Thursday, November 27, 2008

Bombay meri jaan

How ironic. I follow up a post about the joy of being Muslim in Bombay with shock and sadness as militant Islamics wreak havoc on the city I grew up in.

The images of the burning Taj Mahal hotel, the myriad places strewn with blood and personal affects, the army running around with guns, people fleeing have been playing over and over and over in the media and it has been chilling.

Leave them alone, leave us alone. I want to scream at the terrorists. What harm has this great city done to you?

All Mumbai or Bombay as I still refer to it does is survive, no thrive, despite everything--despite the crowds, the dirt, the hardships of living day to day. People find ways to smile there in the worst of conditions. They celebrate every small happiness.

It's the nerve center of the country. It never sleeps. It's where everyone flocks to.

It's where life happens.

How dare they! How dare they try and bring it down.

That India manages to stay a thriving democracy, stumbling but making strides forward is a miracle given the troubled region it is situated in. The country has to take action now, sweep with a blow the ones responsible for this.

All that will take time, planning, calm heads. Hopefully the Indian politicians (who my friend on Facebook colorfully remarked should be exchanged for the hostages) will show some good sense. Hopefully riots won't break out between Hindus and Muslims in the city.

Many hostages have been released the news reports now say.

I pray that no more lives are taken.

But one thing I have faith in is that the people of Bombay will get up and go back to work just as soon as they can. They'll go back and claim their lives, their normalcy. They'll give so much blood to the blood banks that like in the troubled early nineties, the banks will ask people to please stop coming in--the need has been fulfilled.

Bombay will rise above, overcome this tragedy and move on.

For that's what Mumbai-kars do best.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Of the joy it means to be Muslim

I watched a charming bonbon of a movie last night--a Palestinian Israeli collaboration called 'The Band's Visit.' It was about an Egyptian Police band who had landed in small town Israel. There was no talk of war in the movie, no Gaza strip, no politics, no bloodshed, just conversations and humanity.

I also finished 'The Kite Runner,' recently, a much more somber affair but was thrilled to read the Farsi words and find most of them sounded a lot like the Urdu-Hindi I had heard growing up with Hindi movies.

And I began thinking about Muslims. Especially the Muslims I grew up hearing about, seeing, encountering. In Bombay anyway, they were always the cool folk. Or they appeared so very cool to me because we South Indians were the most uncool. I mean compare the mere name Chuppamani Iyengar to Jehangir Khan and you have it all there in a nutshell. Sure there was a ghetto Muslim area--Muhammed Ali Road--and it was like any other ghetto.

But the mainstream middle class and upper class Bombay Muslims always stood for the city's most fashionable, attractive, well spoken, polite.

The word Muslim conjured up for me and still does--Biryani (the queen of all rice dishes), A. R Rehman (of the lilting, pulsating music that resonates from rickshaws all over India), Luxurious garments covered with Zardosi, lavish fourteen day long weddings.

The word Muslim brings to mind stalwarts of my beloved music--Hindustani music--the velvet voice of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, the skilled rhythms of the adorable Zakir Hussain, the melodious strings of Amjad Ali Khan.

The word Muslim conjures up for me to this day--life lived and enjoyed to its fullest.

Utter luxury, as a well known Indian fashion designer Ritu Beri said is something, no one can beat India in. And few do it better than the Indian Muslims--starting with the Mughals and kept up today by the well to do South Bombay Boris :-).

As a young girl, I wished I'd be able to marry someone whose last name was Khan. I still don't know a cooler last name.

India houses the second largest population of Muslims in the world (after Indonesia) and despite the occasional bloody skirmish, the occasional political campaign against one faction or the other, even despite the myriad terrorist bomb blasts and attacks, we manage to live together.

We manage to rock back and forth yet stand as one nation.

How about that glut of Khans in the Hindi film industry. How cool is it that in one of the largest film industries in the world, in a majority Hindu country, the major movie stars are all named Khan, all of whom are married to Hindu women (at last count anyway). Also how many times have they played Muslim men in their movies?

A major world democracy bordered by troubled or controversial lands on all sides-Pakistan, China, Afghanistan is close by enough, the Middle east but a hop away (some parts of the middle east are more or less run by the south Indians but that's another story) and India manages to sail through these troubled seas. The Hindus manage to live with the Muslims.

But only just.

The day twenty years ago when we truly, truly didn't see much difference between the last names Ali, Fernandez and Joshi is gone. They were all merely classmates who brought to class--if we were lucky--the right sweets to share during their respective Id or Christmas or Diwali festivals.

I'd like to think that even in this turmoil ridden world, an Egyptian band going to a small Israeli village only draws attention because the band is full of somberly dressed men carrying odd sized instruments walking along the street unable to find their destination. I hope there are times when an Indian Hindu stops in remote Pakistan and says he had come by to try their legendary kabobs and is served without anyone blinking an eye.

I do know how my cousin's in-laws were received when they paid a visit to Lahore some time ago. They had left Pakistan during the partition and were visiting for the first time and guess what? The streets rang out with "We have guests from Hindostan (India), we must treat them well." Bewildered by the hospitality that poured from strangers, they spent time in Pakistan being treated with the graciousness their Muslim brethren are known for.

Maybe all we need is more movie collaborations, music crossovers (any Indian reading this must recall the furore Khaled, an Algerian created in India decades ago with his Didi!), food collaborations and more.

And Inshallah (God willing), things will change.

The word Muslim won't conjure up fear but joy, utter joy.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Yes we can!!!

Okay, this can't be avoided. Everyone is talking about it and it's historic.

As Chris Rock so eloquently put it, "THERE'S A BROTHER IN THE WHITE HOUSE!"


