My friend constantly looked over his shoulders. He had been mugged the night before and that made him suspicious of any moving object around him. I had been waiting for him in front of a wine-shop as we headed to another friend’s party. His swollen nose bore the marks of being punched and kicked by the muggers as they failed to get hold of his purse and cell-phone. His efforts at constructing a coherent narrative showed how traumatized he still was. As he was being dragged behind a tree by the two muggers, a car slowed down just in time making the duo flee.
Immediately after the incident, my friend had called me up. I could sense how shaky he was. As it often happens, the very first thing we do after an incident of this sort is to identify the perpetrators in terms of their race, ethnicity, religion, and other markers. In India, after every communal riot (and I am not trying to compare communal riots with mugging. In my opinion, however, there is a deep underlying similarity as I consider them both to be criminal acts), people are always eager to find which community ‘threw the first stone.’ In fact, the literary and filmic representations of partition of India and of more recent communal riots have always grappled with this problem of zeroing in on the ‘first’ movers. Often it is axiomatic to assume that a particular community started these riots.
As I listened to my friend narrate his horrific experience over phone, I told him bluntly not to generalize this incident to ‘label’ a particular people. To him, it might have sounded an absurd, morally righteous position as he was coping with pain. It could have sounded a hollow, politically correct statement to be made by one who didn’t have to go through the pain and humiliation. The next day, I met my friend in front of the wine shop and, to my surprise he displayed a remarkable composure in thinking of the incident as an accident, as a hassle that one might encounter in any big city.
After the party, I accompanied him back to his apartment as he was apprehensive of his safety. We reached his apartment around 4.30 in the morning. It was too late for me to come back to my place. I decided to sleep over. As I was returning to my apartment this morning, I decided to get off at Jackson Heights to do some Indian grocery. Jackson Heights was chock-a-block with Sunday shoppers and it somehow reminded me of Karol Bagh in Delhi. When I first moved to NYC, I made a conscious decision not to live in Jackson Heights and in places where most of the Indians lived. But occasional visits to JH made me think of some of the overcrowded shopping areas in Indian cities. There is always a shimmering energy that is almost contagious. And yet, unlike Times Square, the place does not alienate one as the crowd is not composed of tourists. The vigorousness of ordinary, everyday life fascinates me.
I bought a few typical Indian grocery items. As I was waiting for my turn to pay, I could hear an argument breaking out between the cashier, an elderly Punjabi woman, and a customer, a young, ordinarily dressed woman. I was the very next person in line. The young woman left and the elderly woman was still muttering under her breath: “Yeh Pakistani ladkiyo ko koi tamiz nahi rah gaya. Pehle ye log purdah mein rahti thi, baat chit soch samajh kar karthi thi. Ab yeh purdah se bahaar nikal aiyee aur ab koi tamiz bhi nahi hai (These Pakistani girls are now bereft of all good manners. When they wore purdah, they had better manners; they knew how to speak with respect. Now with their purdah, they have discarded all decorum.).
I picked up my stuff and walked out of the shop. I was trying to make sense of her statement. Did she mean that Pakistani girls must always be in purdah? Or did she mean a traditional way of life is more conducive to ‘better’ decorum? That women must always act in a particular way? Whatever be the implication of her statement, this much I knew for sure: when it comes to other people and cultures (be it a case of mugging or argument), we live by certain axioms…