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The M word

All last week, bombs ? deadly, defused and the merely delirious ? commemorated the decade of living prejudicially.

india Updated: Dec 08, 2002 00:32 IST

All last week, bombs — deadly, defused and the merely delirious — commemorated the decade of living prejudicially.

It had begun with Hindutva’s unauthorised demolition squad at Babri, which triggered chain reactions all over the country — intense, intermittent, and always insane. We were never the epitome of communal harmony, but December 6, 1992, shouted ‘Hindu-Muslim Bye-Bye’ with all the spurious authority of a slogan. After that everyone turned into a parody of the civilized ideal, and became a discriminating person. Hindus were also targets, but by the rule of security in numbers, the ‘H’-word never suffered like the re-demonised ‘M’-word did.

Overnight, Bombay abandoned its trade-mark business suit and blush-on, and unabashedly revealed itself as a communal streaker. Ram-Rahim, that hoary favourite of Bollywood, lost the hyphen, and drifted separately into dangerous waters. Pooja, till then associated only with a Bhatt or Bedi, metamorphosed into a maha-arti that drew its decibel levels from political intensity rather than the dulcet tones of a temple anjali. “If it’s ‘our’ country, how, pray, can the M’s be allowed to be louder than us?”

This was all in the name of God, but nothing was sacred. The cordon sanitaire of privilege, always so dependable a barrier against the cruder attacks on the ‘M’s’, offered no protection at all in the ‘92/’93 riots. In, arguably, the most worrying pointer of all, ‘Them’ and ‘Us’ lost their economic distinctions, and in the communal hatred were equal made.

In this overheated cauldron, the ‘M’-word, hissed, bubbled and exploded. As I dodged the blobs of “He’s an ‘M’!” spat out by the most outwardly urbane, I kept thinking about all the different ‘M’ words I’d encountered in my long association with prejudice.

If you’ve ever lived in Calcutta, you’d know that when a Bengali superciliously calls someone ‘an M’, that hapless guy is a Marwari. Indeed, the war-cry is worked into the very way in which the Bengali pronounces the word, ‘More-war-i’. The censorious Sens, the banner-waving Bannerjees, the no-longer-mattering Chatterjees hate the ‘M’s’ because they have ‘Marwarised’ the city. The alternative, of course, would have been rigor mortis in rosogolla syrup.

Bengalis denounce the ‘M’s’ as outsiders, even though the Goenkas didn’t want to go anywhere else for generations. They accuse them of being ‘clannish’, a trait that the chauvinistic Bengalis should have no problem recognising. Most of all, the Bengalis hate the Marwari because he does best what they do least: make money. This is a doubly tainted abomination since it involves that other ignominy, hard work; Bengalis would never stoop to something so crass, so uncivilised. Indeed for a long time, they couldn’t bring themselves even to utter the ‘M-word’; cringeing delicately, they referred to them as ‘the business community’.

So, when I first came to live in Bombay in 1970, I found it both strange and familiar to find another ‘M-word’ here. This lot was also disparaged for being outsiders, for their insider-trading, and for their industriousness. But this ‘M’, target of Shiv Sena wrath in those early years, was the Madrassi.

In those days, Bombay also had another generic ‘M’-word, equally undistinguished by region or community. ‘Mac’ was the one-slur-fits-all term for any Christian, whether East Indian, Goan, Manglorean or pure Bandra. They were called ‘Macs’ not because they hungered after the global burger (of which more anon), but because they preferred their local bun. ‘Mac’ was the abbreviation of ‘Maka-pao’, a reference to the maska-ed loaf that the frock-wearers preferred to roti. When they converted, they were in bigger trouble.

When Bombay’s name was changed, status-conscious status-quoists genuinely feared that the whole city had become an ‘M’-word. After all, how could a Bom-babe be reduced to a Mum-bai?

This December 6, a ‘mystery’ blast ripped through the McDonald’s outlet at Mumbai Central Station. McDonald’s has, for a long time, been a global ‘M’-word, but, even when its fries were beef-enhanced, no one really gave it a religious flavour. Now suddenly, in one explosive flash, I’ve seen its striking similarity with our communal ‘M’-words. Isn’t ‘McDonaldisation’ viewed suspiciously because it’s perceived as an ‘outsider’? Isn’t it feared because it’s a minority taste that threatens to engulf and submerge one’s entire native culture?

Choose your means of destruction. The Big Mac or the ‘Big Modi’, for that matter.

* * *

Alec Smart said, “Clearly, oil hasn’t greased the path to disinvestment.”