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Nearly two months after the terror attacks, India's economic and cultural capital teeters back.
MUMBAI — In Mumbai, a city that never pauses, people slow to a stop outside Cafe Leopold. At first glance, the cafe looks like any other in riotous Colaba, the charmingly derelict neighborhood whose crowded lanes and alleys are overrun by little street shops where tourists, local and foreign, haggle genially.
But Leopold, the site of the first terrorist attack on the night of Nov. 26 and where eight people died, has come to symbolize Mumbai’s chutzpah. Since its opening a mere two days after the attacks, its bullet-shattered mirrored walls and grenade blasted flooring are bared for all to see. Guests, many of them backpacking tourists from overseas, swill beer and munch kebabs at crowded tables, as a crush of people waits to get in.
The 10 terrorists who took hostage and killed 171 people stayed within a few-mile radius of Leopold. They struck the Taj Mahal Hotel & Palace on the waterfront and the Oberoi & Trident Hotel a short distance away. These targets were haunts of prosperous Indians and foreign executives clamoring to cash in on India’s high-growth economy.
Now less than two months after the attack, Mumbai is slowly teetering back to its feet. Outside Leopold, policemen stand guard, benevolently gazing at the dozens of pavement stalls that hawk everything from pirated copies of Barack Obama’s book "Audacity of Hope" ($4) to T-shirts emblazoned “Mumbai meri jaan” (Mumbai, my life) ($2). “Business is dull since the terror attack,” said Anil Gupta, the T-shirt seller, whose customers are mainly foreign tourists.
On a recent afternoon, weeks after the attack, Lubo Krska, 25, a Slovakian student studying architecture in India, stood outside Leopold with a group of European friends. He shuddered as he recalled narrowly missing the gruesome encounter at the cafe. He had finished eating and left an hour before terrorists began shooting.
“I was scared,” he confessed, but said he later reasoned that he could well die in a traffic accident in Bratislava. Looking at the crowds streaming past, Krska said he felt calmed and comforted by the sheer mass of humanity in the city.
Mumbai is home to some 17 million people, a population rivaling that of entire European countries. It is also home to Bollywood, the country’s glorious, kaleidoscopic Hindi film industry.
Just as important, Mumbai is India’s financial hub, headquarters of multinational corporations, the country’s largest banks and newly-global Indian conglomerates such as the Tata Group. Tata owns Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Hotel, hotels in New York and Chicago, and brands such as Jaguar and Tetley Tea.
The terrorists hit India where it hurts most, dampening confidence and raising questions about the risks associated with doing business in the country. Even as the hotels reopened to spectacular receptions, the mood in Mumbai remains cautious.
Outside the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower, security has never been tighter. At the hotel which routinely plays host to A-list celebrities such as Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Madonna, Bill Clinton and David Rockefeller, police and hotel security have cut off public access a block away, letting only hotel guests and invitees through. Armed guards on balconies, X-ray scanners for bags, multiple frisking points and closed-circuit security cameras monitoring every public space are now routine.
At the nearby Trident Hotel, where the likes of Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch and Beyonce Knowles have been guests, the security is just as severe. Inside its shopping arcade full of stores stocking such luxury brands as Jimmy Choo and Gucci, not even the "50 percent off" signs are enough to lure shoppers.
Santa Barbara, Calif. web developer Michael Kramer was on his first business trip to Mumbai weeks after the attack, exploring a potential joint venture with a local partner. Kramer said he was surprised by the ubiquitous police presence but felt comforted that “people were out and about, carrying on their business."
That was certainly the case at Leopold, where two waiters were killed in the attack. Owner Farzad Jehani said business has multiplied several-fold since the attack. T-shirts and coffee mugs with the cafe logo are selling briskly. Sometimes, unexpected surprises arrive in the mail, such as a citation from the citizens of Anne Arundel County, Md. that commends Leopold’s owners for their recent brave and heroic action in reopening the cafe soon after the attacks.
The citation is signed by county executive John R. Leopold.