September 05, 2004

The biryani'll get you

Wedding last night. Daughter of a friend, we all call him Munna. The festivities happened in a long marriage hall in a warren of crowded lanes filled with rusting bikes, crumbling taxis, empty once-factories and simply crammed with people, so much so that I couldn't understand how our taxi driver made his way through it all. Still, he eventually had to stop and we walked the rest of the way. We were deep in densely human Agripada, one of Bombay's heavily Muslim areas.

Over a plate of steaming tasty biryani (savoury rice dish with meat and spices), my mind went back to an email exchange about a year ago. It happened because of an article the man at the other end of the exchange wrote and then suggested I read. Introducing himself, he claimed to be an "accomplished nuclear physicist" based in the USA, and an "expert on Islamic fundamentalism."

Guys that use "accomplished" and "expert" about themselves set off warning bells in my mind. As here.

In any case, this article was posted on the site of an impressive-sounding think-tank. It purported to be an "analysis" of the threat Islamic fundamentalism posed to India. What it was, instead, was a farrago of paranoia and pretence, hysteria and lies. No wonder the man needed to preface his messages with the pronouncement that he was "accomplished" and an "expert."

But it was one statement he made in that farrago, in particular, that I remembered over my biryani. "Non-Muslims," wrote Accomplished Man, rarely venture into areas of India where Muslims are in large numbers, fearing unpredictable, irrational behavior or violence directed at them."

Now I'm a non-Muslim, as is (more obviously) my wife, as is everyone in my family. For work, for a meal, for no particular reason, all of us and many other non-Muslims I know have strolled plenty of times through Muslim areas of India over years. Not once have we had "unpredictable, irrational behaviour or violence" directed at us. What did Accomplished Man mean?

Still, as I set out for the wedding, I told myself: keep your eyes open, look for this irrational stuff. Maybe things have changed, maybe AM has a point, who knows?

I found: bustling shops. Phone booths. Tiny paanwallas. Young heroes with slicked hair weaving through the crowds on noisy mobikes, trying to look cool. Kids running about. Bright lights. Street vendors. Passersby willingly and smilingly giving us directions. Young girl who shyly asked my wife, "baal kahan katvaye?" "Where did you cut your hair?"

In short, I found: pretty much what I would find in any densely packed urban 'hood. I didn't find: unpredictable, irrational behaviour or violence. (Well, maybe the little girl?) I didn't feel: the "fear" AM spoke of. I did feel: not a whit different from anywhere else in Bombay.

Islamic fundamentalism may or may not be a huge threat to India, I have no idea. But when its critics offer their own empty paranoia to paint it as such, and that as an "expert" analysis, there's no reason in the world to take them seriously. Even if they are Accomplished Nuclear Physicists.

Then again, something I ate has given me a bad stomach today. Think it's time for AM to write one more learned analysis. I can see the words: "Wedding guests in Muslim areas fear dodgy biryani directed at them."


ak said...

Where have you gone?

Dilip D'Souza said...


I'm here. Going to try to settle into a post every 2-3 days. Tried to post last night, but a problem prevented publishing all of yesterday (8th). Seems back on track now, so my latest went out.

Anonymous said...

Hi Dilip

Maybe you could put up a link to the "expert's" article. (Gives others a chance to tear into it.)

I have similar experiences. My father is a BJP supporter. Doesn't stop him from going to Mohd. Ali Road every year during Ramzan time to sample the wonderful food.

Anonymous said...

Dunno---it IS a little unreal waltzing into a Muslim area. Nothing to be scared of, but you're always a little wary, y'know?

Anonymous said...

Don't know about wary.

My husband is a muslim and when we visit his family, we stay in a "dodgy" muslim area. :)

True, I can't roam the streets like I do in my own nieghbourhood, unless accompanied by a male.

Apart from that, it was to me no different from any other REAL nieghbourhood (as opposed to the swank / posh / upper middle class, where the roads have more in common with Imola and Silverstone).

Unknown said...

m a non-muslim and ive roamed around a lot in so called "muslim areas" in kolkata,many a times alone..ive never felt 'fear' anymore than what i would feel in any other unfamiliar place..period
kick the the AM's ass!!