Authors: Karan Mahajan
When he told Ayub this, shared these revelations, Ayub said, “Again, you're coming up against the Western belief in the individual.” They were walking once more in the shopping complex near Holy Child Nursing Home. “There are no higher values, people in the West say. Live by your own instincts, for yourself, for your own pleasure. You know, I went once to New York. My brother works for a man in the diamond business in Dubai and I went along. I transported the diamonds in my pocket. That's how all
diamonds are takenâthey're too precious to put in a suitcase. You know what struck me about New York?”
“The women?” said Mansoor.
“No. Not the women, the graffiti, the buildingsânothing. I expected all these things. What I noticed was the things that were missing. Old people, for example. I realized you could go days without seeing an old person. Where are they? I asked my brother. Why aren't there old people in New York?” He looked at Mansoor. “They're all in retirement homes, of course. Hidden away from sight the way dead people are immediately put in a morgue or buried. In America, you see, you're not supposed to take care of the elderly. You're supposed to look after yourself, chase your dreams. But what happens when you grow old? Will your individualism save you? Noâyou'll be put away like the dead. In America, you see, you die twiceâonce when you grow old, and once when you actually die. But the illusion of youth must be preserved at all costs. This is what I felt about New York. It was a place you could waste your whole life without thinking once about othersâuntil you too were put away and replaced by the young. I could suddenly see why al-Qaeda wanted to target New York. It's a place that prides itself on being the most awake, but it's asleep to reality.”
“Everyone I met was struggling with depression,” Mansoor said, agreeing. “It was almost fashionable to be depressed. I didn't think about it then, but it was because many of them were cut off from their families. They had no way of making meaning. That's what happened to me too: the wrist problem, it was a type of depression.” He turned to Ayub. “I just remembered something you said when we first talked. That your pain only went away when you started thinking about others.”
“Not just that,” Ayub said. “But when I found God.”
Mansoor's mind was aswirl. He was on the verge of something great, of something new, and his entire worldview had been blotted out. He saw now that his selfishness stretched all the way back to the bomb: how holding on to fear, not facing up to the panic attacks, was a form of selfishness, of thinking your fate was in
hands, when in fact it was all up to the Almighty. If
his family had believed in God, they would have continued as they had before the blast. Instead, they'd been visited by a string of holy menâgaunt, bent men with silver stubble and bronze lockets and bright eyes and patrician faces who asked him to bend beside them as they offered prayers, who greedily drank the cold coffee and mirchi toast his mother offered.Â .Â .Â . Yes, the family had been eager to thank God, but not to trust Him. The bomb had induced in the family a kind of hypochondria. They saw the bomb everywhere they went. It was not God they worshipped, but the bomb.
As these revelations crowded him on his bed, Mansoor felt a tug of regret in his chest.
He paved over this feeling by attacking books on religion eagerly (the same eagerness with which he'd devoured
on the steps of the plaza at his university) and saw within them a template for how to live, the point of obscure customs like keeping women modest and veiledâit was not to oppress women, he saw, but to reduce the sum of lust in society. Ever since he'd come back to Delhi from California, he'd thought of sex less, because he saw less flesh on the street. Thus, if there were no lascivious hoardings and cutouts of lingerie models in
and on FTV, one would think of sex even less.
As he made these observations, he felt the centuries between him and Mohammed collapsing and had the distinct sense that the words and wisdom passed down through the Quran and the Hadiths and al-Tabari were meant for someone of his disposition and body type. As for God himself, He was a universal blank, a lack of ego, a way of accepting and admitting that you were a small person, that your problems were small, that you should care about things bigger than yourself.
Going deeper into learning about Islam, Mansoor could see how a crisis of values was afoot not only in the Western world but in India, which had become a lapdog of the West, eager to imbibe its worst ideas while ditching its best ones. This crisis was most evident on TV, with its profusion of sex (probably where his own sex obsession had started, he thought); in the rapid construction of malls; in the increased incidence of divorce and
suicide and rape and depression; most of all, in the profusion of health problems and clinics catering to them.
I've embodied these problems, he thought. I came from a background without God. I had nothing to keep me from imbibing, without discrimination, everything that gave me pleasure. I fell for the false prophet Ayn Rand. But then I got lucky. At my lowest, when I could find no way to go on, I met Ayub and found God.
Then, one day, Mansoor found himself back at Lajpat Nagar. He was dazed to be back. He hadn't been to the market in years, had avoided it in that unself-aware way in which it is possible to sidestep any part of a cityâthat's what cities are, devices to sidestep thingsâand now here he was, standing in the crush of tin and tarpaulin, everything smaller than he remembered it, also more modern: How many years had passed! He came across the framing shop, a small cube of glass, and could remember exactly where he'd been standing when the bomb went off, the earth-shattering stillness that followed, partly because he'd gone deaf and partly because everyone was in shock. He scanned the ground outside the shop instinctively for scars, cyclonic ditches left by the explosion. But there was no sign of the bomb in the market. Like all other tragedies, it had been covered up; the market had gone into a huddle of concrete and commerce around the blast, paving over the scars like a jungle coming back over a burnt field. Even the fence of the park had been repaired, painted an unrusting golden yellow. The only thing that had really changed about the market, apart from the natural modern face-lifts to the shops, was that carsâthose chariots of misery and fireâhad been banished from the square. Which was why, even as the square seemed smaller to Mansoor, it felt less dangerous. Men in white shirts and women in colorful clothes streamed past, but there was no physical threat from smashing marauding vehicles. A cow with rock-black eyes munched something in a corner, its horns rubbed down to nubs.
This was where it had started. The whole saga of his youth. Of course there was no saying another bomb couldn't go off hereâthe official-looking
security doorway at the entrance of the square was unmanned and people passed around it (the only people who went through were scrawny kids in shorts with nerdy haircuts, delighted, in the way of all kids, to pass through a cramped narrow space, so that life itself had the aspect of a game), and the crowds were as rude, random, and relaxed as before, everyone keeping track only of the space around him or her, no one carrying in his head the larger idea of the market or staying alert to the possibility that this whole theater of commerce might be ripped apart at any moment.
Mansoor's heart tightened and his pulse raced. What are the odds that another bomb will go off on the one day I venture back into the market after years? he thought. Almost zeroâbut stranger things have happened. And who's to say I'm not, in God's mind, some horrible gate completing the circuit? He looked at the whirling willful crowds. Hold your nerve, he told himself. Believe in God. His eyes fastened on a mustachioed man with fair skin and a kara standing on the steps of his shop, his forehead smeared with an oily tilak. The man considered him without a clear expressionâhe was possibly looking through Mansoor. He was the proprietor of the chemist shop. On the day of the bombing, Mansoor imagined, the shop had been smashed to bits, the ceiling caving in, the medicines ground to a dust that rose and stood steady over the debris, the chemist with his wide nostrils inhaling the toxic mix of antibioticsâand here the chemist was now, standing on the steps, his face and body intact, but his eyes lost, as if the bomb were replaying somewhere in the back of his head or as if the inhaled chemicals had undone him for good. But there was another story there, Mansoor realized, over and under the destruction and any fear and suspicion the chemist may have felt as he looked out at the crowds from the stairs. The chemist had gone to work every day. The day after the bomb he would have been back at his rubbled shop, swathed in bandages, directing mazdoors and policemen or whoever was sent to help the shocked shopkeepers; he would have pointed to where his money was kept and where he thought they might find uncrushed medicines and the body of the shop boy who'd gone missing.
And after this, after the ordeal was behind him and the compensation
(if any) had been spent and the shop was returned to a workable stateâthe shelves back on the walls even as the walls were grainy with black concrete, unpainted, the place looking unfinishedâafter this, he would have returned to his business and his spot behind the counter and peered out at the inferno of the market from his glass door. Unlike Mansoor, he had no way to escape the market or the bombing; he had to confront it day after day. He had to go to bed every night knowing his world had been destroyed and wake up knowing he must feel the opposite and go on.
How did he process this? How did he start day after day in the middle of the war zone that had almost claimed him? Did he flinch when he saw a young man drive up, when he saw a skullcap, or anyone young and dressed in heroish clothes standing by himself doing nothing? Yet he went on. He did not have the luxury of depression and injury that Mansoor had. And maybe by being in this same spot year after year he had cured himself the way Mansoor had cured himself of the pain that started up when he put his hands to a keyboard. Maybe the chemist's eyes, vacant and distracted, were just the eyes of an ordinary shopkeeper taking a break from the commerce inside, his head still storming with sums and figures.
Mansoor thanked God and steadied himself and went home.
“The problem is no one listens,” said Ayub as they sat together in Lodhi Garden, enjoying the last days before summer started, burning the roadsides with yellow laburnums.
“What do you mean?”
“We're uneducated people, activistsâno one listens to what we say.” He looked around the park, tearing dry grass from the tarmac. “NowâI don't want to single you out, Mansoor bhaiâbut when I told you about visualization, you were skeptical, no? Your attitude was: Why should I try this out? Even though it was so easy. Don't feel shyâthat's the normal reaction. The environment in which you've been brought up is of simple cause and effect. Pain means something is wrong with the body. QED. When some fool at an NGO tells you it's related to your mind, why should you believe him, especially when the pain is real, when it seems to crush you? Noâand
now I'm not talking about you; I'm talking about myselfâyou're insulted. How dare someone say your pain is in your mind! You'll seeâthe more you tell people, the more they'll cling to their old systems. People like you and me, we're exceptions. We have flexible minds. We aren't irrationally wedded to anything. We actually want to solve our pain. But most people are married to it and will attack you for questioning it.”
“We could write a book or start a site,” Mansoor said.
“The book's been writtenâit's called the Quran.”
There is an unnatural concentration that comes with being freed of pain after years, and Mansoor felt the world was finally clear to him. The NGO wanted the country to own up to what Modi had done in Gujarat: massacre scores of Muslims in public view, with the police standing by and watching, even helping, the rioters. But Indians couldn't see anything. They were in the grip of materialism and individualism (he remembered what his father had told him about the Khuranas, the way they had lied about the reason Tushar and Nakul and he had gone to the market; how, even at this purest moment of grief, they could not shed their materialism). What was needed, he felt, was a revolution of values in the country, a retreat from Western materialism. People needed to be shown what religion could do for them in a practical wayâhow it could save them from depression, pain, meaninglessness, how it could connect them to a family beyond their small selfish nuclear units.
“That's the type of site we need to start,” Mansoor told Ayub. “Something that connects old values with new problems.” He knew he sounded idealistic, but he suppressed his self-consciousness. “I know someone who can help with videos for the site,” he told Ayub, thinking, in that circular way of his, of Vikas Uncle.
yub felt close to Mansoor too. When Mansoor had opened up to him about sex, he had been surprised and touched. After that he had started considering him a close friend.
They began to go for walks together in the parks of DelhiâLodhi Garden, the Mehrauli complex; they even drove out one day to Coronation Park. Then one evening, in the park of Khan-I-Khana, with its powerful pocked tomb and its aura of a thousand bats, Ayub told Mansoor. “Tara and I. We have something special between us.” He felt shy and fumbled with a leaf in his hand. “We've been together for two years, before Peace For All.”
“I knew about it,” Mansoor said, smiling broadly.
“Oh, we were trying to hide it,” Ayub said.
Mansoor had noticed the tension between Ayub and Tara. They assiduously avoided each other during meetings and looked away when the other spoke. Mansoor felt happy for Ayub. Tara was a tall, sensible, brilliant woman with a comical face like a touched-up, feminized version of the principal in
comics. But this made her beauty accessible. Her smile gave her away as a sincere personânot one driven to the icy, egotistical, inhumane extremes of activism. Mansoor often stared at her during meetingsâshe was the only Hindu girl there, and the most cheerful and confident. “You would be good together,” he said.
For a while it seemed that Mansoor, with the newfound glow of religion, could be happy for anyone. Then negativity once again took his world hostage.