Seldom have I stood taller with my brown skin and foreign name as a newly minted American citizen than on Tuesday night. In India my coloring was too dark to be considered beautiful. Especially among my in-laws, I was often made to feel lesser than the paler women around. Never did a compliment escape their lips, often eyes washed over my ever too brown face and I could see bewilderment that I had made it into the clan. Here's me thumbing my nose at them.


The sun is shining and all is right with the world.

I really wouldn't have minded a stodgy older, white (sensible for the most part) man for a president either but his running mate, attractive though she maybe blinding all the beer guzzling crowd with her smug good looks. But the idea of a VP with a pregnant teenage daughter and belief that dinosaurs are a figment of one's imagination was downright scary.

Instead we have OBAMA. America is cool again (an American woman was in France or Spain and someone came up to her and hugged her thanking her for voting for Obama. She said this.) So true. This cool country that has been way too uncool is now cool again.

And history has been made.

I just ran to my local 7/11 this morning and bought a newspaper from Wednesday. I've saved this for my son to look at when twenty years from now he'll (hopefully) be shocked that this was such a big deal when he was a kid.

Yes it will be the day when this isn't historic news, when this is newsworthy but for other reasons besides color and race.

This victory meant so much to me especially because as I was watching the numbers trickling in and CNN making their predictions, I was finishing a biography of one of my favorite writers--Oscar Wilde. Wilde spent two years doing hard labor for committing what was then a vile lewd act. He had an affair with a man--Lord Alfred Douglas. His father then took Wilde to court and got him convicted. Wilde wasn't able to enjoy the success of his brilliant play, my favorite piece of all time--The importance of being earnest' or celebrate its first printing. Both the play and the printed version came out without his name on it. I cannot imagine greater pain for a writer.

After his release, he couldn't write anymore. The time in jail and the ostracism he suffered as a result had stifled the creative life out of him. He died at the age of 46. How much more could have come from the man who penned 'the picture of dorian gray' and the 'happy prince.' and numerous plays beyond compare.

How far we have come now (even though California voted to uphold the ban on gay marriage). Their fight continues but at least they won't suffer as Wilde did. Race relations aren't smoothened just because of this new elected President. No sir.

We have come far and yet how much further we have to go.

But our new President is proof indeed that what the American people made happen on Tuesday is a leap forward. All may not be right yet. But surely, in the future, taking the right steps forward, there is hope.

I cannot end without saying this about the educated, graceful, role model for all girls everywhere--Michelle Obama. She's all black, she's the first lady and she's the sister in the white house.

You go girrrrl.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Little old ladies and dirty old men

I always used to think the best of little old ladies and most little old men. They just look so harmless and adorable.

Now many old men I have had a problem in the past with in India where they sometimes grabbed my chest and derriere, even while walking alongside their wives. Horrid fellows. Here I find them staring at said body parts but at least they don't touch.

But little old ladies I had faith in as the milk of human adorable-ness and innocence. All that fluffy hair you know, and soft pink cheeks.

All that changed when I was on Devon street in Chicago with my in-laws. We were in an electronics shop deciding what brand of VCD player to get them when I tired of their discussions and stepped out. There a foot or so away by a bus stop stood the stereotypical little old lady, cherubic, rosy cheeked, dressed in fluffy clothes etc etc. She saw me and waved. I went up to her and said hello. She told me she was going somewhere to take a class and that she went everywhere she wanted without a care. How sweet, I thought. My in-laws stepped out of the store and I started to take my leave but she was just getting started. My sons live here, my daughters live there, she said.

My in-laws and husband started to walk towards us and just as soon as they were within earshot, my little old lady started talking about her late husband--he was the nicest man and then she switched gears and told me in some graphic terms how her husband and she used to ahem ahem...between the sheets and how fantastic her orgasms were. I was never more grateful for my in-laws' less than perfect English. My mother in law started to furrow her brows but seemed not fully aware of what was being said. The old woman then touched my arm and started to launch into more raunchiness when I had to throw politeness to the wind and leave her in mid-sentence. "Sorry, she was so chatty..." I said to my family and rushed them away.

I always cringed thinking about this woman, but now I wonder how prejudiced of me that was. That the conversation was totally inappropriate for a stranger aside, I was being judgmental because she was supposed to be an adorable old woman, not capable of such thought. I mean who likes to think of their parents ahem ahem. And we don't find polar bears so adorable if we see them shagging, do we?

I don't know if it's the "No sex please, we're Indian," type of thinking in me or just my preconceived notions of how someone is supposed to act and appear at a certain age that blurred my thinking.

This is one relatively harmless prejudice, if you will, but the same could be said of those prejudiced against gays for instance. The picture of two men or women having a carnal relationship is abhorrent to some. Do prejudices start this way as a distaste and slowly morph into closing your mind against that which is uncomfortable and then change even into hate.

Will such a foolish misplaced discomfort about skin prevent a good man from taking on one of the most powerful positions on the planet next week?

I thought of myself as an extremely open minded person but I do find myself cringing when I hear certain things discussed too openly, very crude jokes disturb me. Or maybe all I am is a bit of a prude. Is that just part of being civilized or should it all be out there in the open to be talked about? What is it that makes one truly liberal, uninhibited?

Maybe if I could just streak across Grant Park, I'd lose all inhibitions. My writing wouldn't be called quiet anymore since I'd be able to do more than scratch the surface of human emotion and draw blood for the editors to relish. I'd be able to bare it all in a manner of speaking.

Alas. I'll have to do it only figuratively for my (post baby) stomach sags too much and holding my breath (in order to look good while doing this) for that long would be way too hard!