Just days after the train blasts in Bombay, Altaf (name changed) turned 50. I am talking to him that day, so when he mentions this, I say, without really thinking, "Happy birthday!" Only to realize that he has not stopped talking, and is saying: "I'm not celebrating my birthday this year. Very close friend of mine died in the blasts."
This close friend was a man who worked in finance, left work for home that evening and was blown up on the train. Not a Muslim, like Altaf, which has some relevance to the story. His wife and Altaf work together in a school. They've known each other for years.
I say, inadequately, that I'm sorry for his friend's death.
Altaf says, "You know what? I went over to the house to be with the family. His wife introduced me to everyone as Altaf-bhai."
There's a noticeably odd tone in his voice as he says this. It's almost as if he was surprised by that "Altaf-bhai", while knowing he shouldn't be. This was, after all, a close family friend, and it was natural that she would call him that. Yet the immediate aftermath of dreadful atrocity is a strange time, when people fall prey to prejudice and easy finger-pointing. Must be Muslims who were responsible, they are always responsible, so there had better be some introspection among Muslims, and why haven't they condemned the blasts enough? (Never enough). Common thoughts, expressed often.
Then this woman, in her moment of profound grief. Treats Altaf like the close friend he is, like always.
So the odd tone in his voice.