[Reader-list] Watch that bun-maska!

Dilip D'Souza -- Sarai dilip.sarai at gmail.com
Fri Apr 21 12:47:02 IST 2006

Dear all,

In case anyone noticed, I missed my March (2nd) posting. Various
reasons that I won't get into here. But I intend to make up in good
measure (I hope). Here's something I just finished for this list (that
I'm also trying to get published) as part of my project. Comments
welcome. And more soon.

dilip d'souza


Watch that bun-maska!

Strolling through the crowded streets of this city one morning last
week, a man tapped me on the shoulder. "Are you from the
Municipality?" he asked, perhaps because I had my little pad out and
was writing down the words on an odd sign I had just seen. (A minor
hobby). No, I said, I'm not from the Municipality. It's just that I've
always wanted to walk around in this city's neighbourhoods, and this
is one such walk.

He smiled, then chatted for several minutes about the sign I had
noticed ("Chicken Shop: Be Carefull With Wrong Weight"), the empty
plot behind us where clearly some structure had once stood and been
demolished, the heat of the April sun ... Then he smiled some more
still, said "Good luck!", shook my hand, and walked off.

Why do I mention this fairly routine encounter? Only because it got me
thinking about an article I read a couple of years ago, published by a
very impressive-sounding think tank. Its introductory blurb described
the article as an "analysis" of the threat that Islamic fundamentalism
posed to India. Its US-based author had written to me, urging me to
read it and "educate" myself about this threat. Introducing himself,
he claimed he was an "accomplished nuclear physicist", and also an
"expert on Islamic fundamentalism."

Now guys that refer to themselves as "accomplished" and "expert"
invariably set alarm bells ringing in my mind. As in this case. Sure
enough, this man's article was -- how do I put this nicely? -- an
almost comical mish-mash of paranoia, twisted figures and lies that
any self-respecting think tank editor should have flung in the trash.

No wonder the man had to apply those laudatory words to himself. If
this bit of writing was any indication of his capabilities, nobody
else in their right mind would.

But it was one sentence in this concoction, in particular, that came
to mind during my stroll. "Non-Muslims," wrote the accomplished
nuclear physicist, "rarely venture into areas of India where Muslims
are in large numbers, fearing unpredictable, irrational behaviour or
violence directed at them."

There are quarters, you see, where bald assertions like this one
qualify as "analysis".

Anyway: here I was with a couple of friends, certainly in an area
"where Muslims are in large numbers." This was the heart of Dongri,
east of JJ Hospital. In three hours walking about, here's some of what
we found. Bustling shops. Phone booths. Three men ironing clothes who
asked us to take a photo of them. Young men zipping about on loud
motorbikes, weaving dangerously close to pedestrians. Street vendors
hawking trinkets. Owner of a massage place who told us, grumpily and
to our great disappointment, that he had stopped offering massages
only days previously; though if we wanted, we could pay him ten rupees
and have a bath. (We declined). Shop-owner who chuckled when we asked
for "Pepsi", not the multinational drink, but the common kiddie word
for a frozen popsicle.

And a man who chatted genially and shook my hand.

Which of all this qualified as "unpredictable, irrational behaviour or
violence" directed at us?

Yes, I'm a non-Muslim, as is my wife and everyone in my family and the
two friends I was walking with that day. For work, for a meal, for a
special meal on a Ramzan night, for weddings, and even for no
particular reason, all of us and many other non-Muslims I know have
walked plenty of times through Muslim areas of India -- so much that
"rarely venture" doesn't apply. Not once have we feared
"unpredictable, irrational behaviour or violence" directed at us; not
once has such behaviour or violence ever broken out. What we
experienced in Dongri was just the normal, pretty much what we would
experience in any densely packed urban neighbourhood in India. So
normal, it didn't even really matter to us that this was a Muslim
area. Much like Thakurdwar or Matharpacady, where we had been
strolling two previous mornings, it was just another pocket of a great
city. That's all.

What explains the paranoia of the accomplished nuclear physicist?

It matters to me, because a journalist friend's recent efforts to buy
a flat were stymied because of his Muslim name. He has ended up buying
in a Muslim area. (Not Dongri, but one like that). Yet now the same
paranoia that turned him away, that left him with no choice but to
live "where Muslims are in large numbers", will also tell the world to
be wary of violence if they enter his neighbourhood.

Now Islamic fundamentalism may or may not be a huge threat to India, I
have no idea. I'm no expert. But when its critics use their own
paranoid prejudice to paint it as such, and dress that up as an
"expert" analysis, there's no reason in the world to take them
seriously, even if they are accomplished nuclear physicists. And if
you look at them and their writing like that, you'll know that the
only irrational behaviour is theirs.

And if you walk around the Dongris of this world, you'll know that
they are no different from the Thakurdwars or Matharpacadys. That they
are populated by men and women and kids, much like you.

Then again, something I ate in Dongri gave me a mild stomach upset. I
can see the words in a future "expert" analysis: "Non-Muslims rarely
venture into areas of India where Muslims are in large numbers,
fearing tummy upsets from their bun-maska."

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