Death’s calling card

I spent the few hours I got at home in the last few days hugging my daughter and telling her that I love her.


Staring at death and grief non-stop for over three days has amplified what I feel for those I cherish.


As I write this, the anti-terrorist commando operations across Mumbai have just ended. But the cloak of fear still covers us.


There’s no gainsaying that Mumbai’s spirit will never be broken.


But, like New York after 9/11, will the city I love ever be the same again? Will I ever again visit the Sea Lounge at the Taj without glancing over my shoulder? When I look out across the harbour from there, will I ever feel the same mix of serenity, joy and pride? Or, will there also be an amalgamation of pain?


When I walk through Colaba Causeway, will it still be as much fun taking in the sight of hawkers, the Victorian structures and the presence of the colonial ghost? Will a drive past Machhimar Nagar, where the terrorists landed in their dinghy, conjure up the same memories — of my childhood, when I passed it every day on the way to school, hoping to spot a catch of fish or whales that would get beached there from time to time?


It’s like 1993 all over again. I remember the day after the serial blasts that rocked Mumbai then. We drove by the Worli blast site and saw entire facades of buildings ripped away. Fans, blades crumpled by the heat of the bombs, stood like tragic sentinels to the memories of lives that had been snuffed out there.


A cold, icy hand grips my heart as I try to think of what it must have been like at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus on the night of November 26 as two men walked in and dispensed death. I saw a photograph of one of the gunmen, the crazed look in his eyes. Could he have belonged to any religion at all? What faith could his heart have held?


At this moment, I am overwhelmed by fatigue, drained emotionally. The chronicling of a tragedy does that to you. I should know — in my increasingly long career as a journalist, I’ve brought out far more editions on such horrific events than I would have liked to.

Change we must

This is a piece Shahid Latif, editor of Inquilab, asked me to write for his paper. It was part of a series on what the ‘Indian Muslim Should do now’. It was translated into Urdu — a first for me — by Shahid saab and published in Inquilab on November 2, 2008.


I interviewed the Dalai Lama just after the US began its post-9/11 campaign in Afghanistan. What he told me still rings in my ears. “We often forget we’re all in this together,” he said, referring to our stay here on Earth.


The journey of the Indian Muslim, from Partition, to December 6, 1992, and from then to today has been a ride through a perfect storm. My view is that we sit perched atop the crest of a mammoth wave that will either send us crashing to the bottom of the ocean or one from which we will sail to calm waters.


It will depend on how well we steer our ship.


It is the nature of choice that in being forced to make one, there is discomfort. The Indian Muslim finds himself in exactly in that situation.


The choice is this: Give up hope and rebel. Or effect a positive change.


We live in an age of bomb blasts, a right-wing threat and an increasing gulf between the haves and have-nots. There could not be a more dangerous combination. And the Muslim is at the centre of it. What should he do now?


As a business management student, I got familiar with a technique known as SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) Analysis that is often used by firms to gauge their environment and how well they are doing. It may be useful to apply the technique to the community.


Strengths: At 150 million, Muslims may be a ‘minority’ in India, but in fact outnumber populations of most countries. The numbers cannot be ignored. Muslims form a potent political force. They also consider themselves Indian; they don’t — or at least shouldn’t — feel they are in the wrong place even if it’s the wrong time. India is home. Also, their faith is strong, and among the younger generation at least there is a quest to underpin it with a modern view of the world.



Weaknesses: As a political force, they are splintered. There is no unity of views on the way forward. Quality leadership is conspicuous by its absence.


There is a huge gap in education levels. This is not just a weakness, but a serious threat. If Muslims don’t make an effort to up literacy on a war footing, the battle will be lost before it begins. And I don’t mean just primary education. Higher education — especially for girls — is critical. The community could rapidly find itself underqualified for a fast-changing world, making it turn further inward.


There is another serious weakness: Many tend to see everything through the prism of religion. I will never forget the experience I had while waiting for my wife in a spa lobby. Some staffers were chatting there and one of them mentioned that Shah Rukh Khan reads the newspaper while sitting on the toilet seat. While everybody else burst out into giggles, a Muslim gentleman flew into a rage and said: “If he does that, then Shah Rukh is not a true Muslim. Islam does not permit such things.”


I was appalled.


On the face of it, it was an incident to be laughed at and forgotten. On the other hand, it highlights how seeing life through the prism of faith is taken to extremes. It is this attitude that worries me because the community is then seen to be irrational, which is only one step away from extremist.


Opportunities: There is an opportunity to create educational and commercial institutions like Islamic banks that can make a real difference. There is an entrepreneurial streak in the community that can be used to great advantage. Sometimes, big finance is not the answer. There is an urgent need for a microfinance institution. It may achieve what government sops and reservations have not. Even small sects have grown to be prosperous and powerful. There’s no reason a great faith cannot do the same.



Threats: The community has an image problem. And it’s not doing enough to counter it. I have already mentioned education levels. Parts of the community — and not just the not-so-well-to-do sections — seem to be vulnerable to fundamentalist rhetoric. This is disastrous. Again, education will help. The right-wing baiting of the community is being responded to all too often. This will only escalate the tensions. Concentrate on bettering your lot.


The debate within the community seems to centre around only religion. There are other things to talk about. Open your minds to other issues: inclusive growth, education (here I go again), women’s empowerment, business, health.


This is, of course, no socio-political thesis. It merely skims the surface of what can — and needs to — be done. All life-altering change is difficult, but change we must. Not by weakening our faith or redefining our core, but by thinking differently. It’s an idea whose time has come; in fact, it’s long overdue.