Bullets in Bollywood: No Eid for me

This is the text of my recent op-ed on Huffington Post about the Bombay attacks.
You can post comments directly on Huff here

On this Eid-al-Adha, the Muslim festival of the sacrifice, I wonder what aspect of my identity troubles me more: the Indian, the Muslim, or both. And is there more to those troublesome questions as well--perhaps willingly being away from the homeland?

For at least a year now, I have very loudly proclaimed the virtues of my religion, which I know are many. I have spoken about a Jihad, for love. I have even made a film called just that. I am profoundly aware that Hindus AND Muslims AND Christians AND Jews AND Sikhs died in Bombay. But I also know that today, Eid-al-Adha, is an annual event that I will not celebrate.

Ever since I became a "prominent Muslim living in America" (quoted from some recent journalistic queries) I get all kinds of email alerts and messages, often unsolicited. So today, in the 1429th year of Islam on this planet with another Hajj ending, the emails continue. One informs me that the (until recently, Hindu) kingdom of Nepal now has its own Quran in Nepalese to be widely distributed in Nepal, Bhutan and Burma! Another informs me that Indian Muslims have been marching in protest of November 26th. I am asked again to join yet another new group called "Muslims for Peace," this time in India informing me that they were the group that pushed the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind to support the idea of not burying the "terrorists" on Indian soil. Yet another tells me that a teenage Muslim student in a Delhi school was asked if she is Pakistani when she arrived at school wearing a head scarf, something she had always done. Meanwhile the Facebook group entitled "Can u please take Barkha off air," formed in reaction to a particularly melodramatic and histrionics-prone Indian television journalist, now has more than 3,000 members and, yes, I am invited to join, once again. A new group called "Ratan Tata should be India's Obama" now has more than 700 members. Mr. Tata is one of India's richest men--a prominent industrialist who, in addition to a lot else, also owns the beleaguered Taj Hotel. I have been invited to join both groups repeatedly and until I do so, it seems I will get reminders about their increasing popularity. In addition, during the last two weeks, I have seriously been on the verge of becoming a self-hating Muslim--perhaps a new New York "-ism" to join the ranks of all those self-hating Jews. And then, there are way too many "Eid Mubarak" messages. The butter on my almost burnt toast is a detailed message from a group that calls itself "Serenity Fountain" and sends me daily missives on how to be a better Muslim. This email detailing the right way for the ritual sacrifice of "smaller animals" on this Eid ul Adha seems like the final straw. The message is anything but serene and I wonder if I should add them to my spam box. They explain thoughtfully:

"First a knee-deep hole is dug. The animal to be killed for qurban (sacrifice) is blindfolded with a piece of cloth. It is made to lie on its left side with its face and throat towards the qibla. Its throat is brought near the hole. The ankles of its front legs are fastened together with one of its hind legs. The takbir of 'Iyd is said three times. Next the following words are said: 'Bismillahi Allahu akbar.' Then, if the animal is not a camel, its throat is cut at any place. While saying 'Bismillahi,' the 'h' must be articulated with due stress and aspiration. In this case it is not necessary to bear in mind that it is Allah's name. If one does not pronounce the "h" clearly enough, one has to bear in mind that one is saying Allah's name. If one does not do this either, the animal becomes as unclean as a carrion. It is not halal to eat it. For this reason, we should not say, 'Allah ta'ala,' but should accustom ourselves to articulating the 'h' always clearly by saying, 'Allahu ta'ala."

In the Quran, this Eid, mostly known as "Bakr Eid" in the majority Muslim Indian sub-continent--if you count Muslim numbers in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh together--comes from Bakra, the goat, the animal of choice for slaughter. The Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham to the Jews and Christians) was about to slaughter his son to God (against the wishes of Shaitan or Satan) when God in very timely fashion intervened and provided him a lamb instead.

I have been a proud, meat-eating Muslim all my life but the details of the slaughter spelt out in the English language make my stomach churn and I think of some of my Muslim friends who have turned vegetarian. I read the message again and wonder, "What about the 'h' in "hate?" For me the last two weeks have not been particularly good to be a Muslim. Even as the closing rituals of the Hajj are being performed in Mecca, a few twenty-something Muslim extremists imported, presumably from Pakistan, with cutesy, clean-shaven faces have shattered my identity to its very core. I know that today, rivers of animal blood will flow down streets in Muslim communities around the world.

As a child I remember seeing this blood both fascinated and horrified. On moving to the "free world" it was clear, though, that slaughtering animals was not just the prerogative of the poor of the "third world," but was equally celebrated in an annual animal slaughtering ritual made even more miserable for some, by being the one Thursday when escape from "family" was inescapable. Most recently I was reminded about the slaughter elements of the annual American Thanksgiving ritual, when Sarah Palin decided to use it as a backdrop for a press conference. Eid-al- Adha was never my favorite Muslim festival, Thanksgiving is not my favorite American one either.

Ironically, this Thanksgiving, as their turkeys basted, Americans learnt about the bloodbath in Bombay as some kind of Breaking News non-stop holiday special. And now almost two weeks later, this other Eid of Islam for me, as an Indian Muslim, is only about blood.

The city formerly known as Bombay amongst its 19 million inhabitants, also counts the world's largest film industry and stars of mega proportions mostly unknown to the ordinary American but instantly recognizable in Jakarta, Kabul, Marrakesh and Nairobi. For many years this particular film industry was ruled by three muscle-bound Muslims all sharing the last name Khan. At least two of them (Shahrukh and Amir) still carry the dreams of millions on their shoulders. On this Eid, many of Bollywood's Muslim stars, as India's frenetic and recently reviled media are reporting, will not celebrate the annual slaughter fest but wear black armbands instead. The two aforementioned Khans have already spoken out to the media machine--one talking of the real Jihad (and I feel momentary but proud vindication for the title of my recent film A Jihad for Love, coming from one of them). Not to be outdone, the third Khan in Bollywood (Salman) has now also spoken out against "Islamic terrorism." I guess they have to watch their backs, as India is no stranger to retribution towards what the media always used to call "the minority community."

