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Why a literary journal returned to the 2008 Mumbai attacks

November 29, 2009 | 11:29 am

Mumbaiattacks

From Nov. 26 to 29, 2008, 10 gunmen wielded guns, grenades and terror in the Indian city of Mumbai. Acting in five teams of two, they killed 163 people and wounded 300 others in attacks on sites including a train station, two elite hotels, a Jewish center, a hospital and the city's streets. All of the gunmen were young Pakistani Muslims; all but one were killed by authorities. The lone survivor, who has pleaded guilty, attends his trial, which continues a year after the attacks.

All this happened far away from the offices of the literary magazine the Virginia Quarterly Review, but when editor Ted Genoways talked to contributor Jason Motlagh about the attacks, he felt there was a story to tell that went deeper than the TV news stories we'd seen. Motlagh, a journalist working in South Asia, had previously written for VQR about India and had a wealth of contacts there. What the two decided should be written about Mumbai would go beyond standard reporting, "something that would be closer to literary nonfiction than traditional journalism -- or even 'new journalism.' " Genoways writes. "This would not be the story of Jason’s journey in the wake of disaster but a straightforward narrative of what happened in Mumbai."

That it is -- in four online pieces (1, 2, 3, 4), each close to 5,000 words, the narrative has been laid out in a straight and comprehensible chronology. Motlagh has cut through the chaos and confusion, moving from one group of gunmen to another to police, victims and military, pulling together a compelling narrative. He combined on-the-ground reporting with the challenging task of comparing the many conflicting, multilingual accounts to provide a clear story of the horrific events Indians have come to call 26/11. It is a tremendous achievement.

Yet the piece isn't perfect: The chronology can't be everywhere at once, so it's hard to tell how many lives have been lost, or how those in charge did or didn't respond to the emergency as it unfolded. The bigger issues -- of conflict in the region, of the violence a small, determined group can inflict, of how a fervid militia could be better armed and trained than the police they challenged, of the failures of intelligence, of what a major attack on Mumbai means -- are squeezed into the margins, even as the moment-by-moment account provides an excellent understanding of the attacks themselves. 

If the report is of the kind we might expect to see from a handful of larger-circulation magazines such as the New Yorker, other venues have been retreating from this kind of extensively researched international writing. That a magazine like VQR -- esteemed, yet with a modest and distinctly literary circulation -- has undertaken such an effort demonstrates an enthusiasm for significant nonfiction storytelling.

Of course, this kind of thing is expensive. To run such a piece again, they'll need the help of foundations and other financial supporters. "I think we’ve proven that we can undertake this kind of ambitious reporting successfully and shown that there’s an audience out there for it," Genoways says in an  interview. "We need to find a few altruistic supporters of journalism who see this kind of work as important, whether it’s profit-generating or not. I’m optimistic that such people are out there."

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: The Taj Mahal hotel burns on Nov. 29, 2008. Credit: David Guttenfelder / Associated Press

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