26th November 2008. 10 gunmen. 60 hours. 166 lives.
The city of Mumbai, India was brought to a standstill in 2008 when terrorists raided the city and created havoc with more than 10 coordinated shooting and bombing attacks. 166 lives were lost and over 600 people injured over a period of 3 days. The attack, now known as the ’26/11′ shook the entire nation to its core.
The meticulously planned attack had one major purpose: to create terror in the lives of Indians. Mumbai, the commercial capital of the country has faced multiple injuries over the past years: deadly bomb blasts, flooding and riots; but the people of the city never lost their hope. The citizens of Mumbai have long since been given the adage ‘The Spirit of Mumbai’. This spirit – the resilience and very soul of India’s city of dreams – was tested like never before in the 26/11 attack when the world’s fourth largest city was turned into a war zone. The targets of attack were the Chhatrapati Shivaji Railway Station (one of the world’s busiest railway stations), The Taj Mahal Hotel and the Oberoi Trident Hotel (icons of Mumbai’s history), the Cama Hospital, the Chabad House (a Jewish community centre) and popular local cafes, to name a few.
Our weekly task in Material Cultures was to identity a media photograph that ties in with the memory of our objects; and to identify any elements of national identity that tie the photograph and our object together. For this I have chosen the image of the Taj Mahal Hotel during the 26/11 attack. The hotel was taken under siege for three long days and nights with thousands of employees and guests kept as hostage.
I precisely remember where I was and what I was doing when I first saw the attack on television: the memory very fresh in my mind. Since it was November we had a winter break from college, and I had gone to Namibia to meet my parents who were living there at the time. The news of the attack hit every Indian hard but to me it was far more personal. The college I was studying in belonged to the Taj which inevitably made me a part of the company. Over the next three days the media continued to endlessly report every little detail of the entire attack: sticking the memory deeper into my mind.
However, my linkage to the 26/11 attack did not end there. Soon after I started working with the Oberoi Trident Hotel, which had also been a target during the attack, taking the life of over 60 people and injuring hundreds other. Many of the colleagues I worked with had been present during the 26/11 attack and had lost their friends and colleagues. I remember watching the video of the attack on YouTube and how strange it felt to walk on the same floor, stand on the same counter, be present in the company of those emotionally wounded by the incident. There’s even a wall at the main porch of the hotel where a gunshot can still be seen: I remember running my fingers through it and feeling the tiny depression in the wall.
Subsequently this relates to my own object as well – the diary – which is filled by my friends and colleagues from the same company i.e. the Oberoi’s. In fact I had received it just before moving to Mumbai city. Though what I find strange is that the memories of the attack come to mind when I think of the 26/11 in particular, they don’t necessarily come to mind every time I think of my stint at the Oberoi Trident Hotel. Does this mean that memories live in the object? Or do they live in certain interactions with different people?
Sturken (2008) argues that memories are part of a larger cultural negotiation. He states that the relentless production and construction of memory through cultural practices is based on the notion that memories are narratives, “a practice of memory is an activity that engages with, produces, reproduces and invests meaning in memories, whether personal, cultural or collective” (2008: 74). But what happens if memory exists without an experience? For example, I was not present amid the 26/11 Mumbai attacks but the memory of it is etched deep in my mind.
Landsberg (2004) also discusses collective memory, the kind that is held not only by individuals but as groups altogether. I’m able to relate the idea of collective memory with the image I have chosen. For those three long days every television in every Indian household was focused on the 26/11 attack and today, almost 8 years later, the memory of it still stings hard. The memory of the attack is shared collectively by us all – irrespective of our physical presence in Mumbai city at the time. Landsberg (2004) also goes on to state that certain memories are created by mass cultural works (like films) and they tend to stand in for real ones i.e. they are prosthetic memories. These memories are not considered natural or organic or historical, but instead constructions of culture over normative memories, and are formed through cultural viewings. So, while watching a short film one may laugh out loud, or shed a few tears – but in the long run the effects are as complex as the shaping of an individual’s personality.
Like many others, even though I did not experience the 26/11 attack directly, it is a memory to me. Hirsch (2012) states that whatever one experiences as postmemory is something one did not experience directly. However, postmemory is usually experienced by future generations. Many brave police officers sacrificed their lives during the 26/11 attack; and their future generations will be the ones to have the emotional power of memories.
To all the army men, police officers, comrades, employees and civilians who lost their lives – may you rest in peace.
- Hirsch, M. (2012) The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture after the Holocaust. New York: Columbia University Press
- Jain, B. (2012) India Changes Tack to Get 26/11 Mumbai Terror Attack Plotters’ Voice Samples [online] available from <http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/India-changes-tack-to-get-26/11-Mumbai-terror-attack-plotters-voice-samples/articleshow/17176727.cms > [18 April 2016]
- Landsberg, A. (2004) Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture. New York: Columbia University Press
- Sturken, M. (2008) ‘Memory, Consumerism and Media: Reflections on the Emergence of the Field’. Memory Studies 1 (1), 73-78