attacks of November 2008. As many Mumbaikars we followed the events through television, while being just minutes away from the scenes of action.

The Attack – Facts and Fictions

We believe in the truism that the ability to respond to the political crisis rests as much at the level of analyses as anything else – and that the analyses itself depends on an understanding of the complex way we construct the event and the sorts of thinking it embodies. The biggest analytical challenge we faced as the event unfolded was a blurring of boundaries between fantasy and reality. It was challenging since we wanted to resist driving a wedge between these two spaces to separate them.

The 2008 Mumbai attacks, like the 9/11 attacks seemed unreal, in fact impossible. The number of conspiracy theories that emerged after 9/11 testify to the fact that the official version is hard to believe. Similarly, how could a small group of militants, as well trained as they may have been, bring to a standstill a city that always kept functioning amidst all kinds of man-made and natural disasters? In fact, it seemed and still does seem implausible. We were forced to believe a story, which would otherwise have summarily been dismissed as being as unrealistic as a movie. This moment when something seemingly impossible actually happens -when reason is bluffed- has a magical quality to it. It is this magical quality that we are trying to get at.

As the attacks unfolded we were touched and confused by the emotional waves that overwhelmed the city –

‘ranging from incredulity, rage, cynicism, disbelief, shock and nervousness, to fear, sadness, numbness, hate, and the most disturbing of all, fascination. A morbid fascination for the ability of a handful of young guys to create mayhem in the city, shake Indian politics, and hypnotise the global media.

Surely, these were no ordinary kids. They were well trained, fully equipped and driven by vengeance. Thanks to GPS technology they could navigate an ancient sea route that connected two colonial cities partitioned by history. Thanks to their urbane appearance, they could sit down at Leopold café and enter the city’s best hotels without raising any suspicion.

They checked in at the Taj next to the general manager and transformed their quarters into a five-star control room. After brutally killing scores of tourists they cool-headedly recharged their AK-47 and rampaged the city. They killed Mumbai’s top cops and hijacked police cars, twice. Till the end they defied India’s best commandos. For a moment it seemed that the country’s entire army could not stop them…[3]

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At that time we were shocked and fascinated by the audacity of the shooters. That sense of fascination, accompanied by horror, was disconcerting. The event perhaps brought to the surface a well-entrenched fascination for extreme violence, which we were not fully conscious of. As good children of television, we had been fed early on with the very same type of images that we were now seeing on our screens again. But this time it was disturbingly close and real. Periodically, the events would send shockwaves through the Girgaum lane where we were staying at the time. Some attackers were shot at in Chowpatty, barely five minutes away. There were rumors that others had escaped and were at large in the neighbourhood making concerned neighbors feverishly plead to down shutters and double lock all doors.

This back and forth between the screen and the street created some kind of feedback loop, which was relayed and magnified by phone calls and text messages. False rumors, often sparked and subsequently denounced by TV hosts at the edge of nervous breakdowns, were spreading alternative waves of panic and relief. Mumbai felt like an old steamship, which had hit an iceberg and was now sinking in an ocean of confusion.

That reality exceeds fiction is well known, but this latest attack on Mumbai, just as 9/11, was so spectacularly orchestrated and enacted, so dramatically successful that not even the most inspired scriptwriter could have conceived it. The cinematic references went beyond the literal televised image transmission that dramatized the event. The doomsday theme is classic Hollywood. The attacks on New York had been anticipated in dozens of movies, such as “Armageddon” where the Chrysler Building is flattened by meteorites, ”Deep Impact” where the Statue of Liberty is toppled, and ”Godzilla” who destroys the Brooklyn Bridge, to mention only the blockbusters. But no one came as close to reality as the Hip Hop band “The Coup” who’s album cover, released shortly before the 9/11 attacks, showed the Twin Towers being blown up. The album was of course immediately taken out of the stores after the attacks.

The sheer dramatic exaggeration of the Mumbai attacks, with episodes such as the hijacking of the commissioner’s jeep, or when the crowd gathered around the Taj to cheer up the troops hours before the fighting was over, arguably gave them a Bollywoodesque dimension. This was evident in the alternatively grinning, nervous, laughing and scared faces of the onlookers who walked a thin line between being an aggressive unruly mob and hapless victims. Their schizophrenic response stemmed from the typical uncertainty of finding oneself living a moment that has only been lived before in cinematic, mediated reality.

Extreme violence also has the unique ability to hit not just its most direct target but also bystanders, forcing them to take side. Thanks to the ubiquity of modern information technologies, virtually everyone was witness to the extreme violence of the November 2008 Mumbai attacks. Quite clearly, the real target of the attacks was the global audience.

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The attacks were aimed at an audience hundreds of kilometers away; American families whose thanksgiving dinners were interrupted by the breaking news of the attack. Mumbai was at once a worthwhile target and a cheaper, less threatening option – an outsourced terror attack site – that became a studio relaying messages to the whole world – particularly America and Israel.

