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Rights + Justice

'My City Was Imploding'

A Muslim pursues Canadian citizenship as violence tears her hometown Mumbai.

Insiya Rasiwala-Finn 2 Dec

Insiya Rasiwala-Finn often writes for The Vancouver Observer, where this article first appeared.

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Mumbai under terrorist attack. Photo by Daniel Gautreau.

In March 1993, a series of coordinated bomb blasts hit the Mumbai Stock Exchange and the Air India Building. I heard the news after writing my final examination paper for the tenth grade. Our class had planned a big party that night. We were going to let loose after months and months of studying for the exams.

My mother was the first parent who called my school. She heard a loud sound and saw smoke from across the water at the Air India building. Our party plans were off. Our parents and drivers came to fetch us from school. The mood was sombre. We left, silent, unsure of what was happening. That night, in our tony apartment building, the watchmen ripped off all the nameplates in the marble lobby that announced the residents' names and apartment numbers. They did this to prevent mobs from seeking out the Muslim families, like ours, that lived there. In India it's easy to know whether someone is Hindu or Muslim simply by a last name.

Humming 'Oh Canada'

On the morning of Nov. 26th, 2008, I sat in another examination hall, this time at the Canadian Immigration Services office. It was almost 8:15 a.m., a few minutes before I was to begin writing my official citizenship test. I felt a wide-eyed awakeness, my hands cold with an anxiety reminiscent of old college examinations and I wondered how difficult this test could possibly be.

After all, almost none of my Canadian friends could answer the questions from the study guide that I received from the Immigration bureau a few months ago. When did Nunavut become a territory, anyhow? And if I didn't remember the answer (April 1, 1999), would I fail the test? Oh and those first two lines of Oh Canada... what are they again? I hummed the tune silently to myself.

The room was filled with people of various nationalities, our bodies displaying skin-tones from brown to pale white. In age we ranged from teenagers to grandparents. I took in the dull fluorescent lights, the tall windows that filtered in Vancouver's grey winter day and the flags with their red stripes and sharp outline of a maple leaf standing to either side of the small stage where an official sat and addressed us in halting English, "now, please pay attention."

While he emphasized the importance of filling in each circle "dark with the pencil," I let my mind ponder that drive -- so strong for some of us -- so present in this room. The desire that compels us to gather up and move our lives, our families, or sometimes simply ourselves, far away from the familiar geographies of our youth. For some of us, there is no choice. For reasons that range from war, discrimination or ethnic strife, it can be too dangerous to remain in our native land and we become refugees, fleeing to a safer place. For some of us, it's a quest for education, a job, or simply that desire to move from a place where too many bodies and hopes collide. And some of us are travellers, born with an innate wish to leave our birthplace.

I thought I fell into the last category. Ever since I was a young girl, growing up by the Arabian Sea in South Mumbai, I looked outward from those shores, knowing that I would travel far away someday. I just didn't know when or where.

'Helpless and unhinged'

The reality was a little different.

That Wednesday afternoon, I learnt about the siege in Mumbai, of gunfire and smoke dispersing the old, stone walls of the Taj hotel, the high glass windows of the Oberoi at Nariman Point and the art-deco façade of the Regal cinema where I watched so many films. Innocent people were dying. My city was imploding in on itself.

Feeling helpless and unhinged, I sat glued to my laptop, reading RSS feeds from bloggers in Mumbai. I called a cousin in New York. My parents weren't even in Mumbai, they were away on a journey that every devout Muslim aspires to, a pilgrimage to Mecca, the Haj. My aunt and uncle who live near the Mahalaxmi racecourse, also in South Mumbai, described streets that in broad daylight were deserted and bleeding. Old high school friends on Facebook told me that they heard open fire in my old neighbourhood of Cuffe Parade, five minutes away from the Taj hotel and Nariman Point.

I used to walk these streets every day. My old high school, Cathedral & John Connon, stands by Fountain, close to Ballard Pier, where terrorists opened fire on Thursday. The Taj hotel is where my father first took my brother and I swimming and the Sea Lounge coffee shop right below its smoke riddled dome is where my parents met on an "arranged" date. The office I interned at for the Financial Times newspaper is down the road and the Victorian lamppost adorned street abutting the Taj is where I walked with my Canadian fiancée two years ago on his first trip to my hometown.

And so, I was reminded of why we decided to migrate to Canada in the first place. I didn't really have much choice in the matter. It was fear that prompted our initial desire to move. My family is Muslim and we were afraid. Afraid of the repercussions of those first bombs, the ones in 1993, said to have been the work of underworld Muslim gangs with ties to the Middle East. The violent aftermath that resulted, the communal killings and burnings and carnage, propelled my parents to look for a safer place, to seek a country we could escape to if the situation got bad. We thought Canada might be it.

Waiting for the repercussions

But Mumbai is resilient, as everyone says and things eventually calmed down. My parents continued to live in India for a few more years, but I left for university in the U.S. and stayed on in North America. When we got our Canadian immigration papers, I landed here in Vancouver, where I've lived for six years. Until this week, I felt privileged to be an immigrant who didn't have to struggle in the ways that others may have had to. I speak English fluently without a noticable accent. I have a job that I love and a man that I chose to be with, right here in this city, all reasons that have kept me here. And I always knew that I had the option of going back home.

After the events of this week, I am not so sure. I am apprehensive of what it means today to be part of a Muslim minority in India. I am afraid for the safety of my extended family that lives in Mumbai. I am afraid of the repercussions that may result, that will result from the extreme violence caused by these acts of terrorism. And while I hope that the world can look upon those responsible for the carnage in Mumbai as being beyond religion, I know that religion, and in this case Islam, is a scapegoat for these acts, as it has been consistently now across the globe. The terrorism in Mumbai is just the most recent example.

And so I bleed for my hometown, for my family and friends and fellow Indian citizens who live with the uncertainty and un-knowing of these past few days that have seemed so interminable. I watch and wait and pray, hoping that the famous optimism of Mumbai, its ability to pick itself up and carry on, will prevail. I hope that the virulent strands of fundamentalism that bubble beneath the layers of India's tenuous democracy will not boil over.

Mostly, I hope to return freely to a place that still, in my heart, remains home.

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