Reading a column by Irfan Hussain in Dawn about how he has become indifferent to terrorist violence reminded me of most Indians' reactions to terrorist murders around the world recently, in particular my own.
When the Punjab terrorism problem started in the early 1980s, culminating in Operation Bluestar and Indira Gandhi's assassination, people around me had already started getting used to random violence. I remember my mum talking of the news - "Let's watch the news and find out how many were killed and injured today," ("chalo news on karo, pata to chale kitne mare, kitne ghayal"). While funny at the time for the sheer macabre acceptance of the situation as it was then (and still is today), it is at the same time shocking and maddening when I see it in the context of how Americans have reacted to 9/11.
My family were in Lajpat Nagar, New Delhi when it was announced that Indira Gandhi was assassinated. Our neighbors were Sikhs, and they proudly displayed a bronze religious symbol outside their town home. Before we knew what was happening, a mob was entering the locality. Our neighbors were trembling in our house, in one of the inner bedrooms. We had wet blankets down the front of their house to cover the bronze symbol, which we were dousing with water every hour or so to keep the blankets from flying up in the wind. My super-geeky dad and uncle fished out the one hockey stick they had in the storage closet and took turns in the neighborhood patrol, in case there were overnight attacks.
Guess what, we accepted this is outside the norm, but not so much that anyone got fired, or anyone even got sued over. Yeah, the owner of the Volga store in Lajpat Nagar market had his house ransacked and burned, and was ruined, but he was okay. Yeah, there were stories of Sikhs at the railway station who were killed by putting tires around their necks and burning the tires. Yeah there were stories of Sikhs being paraded naked. Yeah the Shiv Sena threw acid bulbs into houses of non-Maharashtrians, and harassed Sikhs in Bombay. But we all kinda shrugged it off - very few of us knew anyone directly involved in the atrocities or upon whom a crime was committed. (You could argue that a crime was committed upon my neighbors, but we just didn't see it that way then.)
The net effect was that when I was in a US government lab and the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened, it was all a bit of "blah". However, the reaction from the people around me shocked me. My officemate was completely stressed out, but that became understandable when he told me that his dad worked in one of the World Trade Center buildings on the 89th floor (his dad escaped just in time). The lab director - who knew no one that was affected - was overcome with tears. People were genuinely concerned. People wanted war, revenge, retribution, something.
But my reaction to it ranged from "Aren't these guys making a big deal of it," to "Wow, these guys really do care, the India I knew didn't care at all when people got killed," to "Pshaw! This is nothing, we lose more people in Kashmir every month, probably!"
Somewhere along the line, the part of my mind that thinks about my thoughts told me that I had become an indifferent monster, and I think that's true.