Through the Seventies and much of the Eighties my father used to travel to and in India. He worked in fashion and the clothing business, in “the rag trade”. Sometimes he would call from Bombay, Madras or Calcutta, and it would be hard to hear exactly what he was saying, with his voice a wavering echo on an indistinct international telephone line. On several occasions he stayed at the Taj Mahal Hotel in south Bombay, and once, when he was back at home, he showed me pictures of the hotel, with its grand dome and position next to the Gateway to India monument, like a Moorish fortress overlooking the Arabian Sea.
For me, the Taj hotel came to represent all the mystery and possibility of India as well as that part of my father’s life that took him away from home so often, the part that was unknowable, unreachable. Now, because of the attacks of 26 November 2008 by Lashkar-e-Toiba militants on Mumbai, in which as many as 170 people died, the Taj hotel has become one of the most iconic buildings of our new globalisation, a symbol of corporate prestige and power and yet also of profound vulnerability.
I was at the Taj on 15 January when the Foreign Secretary David Miliband gave a widely reported revisionist speech in which he outlined the British government’s new position on what it had once called the “war on terror”, a belligerent phrase that, according to Miliband, had served as a “call to arms, an attempt to build solidarity by portraying a fight against a single shared enemy. But I believe that the foundation for solidarity between peoples and nations should not be based on who we are against, but instead on the idea of who we are and the values we share.”
Miliband was using the ambiguous space created by the US presidential transition to make a statement in support of what he believed would be a new era of multilateralism. Meanwhile, privately, he continued to agonise over Israel’s murderous assault on the civilians of Gaza.
Before the speech, we met staff who had been working at the hotel on the day of the attacks and learned more about some of those who died. We were told about a police constable who, as Miliband put it in his speech, had acted “as a human shield to save the lives of others”. Later, I could not stop thinking of this man, Constable Omble, the human shield. He had stepped into the line of fire, wilfully taking the bullets from the militants’ guns, a man prepared to die so that others might live. Here was something beyond bravery. Here was peculiar grace.
Earlier in the week I was in Delhi, and there I attended a private lunch at the British High Commission, a stately white-painted colonial-era house with a garden large enough in which to cut a cricket square. The guests were former Indian ambassadors and high commissioners, as well as retired military leaders. They were hawkish and their message to the Foreign Secretary was unequivocal: Pakistan was to blame for the Mumbai attacks. So far, they said, India had shown “restraint”, but for how much longer? There would soon be a general election in India; the people were hurt and wanted revenge. “These were commando-style attacks,” I was told by one retired general. “These people were highly trained and motivated. They must have had support at the highest level in Pakistan.”
Miliband’s response was that he had seen evidence to suggest the attacks came from within Pakistan, but that they were “not directed” by the Pakistan government. (That may be so, but they were surely directed by rogue factions in Pakistan’s military and Inter-Services Intelligence, the notorious ISI.) Again and again, this was his response to the question of Pakistan’s culpability in the attacks, whether he was addressing students during a televised debate or sitting alongside his Indian equivalent, the foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee, at a press conference.
On my last day in India I visited my friend Soumya Bhattacharya, editor of the Hindustan Times in Mumbai, at his home in the western suburb of Bandra. In the aftermath of the November attacks he had written in the New Statesman of the resilience and spirit of the people of Mumbai, digressing to explain how Bandra, on the western seaboard, and so popular with the new rich of Bollywood and India’s internet entrepreneurs, had come to symbolise all the restless energy and mercantile spirit of India’s greatest city. We sat in the bright sitting room of his rented flat – even he cannot afford to buy because property prices in Bandra are out of control – drinking a Tiger Hills Sauvignon blanc, from the vineyards of Nashik, about 100 miles from Mumbai.
Soumya speaks Bengali at home to his wife and young daughter. The driver who brought me to his flat was a Muslim from Madras whose first language was Tamil. Soumya’s flat is owned by an Urdu-speaker from the Punjab. The plurality, openness and diversity of this improbable nation of 1.1 billion people, 28 states and several hundred languages – this is what is most often mentioned when Indians, with pride, contrast their successful democracy with the failing state of Pakistan.
On several occasions, at private meetings and on public platforms, Miliband spoke of how the partnership between Britain and India was “now one of equals”. He said this at a meeting with Mukherjee, who nodded in agreement. Very soon, however, the relationship will be once more one of inequality – or of unequals – if it is not so already, with Britain knocking at the door of the Indian mansion, humbly seeking entry in its role as the junior and more impecunious partner.