Sambit Bal

An overpowering bleakness

Talking about cricket feels out of place in the face of the Mumbai attacks


The Taj: not merely a hotel, a symbol of Mumbai's identity © Getty Images
Cricket feels so trivial, so utterly irrelevant now. I have sat for nearly 24 hours before the TV, watching the world's most resilient city in the thrall of a terrifying and seemingly never-ending siege. Watching the Taj Mahal hotel burn for two days has felt like living through Mumbai's own 9/11, for the Taj is not merely a five-star hotel, it is a symbol of the city's identity, an iconic link between its rich past and bustling present.
I have watched a city of a million dreams held hostage by 20 or so men who have purged from their souls every trace of humanity - let's not confer on them the dignity of a religion - and I have felt the blood drain out of me.
I have felt a sense of paralysis and rage. My family and I are safe at home, none of my friends were in the hotels or at the other attack sites; but I am numb, not with fear or personal loss, but something far deeper: a sense of overpowering bleakness.
Through the day I have had a job to do. Mumbai's tragedy has brought serious implications for cricket, and I have spent my time also following the discussions between the cricket boards of India, England and Australia; chatting with colleagues in Brisbane, London and Bangalore; calling English journalists for updates; deciding headlines and story angles. Never has my job felt like such a chore, so meaningless and futile. Rarely have I been as distracted or conflicted.
That England shouldn't play the next two one-dayers should have been a no-brainer. Middlesex and Western Australia needn't have bothered making explanations. Sport is not bigger than life, not even in a country where it is said to be the religion.
I should perhaps be writing a piece assessing the impact of the terrorist attack on Indian cricket, and consequently on the global cricket ecosystem. But I can't bring myself to. I feel compelled, instead, to write this. I am not sure if Cricinfo has any use for this. I will let my colleagues make the call. It's been that kind of day.
I was on the streets of Bombay covering the communal riots in 1992, and the serial bomb blasts in 1993. I have seen a mob with swords chase a man and sever his arm from his body; I have seen rioters set an old man alight after garlanding him with car tyres; and I have faced the prospect of being burnt alive myself. For days I left home kissing my small child goodbye with thoughts of the worst. Those days return to haunt me sometimes even today.
But somehow I felt I understood what was happening then. I couldn't relate to it, but I understood the thirst for retaliation and revenge, the hatred and the frenzy that temporarily consumed ordinary people. I even wondered about a foreseeable future when I could sit down with some of the rioters and talk about what drove them to such madness.
That England shouldn't play the next two one-dayers should have been a no-brainer. Middlesex and Western Australia needn't have bothered making explanations. Sport is not bigger than life, not even in a country where it is said to be the religion
But this is simply beyond my comprehension. Every time I see the photograph of the young man - who looks not a lot older than my son - dressed in jeans and t-shirt, carrying a machine gun as casually as he does the satchel over his shoulder, bearing a sinister glee in his eyes, I am reminded of Barack Obama's words about the killers of 9/11: "My powers of empathy, my ability to reach into another's heart, cannot penetrate the blank stares of those who would murder innocents with such abstract, serene satisfaction."
Through the day, I haven't been able to cast aside the thought that to even discuss the impact of England's abandonment of a cricket tour, or the postponement of the Champions League, is a perversity in the face of such a gargantuan human calamity.
It was right for England's cricketers to go home. And it won't be wrong if they don't come back for the Test series. I would understand. Cricketers are heroes of a different kind. Putting their lives at risk is not in their line of duty. I was in London during the 2005 terrorist attacks and I went to Covent Garden for dinner from Lord's, and took to a tube back to the hotel. But that was a personal choice. I didn't feel unsafe. However, the images from Mumbai - the drawn-out drama, the cold-blooded audacity and sinisterness of it - are far more disturbing and macabre than those of a series of bombs going off.
This is not a time for brinksmanship, power games or counting cash. This is a time for quiet and respectful understanding. But life can't stand still. The city, the country, the world, must renew itself. Cricket is only a small part of it, but it will matter, it will make a difference.
Let me declare my interests. I love this city. If anything, the last two days have made me realise the depth of that love. I have no guns and grenades to defend it with, but I can fight for its spirit. It sounds like a cliché, but clichés also happen to be true. I can't wait to see a stadium in Bombay reverberating to the sounds of cricket. I will be there.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo