Crowded, noisy, dimly lit Chinese restaurant in New York's Times Square. It's called Ruby Foo's, a name that struck me as mildly funny when I first heard it. I got a degree in computer science, see, and "foo" is a word that all CS people recognize. By some now-forgotten cultural happenstance, it was adopted as the classic name for a generic programming variable.
Clear as day, right? Never mind. What struck me later was that it was somehow fitting that I had mulled over the restaurant name, given that my time there set off a month-long train of thought to do with names.
"My time there" came one rainy October night, when I dined at Ruby Foo's with two college buddies, one of whom I had not met since college, or for over two decades. Over miscellaneous appetizers that we couldn't see well enough to identify, and once past the catching up and reminiscing, we began talking about events, the situation, the climate, "back home." None of us had any doubt what "back home" referred to, even though only one of us actually lived there. Me.
Back home, meaning in India.
Part of the climate back home came from what the long-lost buddy had to say about his trips there. Calm and matter-of-fact, he told us about how his name gets him odd stares, subtle double takes, in 21st Century India. They come from immigration officers, railway clerks, people he is introduced to. Almost wistful, I thought to myself that when we were together in college, it never occured to me, not even once, that his was an unusual name. Nor that it carried on its back the wearying burden of my friend's religion. Nope, it was merely another Indian name. I even remember deciding, for no good reason, that it had to be a variation on a common moniker from the southern state of Kerala, "Menon."
Was I young, callow, naive? All three, I'm sure.
I also think that was an India that has since changed.
Whatever. My friend's name is "Memon", and it has nothing to do with "Menon." What's more, today nearly every Indian and his second cousin will identify it as Muslim. A quarter-century ago, I saw "Memon" as merely an Indian name. Now it is merely, and first, a Muslim one. There's a snapshot of India for you, circa 2004.
But why the odd stares, the double takes? Rewind to a sunny day in March 1993, when bombs go off all over Bombay. Buildings and buses are destroyed, many hundred citizens bloodied and mangled, 300 are killed.
Much politics lies behind that outrage, but let's not get into that here. This much is relevant: prime accused in the crime are members of a suburban Bombay family, family name "Memon."
Seems this is reason enough, for some, to peer in suspicion at every Memon who passes. Which is odd. Because we Indians remember the enormous stock swindle of the early '90s, prime accused by name Mehta. Very common name Mehta. Yet a college buddy who wears that name has never reported people staring at him. Hell, it was when I was in college that the hitch-hiking teenaged siblings in Delhi, Sanjay and Geeta Chopra, were picked up and murdered, plunging a city into grief for months. Perpetrators of that horror: one Billa and one Ranga. None of us even thought of looking strangely at Professor Ranga, dinning third-year electrical engineering into our bored heads.
Believe me, I could go on. Between us, my college chums and I could have put together a minor dictionary of Indian names. Not just us, it's the same with any Indian college. Many of those names can be found attached to people accused of major Indian crimes.
But it's "Memon" – Muslim "Memon" – that gets the double takes. Though to be fair, I should point out that the Hindu name "Godse" will get odd looks to this day. That, because one Godse shot a man dead in 1948. A man we called Mahatma.
Home from NYC, musing about Memon, Godse, Ruby Foo's and an India that has changed, I had my once-in-several-months run-in with a journalist I know. He edits a well-known Bombay paper that we all pretend to despise, but that we all read nevertheless. He also writes thoughtful pieces on his true passion: the game of cricket. But from meetings and conversations over several years, I have come to see him as more than "just" a cricket writer, whatever that may mean. He thinks about, and writes thoughtful pieces on, many other things around us.
Some of his most effective, evocative writing has come when he has drawn on cricket to speak – sometimes allegorically, yet somehow always directly – of an India that has changed.
This is a Memon too. No, he has told me no stories of strange looks.
We meet this time because he is a speaker at a Sunday morning symposium that I helped organize. The symposium's theme is "Wake up and Act." It's meant to be an appeal to citizens to do just that: take greater part in civic and political affairs, give some thought to what citizenship in India means. His fellow speakers – one a retired bureaucrat known for his integrity, the other another well-known journalist – relate incidents from their experiences, their battles. Dismaying experiences, hard but often inspiring battles. The audience is rapt, breaking several times into appreciative applause.
The Memon on stage, he chooses a different tack. He decides to make his point the way he does best: drawing on cricket. And the story he tells is from the 1936 Indian cricket tour to England, our second time playing international cricket in the country we were simultaneously battling to win freedom from. He heard the story from one of the protagonists himself. And this is that story.
