Living in the shadow of 9/11, it's easy to forget that India suffered its own historic terrorist strike nearly nine years earlier. Between 1:28 and 3:35 p.m. on March 12, 1993, a group of terrorists and gangsters trained in Pakistani camps detonated 10 bombs across Bombay. Among the targets: the local stock exchange, crowded marketplaces, a double-decker bus, hotels, offices and the airport. The toll: 257 people killed or missing, 713 injured and a city of 14 million temporarily paralyzed with fear. The similarities to the attacks that would come later in the U.S. are one of the most striking aspects of S. Hussain Zaidi's account, Black Friday: the True Story of the Bombay Bomb Blasts (Penguin; 288 pages). Just as startling is how completely Zaidi has managed to uncover the complex tale, after four years of painstaking investigation.
Zaidi, a crime correspondent at Bombay's Mid-Day newspaper, portrays the city's cops and their investigation as thoroughly professional, despite a wealth of independent evidence to the contrary. He glosses over their lapsesódetectives took 48 hours to discover that the bombers' car was owned by a Mafia donóand all but ignores their imprisonment (and sometimes torture) of hundreds of innocent Muslims. In one typical partial passage, Zaidi describes how on March 15, "after three days of running around furiously," one investigator, Rakesh Maria, "was hoping to spend most of the day at home" but was suddenly called to work just "as lunch was announced." The cop's sense of duty, it seems, knew no bounds.
The undeniable strength of Black Friday is the depth and intelligence with which Zaidi portrays the bombers themselves. In penetrating this closed world, Zaidi ridicules the shorthand caricature of terrorists so popular nowadays: that they are "evil," "fanatic" or "mad." Instead, we get to read about ordinary men who start out with earthly motivations and none-too-resolute convictions but who ultimately come to embrace terror. One such character is Badshah Khan, an underworld foot soldier recruited to the plot and swept up in righteous determination, dutiful loyalty and terrifying excitement. He scouts targets, assesses their vulnerability and helps plant the devices. But Khan is eventually abandoned by his cohorts, left penniless and finally captured. Such portraits reveal more about the roots of terrorism than a thousand theories about the clash of civilizations could. As the U.S. deploys its full military might against Iraq in the face of almost unanimous hostility from the Muslim world, Zaidi's book stands as a timely reminder of how, in the hands of a few men, revenge can throw a nation into panic.