Anywhere else, you cannot help thinking, the Irani Masjid would be a major tourist attraction. Here in Bombay, this gorgeous blue-tiled beauty sits on a nondescript road that meanders through Dongri, massage parlour on one side, tea shop on the other, apparently unknown outside this area. It's on my third visit that I find a side door open and a short friendly man who beckons. "This way!" says Mr Abid. "Come in and take a look!"
The Irani Masjid on Jail Road in Dongri. Pic: author.
Inside, it's reminiscent of Lucknow's Imam Bara, though on a far reduced scale. Neat courtyard, rooms lining the sides, long rectangular pond, mausoleum of sorts at the other end. Peaceful.
I can't help that last thought, because this third visit is only days after the horrific train blasts of July 11, and I'm in the funk I get into from time to time. I'm so tired of the hatred and violence of the world I live in. A great big cosmic thought, sure, but in this little haven of calm -- and yes, in this obviously Muslim part of my city which I'm told is unsafe for being so -- it comes naturally. Just why isn't this place better known?
Nearby, two men are sitting in their tempo. What're you doing, I ask. "Waiting for work," they say. "Since the blasts, nobody wants to hire us. Everything is down." ("Sab kuch down hai" are the exact words one of them uses to express this thought). And what are people here saying after the blasts, I ask, feeling that I simply must find a less naive way to ask this. "What will they say?" asks the younger man, Shahjahan. "Nobody likes it, everyone's frightened. Take me: I had to walk my daughter to school here all the way from Wadala, because the taxi drivers all refused to come."
His companion, Nazeer, says: "See those policemen, sahib?" (There's a detachment of singularly idle-looking cops at the street corner). He goes on:
- "Only here! You won't find them in Umerkhadi, just across the street! I want to know, why do they trouble only the Muslims? You remember the 1992 riots, sahib? As much rioting in Umerkhadi as here! So why the policemen here? And do you know how many Muslims from here gave their clothes to cover the bodies?"
• It says about a city
• Talking across the divide No, I don't know. Shahjahan takes over: "And do you know what's happened since then? I now feel safe only in Muslim areas. Just like they feel in their areas." He doesn't say whom he means by that "they". Doesn't need to, of course. It's evident. "If I go to Dadar market," says Shahjahan, "I'm not sure I'll come back alive."
I begin spluttering some homily about how there's no reason to feel that kind of fear. Nazeer ignores me and comes back to the blasts. "You know, people should understand that these terrorists are not Muslims. Nobody here considers them Muslims."
That kind of sentiment, over and over again from person after random person in these parts. Sitting in nearby Cafe Khushali over delicious kawa coffee in an elegant little glass, looking out at a poster that advertises "Al-Serat Tours" to Iran/Iraq/Syria for Rs.49000, but "only Iran" for only Rs.25000 -- days after the blasts -- how much more normal can things be? Sitting there, a fellow drinker says: "Look outside. See how few people there are?"
Now to me, this seems like a bustling street -- plenty of walkers, vendors, handcart-pushers, idlers. So I say so. "No, no!" says the fellow drinker. "On normal days, the public goes past ba-ba-bum, ba-ba-bum! These blasts have scared everyone." (Now he switches to English) "This was the worst act! They are not Muslims!"
That's certainly true. And on the door of the Cafe is a 4x6 green sticker that I later notice is also stuck on several other walls, windows, mirrors and doors, all over this neighbourhood. It reads:
- Don't Create Mischief on Earth (Al-Quraan Al-Baqarah 11)
- To Act Against Public Interest Spreading Terrorism, Killing Innocents,
- Destroying Properties is in fact, Creating Mischief.
Then I stroll past a dilapidated building on a side street. I don't see the green sticker anywhere on it, but I do see a large black sign displayed prominently above its front door, and this is what it says verbatim:
- In this building any (Bachelor) are strictly restricted from purchase of room or on live license. Only Family is Allowed.
Who was it, Cliff Richard, who sang "I'll be a Bachelor Boy/Until my dying day"? No way we'd find him in this building.
People offering special prayers post-blasts, at the Syed Haji Abdul Rahman Shahbaba Dargah (built 1918) in Dongri. Pic: author.
Nazeer and Shahjahan take a break from waiting for work and walk me to a roadside tea stall near the rear of the Dongri Children's Home. I'm struck immediately by what's on the wall behind the stove: images of Hindu gods. In these parts? The stall belongs to stocky Mohan Sharma, about 40, ex-Rajasthan by way of Nariman Point. Yes, he used to run a canteen in some Nariman Point office building. It folded when the clientele began asking for meat dishes. "The day that happened, I gave the keys back and came here. I'm a Brahmin, after all."
He and his brother have run this place for the 20 years since.
Yes, but why here, in this place occupied by those ... well, those other people? "These people are like my brothers. It's a very good atmosphere, and they take care of me." And what happened during those riots, Mohan-bhai, back in '92? "What happened? The people here told me, you don't worry, we'll protect you. Sahib, ten days they gave me food! This is my family."
Walk on, to visit 79 year old Shaukatali (name changed) in his family's one-room tenement. The overwhelming impression in the room is of -- of all things -- cats. Back firmly to us, one is asleep up on a shelf. Another is asleep in a deep basket on the floor. Third walks nonchalantly in the door. Fourth peeks from under the bed. "And there are about ten more outside that we feed," says Shaukatali. Plus several stray dogs outside whom they also look after. That kind of family, one that cares for animals.
I get more of a sense of that from the small plaque on the wall near the door:
- Allah bless our home
- Bless these walls wherein we dwell
- The trees and flowers too
- Bless the things that make our house.
Bless those cats, yes. What do you think, I ask Shaukatali, about the blasts, what's it been like afterwards for you all here?
His thirty-something daughter answers first: "What to do, people will suspect us! Because every time there's something like this there's some Mohammed-bhai Jaffer-bhai involved!" Shaukatali, a friend who's visiting, the daughter, her son, maybe even the cats -- they all burst into rocking, gasping laughter. Laughing and laughing at this state they are in, automatically suspect.
"I'll tell you this," says Shaukatali, when he's stopped laughing. Serious now, so's his daughter. "Things were so much better in the past. Food was cheap, and who asked who's Hindu, who's Muslim?"
Not quite what I had expected to hear, but by now, I know where he's coming from, why he's saying this. He must be tired and dejected -- every bit as much as I am -- with the faith-tinted glasses we all learn to wear.
Which past are you talking about, I ask.
"British! I was happier in British times. Nobody cared that I was Muslim. But after '47, everything has changed. Hindu this, Muslim that! We don't believe this killing is taught by any religion!"
Yet the killings happen. And for too many of us, they come to characterise an entire religion, come to taint everybody who follows it. That's the profound reality of the Muslim areas of Bombay, the burden their residents must learn to carry. (Sometimes by laughing out loud at it). The feeling that an entire city, an entire country, maybe the whole world, sees them as responsible for terrorism.
In Dongri, I spend a lot of time wondering what it must be to live like that. To know that whatever happens, the men and women around me are assumed to be apologists for, sympathisers with, terrorism.
That's why the effort to introduce me to Mohan the tea-man. That's why the green stickers that are everywhere. That's why the large banner on Mohamedali Road:
- We want peace no terror
- Save humanity, condemn terrorism.
In no other part of my city have I seen such a banner. Tells me a few things.