When tragedy presents opportunity

Some are saying this is the 9/11 of India. And like Khushi says, others are saying “Mumbai is brought to its knees.” Yet other news outlets use the term “A city under siege.”

Unlike probably most others, my response has been quite the opposite of the natural one – I have, with a dogged stubbornness, stayed away from the news. Other than catching up with a single internet viewing a day on the status of the stand-off, I have vehemently refused to pile my head with gory details, minute-by-minute posts about the number of bodies, and the blueprint of the terrorists’ attack plan. My mother, who is visiting me right now from India, is of course glued to the news, and has now learned to sit close to the TV at low volume to avoid clouding my space with the details of this immense tragedy. And I have learned to hover in the other room, blocking out the noise with my book, writings, or other hopefully productive occupation.

Why, you might ask. Well, for one, I refuse to submit to the very point of terrorism – to hold us hostage and prevent us from living meaningful lives. And secondly, because as soon as I heard about the terrorists themselves – young boys in T-shirts and jeans, possibly all in their late-teens or twenties, a different thought process began in my mind. A terrible sadness gripped me, and all I could think about is what compels young kids to act this way. When the children of a society go astray, it is the adults who must take responsibility. Every tragedy is an opportunity to transform ourselves rather than attack the other. We – India and Pakistan, we – America and South Asia, we – you and I, all have the opportunity to see what this really means and heal the wounds at a higher level. I don’t have big answers (yet), but I cannot imagine that blame-gaming, finger-pointing and war threats will solve anything. If they did, we would have been immune to this kind of thing after the Americans went after Afghanistan and Iraq. These are not people who are deterred by war, they are instead, fueled by it! Young blood, like our own children, are grossly misled by a misinterpretation of what is holy. And the more we aggress against them, the more fodder we provide them for such delusional belief systems. “See what the non-believers are doing to us?” I can just imagine someone saying in a madrasa somewhere with little boys with no school education listening intently  … what do you think all your little children would learn if you, as parents and elders, taught them to hate others who are not of your religion or faith?

Don’t get me wrong – it is reasonable to be upset and angry. But for a moment, let’s consider what might happen if we did the unreasonable. Let’s turn away from the news for a moment and hug our kids close to our hearts, I say. Take this as a sign to teach them something lovely. Instill in them a love, caring and compassion for others no matter who they are and what they believe. Teach them not to discriminate based on religion or belief systems. Teach them about peace, about our responsibility to our beautiful earth, and its treasures. Foster love and compassion in this moment, not hate and revenge. Let’s also take a moment to have gratitude that we were not hurt personally by this attack, and pray for all the lost lives, including those of nine young boys led astray by the world’s collective callousness. Every drop of good thought, every bit of compassion will count towards the bigger healing of the world.

In the meantime, it shall remain to be seen what India, the way I remember her – the land of grace, secularism and tolerance – does in such a situation. Will she attack her neighbors in a tit-for-tat, in a copy-cat move to the U.S.? Will she foment escalating violence and horror? Or will she recognize this great opportunity to act differently from the “most powerful country in the world” and demonstrate what true power is all about? Will she show power in grace? Will she show power through self-confidence? Will she show power through resilience? And yes, encourage her citizens to run not away from, but towards the “tragedy” to demonstrate India’s long-standing refusal to submit to fear by aggression? To happily stroll the Mumbai streets and grab a beer at Cafe Leopold? Isn’t the best revenge to move on with a happy life?

As professor of journalism Dr. Suketu Mehta, for whom Bombay is the beloved city of his childhood, writes in today’s NY times editorial, “If the rest of the world wants to help, it should run toward the explosion. It should fly to Mumbai, and spend money. Where else are you going to be safe? New York? London? Madrid? So I’m booking flights to Mumbai. I’m going to go get a beer at the Leopold, stroll over to the Taj for samosas at the Sea Lounge, and watch a Bollywood movie at the Metro. Stimulus doesn’t have to be just economic.”