In those days, you need to know, Indian cricket lived and moved to the tune of Indian royalty, and the price cricket had to pay was captaincy. Royalty in this case was the Maharajah of a tiny state called Vizianagaram, and indeed: Vizzy, as His Highness was known, was captain of the 1936 team. No matter that from all accounts, including this Sunday morning's, Vizzy's cricketing abilities ranked somewhere near mine. That's right, no matter. Vizzy wanted to be captain, Vizzy had sponsored the team, Vizzy would be captain.
But his performances soon told the truth. He really could not hold a place in the team. In fact, he really did not belong on the same cricket field as his teammates. By halfway through the tour, anyone with his eyes open knew that the team could not afford a patron prince as captain. Or certainly not this patron prince. Murmurs began about passing the captaincy back to the man who should have had it all along. Captain on the 1932 tour and vice-captain now, this was the spectacular and still legendary cricketer Colonel Cottari Kanakaiya – every Indian cricket fan's beloved "CK" – Nayudu.
Vizzy would not let go. But he heard the murmurs and they burned him up. The insult, the humiliation! No matter that he had brought it on himself. The prince turned, as princes must, to Machiavellian machination. Why not undermine his own team, so that his poor performances might pass unnoticed? During the Manchester match between colony and colonizer, the princely mind went to work.
The brightest stars in the 1936 Indian team were two young batsmen, Vijay Merchant and Syed Mushtaq Ali. Pay attention to those names, now: as any Indian will tell you, the first is Hindu, the second Muslim. Pay attention as well to the times they were playing in: just 11 years before India wrested independence from the British, mistrust between its two major religions had already fueled the demand for a separate Muslim Pakistan. The demand fueled more mistrust. On the cycle went, its legacy spattering blood even today. Item: 1993 Bombay bomb blasts.
Back in Manchester ... the first half of the match had left India in a deep hole. In the form of Mushtaq and Merchant, India was about to go to bat, trying to save the game. And Vizzy had a plan.
First, he called Merchant to his room. "Watch out for Mushtaq," he told the young hope, "you can't trust him! He'll run you out." Merchant, naturally, was puzzled. "Why do you say that?" he asked. Vizzy shot back: "He's Muslim, after all!" That explained everything.
Next up, Vizzy brought in Mushtaq Ali. "Don't trust Merchant," Vizzy said, puzzling Mushtaq just as much as he had Merchant, "that Bania is going to run you out." Yep, in this case the label "Bania" – a Hindu trader caste – explained it all.
What was Vizzy doing here? Making runs in cricket is a two-person exercise. A lack of coordination or trust between those two can result in a swift "run out", analogous to being tagged out in baseball. So at a delicate stage of a major match, Vizzy had managed to sow doubts in the heads of his two stars, doubts that they could rely on each other. And he had done it by using the same wedge that would, a decade later, cleave a subcontinent and leave a million slaughtered. Religion.
But at this particular delicate stage, Merchant and Mushtaq did something right. "Luckily", said editor Memon from his Sunday morning podium, "luckily, they decided to talk to each other." Doing so, they realized what Vizzy was up to. "Whatever else happens," they agreed before walking out to bat, "we will not run each other out!"
The rest, someone said, was history. Together, Merchant and Mushtaq scored 203 elegant runs. That, said editor Memon, is still remembered as one of the finest cricketing partnerships ever. And no, neither of them was run out. At close of play, India had posted a healthy score, easily fighting off defeat.
As an aside, Vizzy was on the field when the match ended, not having scored a run. He did play the next match. But he must have read the writing on the wall in Manchester itself. He never played for India again.
But why recall him? The moment belonged to Merchant and Mushtaq. They talked, they trusted each other. They disregarded a whispering demagogue who was bent on dividing them, on turning them against each other. They built a heroic, historic, partnership together. The allegory comes through.
And for all those reasons, and because an editor Memon told this story, and because Mushtaq himself savoured it enough to relate to that editor Memon sixty years on, and because a college chum Memon was so matter-of-fact about the suspicion he now senses "back home", and because of allegory, and because Memon and Merchant and Mushtaq are merely Indian names – yes, for all those reasons, I wanted to write this essay. To see if the strands I had mused about for a month might come together.
Yes, India has changed, and greatly. But maybe we can choose not to run each other out.
Reminds me when yesterday I mentioned that my Boss' name is Roshan (he is hindu) and immediately my mother wanted to know if he was muslim. I didn't even think about that, but I've noticed incidents like this among my ABCD AND Desi friends.
That is one of the most moving posts I've read on your blog. Fortunately or unfortunately, people can and do parse entire cultures, associations and prejudice through last names.
master storytelling !
Superb story. More such please.
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