However, an equally important audience for the planners of the attack were the hundreds of thousands of youth, who could well get inspired to join in their ranks to become tragic “heroes” themselves.

The looping image of Ajmal Kasab, the 22 year old militant who was captured, was reminiscent of other sets of images. We could not help but morph that ubiquitous picture of him holding an AK-47 rifle at CST Station, with similar images of countless rampage scenes from movies like Scarface. How many t-shirts and posters have glorified the image of Al Pacino playing Tony Montana in Scarface, fearlessly meeting his death? And it is always the same image of him standing with his gun, killing enemies by the dozens, just like Kasab did at CST Station. Similarly, countless hip hop songs have created a mythology around Tony Montana, a fictional Cuban immigrant coming with nothing to Miami and becoming the king of the city one coke deal at a time. Again, reality beats fiction. How much more credible is this middle-aged tough-skinned Al Pacino posing as a ruthless killer compared to young Kasab, fresh from his village and disguised as a typical middle-class Mumbai teenager with his Versa t-shirt? Doesn’t it look like Kasab is merely imitating Tony Montana, when in fact he is the real killer?

Kasab and his comrades, wearing jeans and t-shirt, looking modern and brutal are prime material for teenage hero-worship. The horror that they unleashed transformed them into pure monstrosity and brought to life the most fantastic imagery otherwise only relegated to the world of the imagination, pushing the whole narrative into another realm. Their audacity was responsible for one of the most fantastic leap from fiction (the plot to rampage the city) to reality (it’s actualization), or inversely from reality (a peaceful and cosmopolitan city) to fiction (a city polarized on its political extremes and increasingly Islamophobic).

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How confusing it was to see the villain terrorist playing the role of the sacrificial hero, who fights the system to death. Kasab’s image is a dark version of young Che Guevara, rebellious, strong and audacious beyond belief. More than anything what will have turned these boys into charismatic heroes for some, is the epic transgressions surrounding the events – national, religious and class based – which seemed to be designed to attract attention in the manner of an astounding story, wonderfully told. If only because it will be used over and again by extremist militants to penetrate the minds of global audiences and enroll new recruits, we need to understand this story from the point of view of Kasab, or any of the young men who will follow his steps. In their eyes’ Kasab symbolizes courage, fearlessness and strength. Heroic qualities that all of us have grown to value so much that they can even blur the dividing line between villains and heroes.

The fact is that fantasies of radical transgression, including bombing and killing have always been part of a certain subversive imagination, which is particularly appealing to the youth. Youth across cultures respond passionately to a certain fictionalized understanding of reality, whether it is constructed by Hollywood movies or by charismatic political or religious leaders. The possibility of breaking through and becoming the actual hero of the story becomes an once-in-a-lifetime do-or-die (do-and-die) choice that overwhelms the perpetrator of the violence.

One of the most popular video games of late is Grand Theft Auto (Vice City). The player can steal cars and drive them around Miami at full speed, bumping into other cars and running over pedestrians. He can and even get off the car, shoot at the police and steal their cars and tanks to cause total mayhem in the city. When that happens the army comes and tests you to withstand the fight as long as possible.

This is pretty much what Kasab and his gang did in real life, and also what at a lesser degree dozens of American kids have done in so many tragic school-shootings. Our concern is not whether the fictions mentioned above have influenced the killers. But rather how many people will be inspired by the perceived heroism of Kasab and his colleagues. And further how such acts of extreme violence resonate to become icons of youth culture. It is surely painful and difficult for anyone who has been directly affected by such violence to conceive it. But from a distance (geographical or historic) the events can easily be turned upon themselves and used as symbols of something else altogether.

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Urban youth in Brazil casually use Bin Laden as a counter-cultural symbol, painting him on walls and invoking him in songs and slang. Shortly after the attacks even a computer virus named Bin Laden came out of Brazil. Closer home, the Nazi swastika (not the Hindu one) is regularly seen on t-shirts, and Hitler is revered as a great leader by some Hindu youth who do not actually consider themselves fanatics. This is of course shocking to Westerners who would not otherwise be disturbed by a teenager wearing a Mao Zetong pins.

Audacity, Magic and Charisma

charisma of violence

No matter what the ideological and religious quality of his indoctrination, the actual drama unleashed by Kasab and his gang, is, at one level, similar to the senseless school shootings in the US (and recently in Europe). It is after all, a certain kind of youthful energy that marks these horrific events. In our mind however, while the Mumbai attacks and school shooting are comparable in the form of violence they exult, they differ in important ways. The perpetrators of school-shootings never achieve “cult” status. There is hardly any heroism in their attacks since they only attack defenseless victims and generally kill themselves rather than die fighting. Moreover, the Mumbai attackers achieved a level of destruction that seems unimaginable and lasted for longer than anyone would have predicted. School-shootings are horrible but not implausible.

