Colaba, at the southern tip of Bombay, is a museum of some of the city's best known and most enduring institutions.The Regal cinema, where one can still catch up with the latest Bond, was built in 1933 in the art deco style that would soon engulf the whole area. Phillips is an antiques shop that displays memories of the Raj in splendid showcases made well before Gandhi began his passive resistance. Sindhi restaurants ply their specialities as they have done for 50 years, ever since the ethnic group settled in the city after Partition in 1947. In short, Colaba is the inviolable, untainted Bombay where time stands still.

It is also the place I used to escape to when I lived and worked in the city. Bombayites will rightly tell you the area is 'touristy' and 'unreal'. When one lives in India as a foreigner, however, one occasionally feels the need for the 'bland' food and uncrowded spaces of back home. In these moments, Colaba delivers that quantum of solace.

Most of the time we would go to Leopold's, a restaurant which draws thousands of visitors every day, many of them tourists en route to Goa or elsewhere in India. Once in a while we would dust down our best and head to the waterfront Taj Palace, the classiest hotel in town. Tea for two at the Taj would set you back over €40 - but then you had two waiters standing discreetly behind you in case your scone lost a dollop of clotted cream.

As I write, this world has gone mad. Leopold's has lost two of its charming waiters and several customers to a hail of bullets, and people are using silk curtains to clamber out of the windows at the Taj. Its closest competitor, the Oberoi, apparently has gunmen running down its corridors. At CST (a colonial Gothic revival masterpiece known to all as 'Victoria') train station, the dead bodies of several commuters lie in pools of blood.

The city is no stranger to violence. In 1992-3, communal riots followed by a series of bombings left over 2,000 people dead and the city's residential fabric devastated by segregation and bad blood. Over 200 people died as bombs ripped through crowded commuter trains in 2006. Besides these events, organised crime and communal tensions have been part of Bombay's everyday life for the past 25 years or so.

Indeed, some argue that the very fact that the name 'Bombay' was changed to 'Mumbai' in 1996, signifies this sinister shift. 'Bombay' was synonymous with the cosmopolitanism and free trade of Empire; 'Mumbai', on the other hand, is the Marathi name chosen by the far-right Shiv Sena party, and as such makes the point that the city is the capital of Maharashtra - thus privileging 'sons of the soil' over others.

Tentatively (the news is still 'breaking'), these latest attacks seem to me to be rather specific.

The objective apparently is 'old', timeless Bombay and its hallowed spaces.

This is what is in common between the Taj, the Oberoi, Leopold's, and Victoria. In the case of the first two, the attacks subvert the city's hierarchies by invading the rarefied spaces of five-star hotels usually patronised by Indian film-stars and royalty, and foreign posh.

It is hard to convey just how segregated and privileged these spaces are - and yet, gunmen penetrated them with impunity. The attack on Leopold's has effectively demolished all illusions of escaping to the touristy, unreal Bombay. The shooting spree at Victoria is significant not least because of its setting, a reminder in brick and mortar of Bombay's aspirations as a cultural and economic crossroads.

The timing is equally telling. The weeks around Christmas are very special for Bombay. The monsoon is long departed and the days are pleasant and the nights cool. Christmas holidays elsewhere free people to travel to India, and these include the millions of people of Indian origin living in diaspora around the world. It is no accident December is called the 'wedding season'. All of which means that the attacks do not just challenge the city's spaces, but also its rhythms.

What the effects of these latest attacks will be is anybody's guess, of course. Certainly a lot depends on who is behind them. (This explains why the Indian press are going on and on about what the terrorists 'look like'.)

I think there are three possible types of outcomes. The first is an escalation of tension between India and its neighbours. When foreign militants stormed the Indian Parliament in 2001, war very nearly broke out between India and Pakistan. Indian politicians seem wisely cautious this time round, but, if the Bombay attackers turn out to be foreign Islamist militants, they will be seen as coming courtesy of the Muslim neighbours.

The second possibility, equally dire, is heightened communal tensions in the city which could easily spill over, just as the Babri mosque business spilled over from Ayodhya in 1992. If the attackers turn out to be homegrown, questions will invariably be asked about relations between particular communities and the state, and the answers might not be conducive to harmony.

Which is why I rather wish 'Al Qaeda' (whatever that means) is behind this. The two great 'advantages' of Al Qaeda are that it is global and faceless - unless we count the face of a man who is probably dead. It would be much easier for Bombayites, and Indians, to unite in the face of an enemy who is neither the 'Pakistani Islamist militant' or the Hindu fanatic living round the corner. This year's wedding season may suffer, tourists may think twice about lunch at Leopold's, but it would still be possible for Bombayites to believe in the continuities, rhythms, and spaces of a cosmopolitan city.

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