The only thing on the television this Thanksgiving weekend was CNN. The events in Mumbai completely dominated our family get-together, not least because as Dawoodi Bohra muslims, we have extensive circles of friends and family in the city, as well as in Gujrat state. So as with the Godhra riots of a few years back, India’s 9-11 takes on a deeply personal significance to my own kith and kin.
I handed out candles to a group of evidently upper class women. A friend, a woman journalist who doesn’t normally have patience with communal gossip, overheard their conversation. She whispered to me that the women were suspicious of me. She thought it had something to do with my beard and the Afghan cap I wear on cold evenings. Only when I introduced myself and declared that India needed a dictator did they look relaxed. I said Narendra Modi was my hero, even though he sports a different kind of beard. This was a ploy that works when there’s no scope for serious discussion. The women said the country needed Modi as prime minister. I endorsed the view so that they could sleep peacefully that night. We parted on this cordial note.
On the way back, my friend and I discussed how beards had become particularly suspect since the advent of Osama bin Laden. And here, the Mumbai terrorists who themselves were probably clean-shaven pub-crawling college kids, had deepened mistrust that was not just rooted in facial hair. They had succeeded in their mission to drive a deeper wedge among Indians as evident at India Gate.
Film actress Nandita Das was among the mourners that broke into a dozen groups or more, each more worried than the other about what was happening to India. Nandita has just made a film about the social isolation of Muslims in Gujarat. She told me some of her close friends had wondered why she was sympathetic to Muslims, and one of them even asked if she had a Muslim boyfriend. What I know is that she has a Gujarati mother.
Let me share a bit of an email Nandita sent to her friends the day before the funeral. It said: “It hadn’t hit me hard enough till Thursday morning…I have to say, it had very little effect on me. My predictable response was, not again…more people will die, more fear, more prejudice and more hatred. But at some level the response was instant and cerebral. But this morning when I got up things felt different. Got a message from an unknown no: “See what your friends have done.” Strangely a close friend of mine got a similar message last night, but from an acquaintance. Just because Firaaq, my film, deals with how Muslims ‘also’ get affected by violence, the terrorists are supposed to be my friends!
“Today a common young Muslim man around town is probably the most vulnerable. I got many messages from my Muslim friends who feel the need to condemn it more than anyone else, who feel the need to prove their national allegiance in every possible way. They are begging to be not clubbed with the terrorists, a fear not unfounded. Then of course there were tons of messages from well-wishers across the world who asked about me and my loved ones’ safety. I too did the same. And strangely that was when tears started rolling down my cheek, almost involuntarily. Guess the thought that if our loved ones were fine, it’s all ok, seemed like a bizarre way to feel. When will our souls ache when anyone is hurt, even those that we have never seen and will never see? The more I wrote back in sms’s and emails that I was ok, the more miserable I was feeling.”
usly conceive that the actions of a deranged dozen is representative of the attitudes of millions? That is the fear that the terrorists are trying to sow – and Mumbai, glamorous and cosmopolitan and diverse, was the perfect target – the crown jewel of India’s democratic and pluralistic ethos, just asking to be shattered by those who care nothing for India, or Islam – only chaos for its own sake.