Psychological profiles of perpetrators of school shootings portray them as being often isolated, rejected by their peers and often victims of bullying. While there may be a subconscious political dimension in school-shootings (they always happen in a seemingly alienating middle-class suburban context), it is too vague to mobilize any kind of support. The Mumbai attackers however, will undoubtedly live on in the memory of many as revolutionary martyrs who died defending their political cause and/or religious mission.

However, the self-perception and drive of attackers in both cases may actually find its source in the same youthful passion, which can become the darkest expression of Horace’s Carpe diem quam minimum credula postero – “seize the day and place no trust in tomorrow” – a complete abandonment in the moment that intoxicates, gives a high like nothing else and alters states of consciousness so much that the most unbelievable acts can emerge from there. As is becoming evident, it is our suggestion that youthful passion, actualizing the most audacious of ideas, can transform Kasabs into monsters or heroes.

The audacity of daring, coupled with the ability of achieving what seems impossible confers a charismatic aura to the author of the act. Here we mean charismatic in a Weberian sense: “…a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which one is ‘set apart’ from ordinary people and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.” [4] Kasab and his comrades, most of whom were barely out of teenagehood, accomplished something that no one could have imagined.

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In the first hours of the attacks the feeling that prevailed was one of incredulity. We thought that the media were blowing up a story which was most probably a tragic fait divers of the sort that happens every week in a city of 14 million. We were even mocking our friends who went on automatic panic mode. However, as the event unfolded, the news turned more and more extraordinary and the doubt settled in. We started to simply believe what we were seeing on TV, hearing on the phone and on the street, in spite of the fact that it was inconceivable.

This moment, when one’s rationality is challenged and the mind flips into the realm of “belief”, has been described by Arjun Appadurai analyzing the reaction to Barack Obama’s election: “magic is the universal feeling that what we see and feel exceeds our knowledge, our understanding and our control.” [5] It was indeed an incredibly audacious move for a relatively unknown young senator to make his bid to the presidency to start with. This audacity carried him all the way to the breaking point at which his rise started to seriously threaten, and ultimately defeat the most formidable political organizations in the world: The Hillary Clinton campaign and the Republicans.

It is when grounded cynicism looses ground that “magic” happens. Everything shifted the moment it became clear that, contrary to the predictions of all serious political analysts, it could indeed be done. It is this magic moment that carried the Obama campaign all the way to a victory that ‘exceeded all expectations’.

The Mumbai attacks and 9/11 fit Arjun Appadurai’s definition of magic just as much as Barack Obama’s irresistible rise. The black magic of 9/11 hypnotized the world and instantaneously transformed Osama Bin Laden into a god-like figure and a horrendous monster. Even more perhaps than Barack Obama’s victorious campaign, the destruction of the Twin Towers by two hijacked planes defied understanding to the point that a large portion of the American population still refuses to believe the official version. The charisma gained by Bin Laden after allegedly master-planning the 9/11 will ensure a continuous influx of new recruits in the years to come.

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Conclusion

Audacity works at various levels. One is that of imagination. Allowing oneself to think about the unthinkable, dream about the impossible, or fantasize about the forbidden is a first kind of audacity that so many people deny themselves. We have all experienced the charisma of people who allow themselves to breach these boundaries. We call them anarchists, “free thinkers”, artists, poets, gurus or mystics. They have a special status in our societies, being placed at the same time on the margins and on a pedestal. The other level is the audacity of action, which Kasab personifies. This appeals particularly to the youth, who as we attempted to show, identify with the passion and bravery of such daring.

Audacity of imagination – that leads to transformative moments – must urgently be reclaimed with the same passion and determination, but after injecting it with a totally different set of values. Suppressing ideas because they are too audacious and falling back into a cynical form of realism will only give more leverage to polarizing forces. A middle-ground politics repressing the expression of youthful passion and imagination leads to more of the kind of destructive responses that we have become accustomed to everywhere, from America to India. The only way to respond to the audacity of unimaginable violence that divides and polarizes, is not by controlling freedoms within, nor by building firewalls between groups but by imagining and acting upon even more audacious attempts at uniting, blurring and bridging divides.

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[1] President George W. Bush, in an address to a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001.

[2] Landscapes of the Jihad: militancy, morality, modernity; Devji Faisal

Cornell University Press, 2005

[3] Rahul Srivastava & Matias Echanove, “Reclaiming Audacity”, The Hindu, December 7, 2008

[4] * Dr David Boje, Charisma lecture notes, Leadership & Society course at New Mexico State University College of Business Administration & Economics, Retrieved 28 July 2005. Via Wikipedia.org.

[5] Arjun Appadurai, “The Magic Ballot”, in The Immanent Frame (blog), November 7th, 2008. http://www.ssrc.org/blogs/immanent_frame/2008/11/07/the-magic-ballot/

This paper was presented at the Global City seminar, organized by the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen, Germany, August 2009. All pictures were taken at the Peace Wall, Marine Line, Mumbai, December 2009.