The blasts in the city, which I refuse to call Mumbai have shaken up the very core of my Muslim and my Hindu identities. Schizophrenic at the best of times, these identities could not, I feel, find an easy home in the India that now seems to be reacting to its own 9-11. As a child I was ashamed of my mixed parentage. As an adult, having made some peace with my own Islam, I now feel despair. As an adult, I chose to not succumb to what I believe was the Hindu nationalist agenda of stripping names of cities to reflect a false, pan-Hindu national identity, when Bombay became Mumbai, Madras became Chennai, and Calcutta became Kolkata. I was also acutely aware of the desire to wipe away the last vestiges of colonialism in this frantic renaming process that seemed to have political sanction. I now wonder if I was and am right in choosing to do so.

Watching India's booming (and "boom" they do, with some of the journalists screaming into their microphones) news networks on YouTube over the last two weeks, I have felt that melodrama may be the central defining aspect of Indian identity, probably fueled by entire childhoods framed by the dream machines in Bollywood. Many of the new stars of television--some with whom I worked in a former life as a television journalist, when the concept of the 24-hour news cycle was still fresh and clean--seem to have taken great joy in accosting hapless people with family members trapped inside burning hotels, always asking them how they felt. Many explained the movements of the "terrorists" and those sent in to conquer them in great detail as the "operations" continued and allegedly as "the terrorists" watched while planning their next moves within the hotels. The same journalist who now has so many Facebookers starting a cult of hating her, in her reportage "even put her arm around a conservative Muslim man" (quote from FaceBook) during the sixty-hour media circus.

The bloodbath in Bombay thus led to unprecedented media mayhem in India and certainly in the US as well. It was certainly enjoyable to see Indian New Yorkers of every shape, size and political opinion pontificating on India's 9-11 on the networks here. And as frantic American shoppers trampled a Walmart worker to death, we got a brief respite from the bombs in Bombay. I felt ashamed that my country had never before elicited such attention in the American media. Most Americans were certainly not informed in such detail about the train bombings in Bombay in July that killed more than 200. And the Gujarat riots of 2002, where more than 2000 people, the majority of them Muslim, were killed also did not occupy the Breaking News cycle on American television with such intensity. But as millions of turkeys were slaughtered and then roasted and basted in America a couple Thursdays ago, the media in this country were obsessed with the live television intensity of reporters from their "sister networks in India," standing and screaming into their microphones outside the Taj. I watched horrified as CNN did a breaking news phoner with a man in Istanbul who said, "My parents went into the hotel corridor and identified themselves as Muslims to the terrorists... My father even did the prayer...and they are now safe. I know, because the terrorists just asked them to lock themselves up in their room." That for me was a defining moment in feeling the Muslim shame I feel today.

As we in the US entered the "holidays" and the endless holiday parties, I listened in horror to a diamond- and daiquiri-dripping Indian socialite opine on how the blasts in Bombay would improve box office numbers for everybody's new favorite movie, Slumdog Millionaire. She was just one of the many "deeply concerned" Indians and Pakistanis in the room that night pledging to hold marches and benefits.

In the two weeks that have followed, much has been made of India's own 9-11 now uniformly being called 26-11 by the Indian media. Much blogging angst has also been spilt over the fact that India's elite who haunted plush five-star hotels were the target and therefore the media hysteria. And in fact, the presence of Americans, British and Israelis in the middle of the mayhem certainly can be seen as contributing factors to the media blitz here in the States. Watching the carnage unfold on YouTube and the websites of the 24-hour television networks in India--now too many to name--I have also been horrified by the quality, or rather lack of it, in the reportage. Friends in the media here point out that it is "immature." I wonder what they think of cable television in this country. This I know: Sixty hours of Breaking News madness on Indian television has been enough to get millions of young Indians to collectively vomit on social networking groups and in public protests. The signs at these protests have been emailed to me and leave little doubt in my mind that the world's largest democracy is going to have to seriously shake up its political and media elite if it is to survive.

As I write this, another email "alert" tells me that in New Delhi this Friday some prominent journalists and filmmakers will gather to debate in a discussion entitled "Who is to blame for media hysteria on terror? Journalists or viewers?"

This, perhaps, is reason to cheer and perhaps, indeed, also is the fact that the "Bomb! Bomb! Pakistan" rhetoric has been somewhat muted. But as an Indian Muslim, why should I celebrate at all?

I also realize that the sense of shame that overcomes me may have a lot to do with being Indian and choosing to live far away from it all, somehow "protected" in New York. As my mailbox continues to flow over with Eid blessings and wishes, I wonder how many Muslims it is going to take to end this bloodbath in the name of the Quran. I wonder how many of us indeed are going back to the Quran and back to the Imams that define right and wrong for us with the questions that we need to ask more urgently than ever before.

In India, many years ago, I knew that the line was drawn in blood from 1947 on with the hurried and horrific re-mapping of the sub-continent. The line, amongst other things, was between the cow-worshiping Hindus and the cow-eating Muslims. On this festival of sacrifice, which I, like those hot Bollywood superstars, am choosing not to celebrate, I wonder how much more blood it will take.

It remains easy, of course, to pontificate from thousands of miles away.

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