That old cliché spirit!

Observations on Mumbai bombs

There are two words in Mumbai's street Hindi that accurately describe its character. One is khadoos, meaning one who stands stoically unbowed, facing slings, arrows or bullets (like the Indian captain Rahul Dravid). The other is bindaas, meaning cocky, or courageously doing what's needed, whatever the consequences (like Sachin Tendulkar in full flow).

Both qualities have been on display since the bombs that blasted through seven trains on 11 July, killing nearly 200 people and injuring 700 others. Amrita Shah, a columnist with the Indian Express, says: "The trains are Mumbai's veins, so essential and so vulnerable. By attacking them, the terrorists attacked something dear to us."

But the surprise for the terrorists was what has become a cliché: Mumbai's spirit. Thousands of people poured out on to the streets, offering food, water, shelter and comfort to the millions stranded in the city. Thousands more turned up at hospitals, offering blood - hospitals had to turn them back, saying they had more than enough. Mumbai's poorest citizens living along the railtracks ferried the maimed to hospitals and helped remove bodies. Rickshaw drivers took passengers to their destinations, refusing fares. One businessman turned up at Sion Hospital and spent nearly £3,500 buying medicines for victims.

Unconditional help came from everywhere. Unlike what occurred in New Delhi in 1984, when goons allied to the Congress Party went on a rampage, attacking Sikhs after two Sikh bodyguards assassinated Indira Gandhi, and unlike 2002, when nationalist Hindus in Gujarat killed hundreds of Muslims after some Muslims burned a train - in Mumbai, there is no talk of revenge against innocent people. Apurva Bhagat, a businessman, explains: "We know that people from any community are not all bad, and there are no communal clashes, but we all think the suspects are Muslims."

Mumbai's attitude is shaped by hard pragmatism. Its ability to go on as if nothing has happened may even appear uncaring. In a recent Reader's Digest poll, Mumbai came last among 36 cities tested for politeness. Nobody has time for forced good manners. But when the need is real, everyone chips in to ensure the show goes on. Meera Sanyal, a banker, says: "We don't go into paroxysms of grief, and fear cannot paralyse Mumbai. Everyone accepts that we live in a world where such acts, though tragic, need to be dealt with. If we are not terrorised, they have failed."

But many of Mumbai's residents are tired of being praised for their resilience. Ashok Row Kavi, a gay activist whose foundation provides access to healthcare for people living with HIV, has discerned "a profound sense of helplessness", while Hemant Morparia, a radiologist who is also a leading cartoonist, says: "We have had enough of pats on our backs for our resilience." And a leading columnist and novelist, Shobha De, says: "I refuse to romanticise the so-called 'spirit of Mumbai' any more and make it that much easier for those brutes who murdered my people." She speaks for many.

A management consultant, appalled to find that there were no stretchers at many stations and that closed-circuit cameras were not put in place until two days after the attacks, asks: "Must we always count on helping each other?"

Amrita Shah adds: "Mumbai is always wonderful in a crisis; but now you see anger. The problem with resilience is that it allows people to forget. We revel in our ability to face crises and ignore the deep rot that facilitates them."

But the trains are running again, and they are packed, as always.

This article first appeared in the 24 July 2006 issue of the New Statesman, War - Who can stop it now?