Last 5 posts by Shahana Dattagupta


  1. Anonymous

    Tana, great post. I feel that attacking the neighbor is not the answer, but we should do something to make sure we protect ourselves. Too often self portection gets lost in all the rhetoric that follows and the common man is at lost.

  2. Sudha

    I think there is grace in the way the hotel staff acted. That would never have happened anywhere else – that level of hospitality is only in India

  3. anonymous

    So what’s different ? This is the same as the response after any terrorist attack in India. That is, do nothing. It doesnt seem that that has helped much. It sounds very benevolent to follow a policy of non-violence. But even your own text, the Bhagawad Gita, says that to follow one’s Dharma, one has to occassionally do things that you may feel are morally wrong.

  4. Pry

    good post!!! I was glued to tv the whole thanksgiving weekend.My son started asking me question like “which country is attacking India? why they are doin it…I tried explaining to him that there are some bad people in world..It was really hard to explain

  5. Tana

    Thank you all for your thoughts.

    Reactive retaliation is like treating the symptoms instead of the disease. People often err in equating non-violence with inaction. Non-violence is neither merely benevolence nor inaction. It is an active, strategic and longer-term approach that works by appealing to the higher selves of other humans. The reason most people in the world resort to retaliatory (re)action in the name of justice is because few of us have the vision, faith, consistency or endurance to spend half a lifetime in prison like Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Gandhi to get the oppressors of their people to see the light. Of course it has its costs. But when this method is used, people are truly and irreversibly transformed, rather than superficially and temporarily altered due to fear of immediate repurcussion.

  6. anonymous

    Reactive retaliation and active self-defense are different things. If anything, your Indian state (as opposed to my Israeli state) suffers from inaction and inertia. Non-violence needs much more strength. At the same time, even followers have Buddha have learned martial arts to protect themselves. You do not get into a metaphysical argument with a terrorist in the heat of battle, there will only be one unpleasant outcome. Nobody is denying that long-range strategic action is necessary. However, this is not an “either-or” situation. One can take long-range action AND distinct short-range action as well.

  7. anonymous

    I would like to add that as an ex-soldier, I have seen terrible acts of war and terrorism at close quarters in the middle east. I have spent considerable time in India, in ashrams and buddhist sanctuaries. I am a deep believer in the principles that you talk of. The problem with your argument is that it is almost as if you try to start with a clean slate! This is a very gradual process, and we all want to be alive to see it flourish. In your language, it is a problem of carrying the burden of previous Karma, not just our own but that of our people and countries’ actions.

  8. Tana

    Dear Anonymous,
    Thank you for writing again – I am not only pleasantly surprised but also very grateful for your thoughts. The deeper context you have provided helps to shed light on what you’ve been trying to say. I agree entirely that short-term measures alongside the longer term philosophy are necessary, and that the Indian government have been remiss in that. For what it’s worth, my writing was a means of spiritually warding off a reactive measure precisely in light of this negligence – it is easy right now for the Indian government to act all offended and attack someone else instead of examining how they were themselves remiss in taking the right protective steps. Thankfully it appears that the people of India are exerting pressure on the government (and its inaction) as much as they are directing anger at Pakistan …
    I thank you again and hope I can meet you some day!

  9. Khushi

    Why break my record? I am amazed at the discussion on this post – all I can say is it is obvious that wherever we are in the world, the topic touched us to the core.

  10. Tana

    Yesterday, I went to a memorial for the Mumbai victims in Seattle. A young journalist had the grass-roots idea to make a call for Indians and Pakistanis to join hands and make clay diyas together and light them for peace. My fingerprints and my Pakistani friend Sabina’s fingerprints are on the same diya. I will save it for a long time.

  11. Khushi

    Missing your writing!

  12. Tana

    Thanks for the Nudge, Khushi! 🙂 (I am reading a book called Nudge and it is great …)

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