When any friend of mine got married to an intelligent, interesting pretty girl, I always wondered how that happened. How could intelligent, interesting, pretty girls have agreed to spend substantial chunks of their lives with blokes who, in my reckoning, could be intelligent, interesting or handsome only and only if the concerned women were under the mind-altering influence of peyote kebabs?
Well, of course, I got married and the sense of shock and awe was allowed to diminish and dissipate. But then, a recent development has resurrected that niggling query in my mind. No, not why nice women decided to marry my friends and myself, but why people associate certain kinds of traits with certain kinds of people.
Apparently, the nation was shocked to find that those suspected to have been behind the September 13 blasts in Delhi are ‘people like us’ — “young, educated and angst-ridden”. That one of the suspects, Atif Amin, who was killed in the shoot-out last fortnight, spoke English, loved cricket, was “career conscious” has made us shake our heads with disbelief. Other suspects include MBA aspirants, marketing employees, computer engineers and — can you imagine! — doctors.
But what did you expect? Bearded gents with one eye and a hook-instead-of-a-hand shouting from their bathroom windows: “Death to democracy! Death to all infidels! Death to Mickey Mouse!”? (That’s, actually, a pretty exhaustive description of the former imam of the Finsbury Park mosque in Britain, Abu Hamza, now serving a seven-year prison sentence for inciting racial hatred and soliciting a murder.) Kajol-wearing blokes with good one-way truck-driving skills and a Koran in the glove compartment who speak only in chaste Urdu?
Frankly, the mistake we make is to club all Islamicist nutters baying for their particular brand of jihad as being straight out of Taliban Comprehensive, Tora Bora. The truth is that like in horror movies, the monster that terrifies us the most isn’t the one who’s deformed, wears an ice-hockey mask and impales couples with the blunt end of a rake when they’re making out, but the one that’s ‘normal’, or even superior to us. Think Norman Bates. Think Hannibal Lecter. Think Jagdish Tytler. (Change the last name to Narendra Modi if you fancy the Congress.)
Thus, the surprise to find that the London bombers of July 2005 were ‘local boys’ who wore jeans, sneakers, backpacks, lugged JanSport backpacks. Thus, the surprise to find that not only did 9/11 team leader Mohammad Atta read Goethe’s Faust in its original German — he studied German at the Goethe Institute in Cairo — but he may have also enjoyed listening to Celine Dion songs.
But why only the nasty guys? While the notion of Bible-thumping Christians in most of our minds are square-dancing Sarah Palin fans who consider Charlton Heston to be a prophet, those folks in saris crying ‘Aiyyo!’ inside South Indian churches these days can thump their Book as robustly as any born-again from Kentucky.
And then there’s the most logical reason for nasty guys to behave like normal folks: to not get caught.
Many moons ago, in my incarnation as a book-filcher, a fellow shoplifter got caught. (I had warned him about tucking in an oversized book on submarines into his jacket.) The manager shook his head in amazement. “It’s shameful. You two are from good families and a good school. (We were in school uniform.) You should be ashamed of yourselves.”
Today, I wonder what the bookstore manager’s idea of a shoplifter was. An intense-looking man in a kurta and a scraggly beard muttering lines from Manto? A youngster selling stolen books to pay for a drug habit? He just couldn’t figure out how one could be radicalised to shoplift books if one came from a decent family and school. (He discounted the sheer thrill of filching books.) The upside of this misunderstanding: I was never caught.