Spots of Time

May 04, 2004

Melanie and Mohammad's Birthday Bash

In India, my birthday is a national holiday. At least, this year it is. You see, I share my birthday with Mohammad. THE Mohammad. As in, "There is only one God, whose name is Allah and Mohammad is his prophet."

Mohammad’s birthday – as well as the anniversary of his death, is called Id-e-Milad, and this year it occurred on May 3, coinciding with my 30th birthday. Since it is not every year my birthday coincides with the most famous man in the Islamic religion (due to the differences between the western and Islamic calendars), I decided to go down to the local mosque and celebrate my birthday with the people celebrating his birthday. I felt I should pay my respects. While I was born a mere 30 years ago, Mohammed was born 1434 years ago, on the twelfth day of Rabi-ul-Awwal, the third month of the Muslin year, in Mecca. Interestingly enough, his death anniversary falls on the same day. I found this ironic as my cousin once said she thought anyone over 30 should be shot on sight!

Twelve percent of India’s population is Muslim, and India has a rich tradition of Muslim influence, having been ruled by Islamic leaders for over 600 years. There has historically been a great deal of tension between the Hindu and Muslim religions, ultimately resulting in Partition, when India was split into two pieces: the mostly Muslim country of Pakistan and the mostly Hindu state of India. This coincided with India’s independence from the British and was a bloody time in the country’s’ history.

The state of Radjastan, where I was now traveling, has an especially large Muslim population, and it’s tourist attractions of awesome fortresses and stunning palaces were the result of the Islamic kings and rulers. Radjastan is a top tourist destination of India, with 45% of visitors coming through at least one of its major cities. Udiapur, one of its most romantic cities, is a land of camels and elephants sharing streets with autorickshaws and cars, and of dry desert air and temperatures of 44 degrees C (about 110 degrees F). The local people bath and wash clothes in the waters of Lake Piccola, in the shadow of the famous (and US dollar priced) Lake Palace Hotel where Roger Moore first seduced Octopussy in the movie of the same name.

My rickshaw driver, Manu, head of the “Udiapur rickshaw Mafia/union” let me know about the holiday. A non-devout Muslim, equally fond of whiskey and women who were not his wife, he would not be attending the celebration.

Following a lazy afternoon at the rooftop swimming pool of a posh hotel nearby my own modest guesthouse, I prepared for the celebration. I put on my blue and gold embroidered salwar camis, a traditional Indian dress. Also called a Punjabi suit, a sari suit and a churidar, it is a long, cap-sleeved dress-like top, over loose, pajama-style pants, with a long matching scarf, it is the modern Indian woman’s uniform. These days you can see them as commonly as saris – especially on the younger women.

Before I entered the mosque, I took off my shoes and covered my head with my scarf, following the example of the women ahead of me. At this point I could see the nudges and pointing, the giggling and laughing, and the direct staring of the women at this Indian-dressed white women about to enter a mosque. Smiling brightly, I entered the enclosure. I’d long learned that in India, staring back when you were stared at, but with a big smile, is a ticket to a charming mirror response.

Inside the mosque’s outside walls were several smaller buildings, all white, and some with turnip-shaped domes. I made my way to the first one, hopping from one bare foot to the other as the heat of the white tile stones burned them. Inside, was a coffin, draped in green fabric and covered with pink flower petals – roses, I think. Men in white Punjabi suits and small white caps entered the room, first touching the floor of the doorway with their hand. Women and girls waited outside, many of them bowing before the doorway, touching their forehead to the cool marble surface. A woman just arriving handed her bag of pink petals to a man just leaving and he quickly returned, sprinkling handfuls of the petals over the already overflowing surface. It seemed women were not allowed inside.

By now a group of young children had surrounded me, smiling and staring. “One rupee?” they asked, echoing the words of countless children before them. I smiled and said no, mentally cursing all the well-intentioned westerners who had come before me, passing out money, chocolates and school pens, creating the impression that all westerners stockpiles these things. “What is your name?” one little girl asked – the other standard question. “My name is Melanie. What is YOUR name?” I asked. She told me, and one by one I played the game with each child. “How old are you?” I asked, when we had finished round one. “No,” she said – apparently English lessons in Udiapur did not extend past introductions.

Taking my hand, she led me around to another building, where identically dressed men hovered over smaller coffins, each also draped with fabric and covered with pink petals. Inside this same building, at another entrance, a man was bending over a square metal container with a grill over the top of it. Women were coming to the entrance, presenting him with pink flowers, that he either grilled or covered with the smoke, and then handed back. The women each left eating the flower they had been handed.

I later learned that in celebration of Mohammad’s birthday, learned men deliver sermons focusing on the life and noble deeds of the Prophet. And, in some parts of the country, a representation of buraq, the horse on which the Prophet is believed to have ascended to heaven, is anointed with sandal paste or scented powder, and the house and casket containing these is elaborately decorated. While I tried to find out more, I was hard pressed to find anyone who spoke more than a few limited words of English – an indication I had left the tourist part of town far behind.

My little friend, an entourage of other little ones in tow, took me to meet her mother, who gestured for me to sit down on the edge of a long step. “Four children” the little one said, pointing to her mother. “Three girl, one boy,” she finished. She clearly had more of a vocabulary than just “What is your name,” but every simple question I asked received the same answer of “no” – so I decided to just be silent, watching and listening. She introduced me to her mother’s friend, the mother of a baby boy – adorable, with large eyes made larger by what appeared to be the application of black eyeliner but was actually camphor, a common tradition for Indian babies, and said to be both attractive and healthy.

All around me was activity. Men with brooms moved the dust from the mosque floor tiles, literally sweeping them underneath the scattered rugs. Little raccoon-eyed babies sat on the steps and floor of the mosque, laughing, crying and screaming among the colorfully dressed women, chatting among themselves. Poor children in dusty clothes ran around next to richer children decked out with gold earrings, necklaces and bracelets. A line of men in white faced a wall (and Mecca), stood shoulder to shoulder, and then kneeled and prostrated themselves multiple times in unison.

I was offered and accepted snacks – a spicy fried samosa, a florescent yellow sweet drink and some kind of nut that I was meant to chew. I passed around my water bottle and watched in awe as each child, even the youngest, managed to drink from it without touching her lips to the bottle – a talent I have only recently acquired in India – but is common in every state I have visited.

As I sat on the step with the Indian Muslim women, adjusting my scarf to keep it over my head, I noticed that, with the exception of the children sitting next to me, in front of me, and practically on top of me, I was being pretty much left alone. No one was staring anymore – in fact, most of the men who passed didn’t even notice me – a sure sign I had blended in sufficiently.

Outside were even more people, gathered mostly in single sex groups and sitting on walls, on the ground or standing together. Men with arms around each other or holding hands, young women giggling in groups, teenage boys daring each other to say hello to me, and flower sellers and other vendors calling out their wares.

As I had not been allowed to take pictures inside the mosque, I now pulled out my camera and attempted to take a picture of the dome, though the entry gate. I was immediately surrounded by people, all curious to see what I was doing, and amazed by the LCD screen on my digital camera. Within seconds I was being asked to take pictures of people, children as well as adults, and nearly lost my balance several times in the pushing and shoving to see the result. Everyone was smiling and laughing and everyone wanted his or her picture taken. More than once I put the camera away and moved to a new area, as my presence with the camera was like the star performance at a traveling carnival – the center of attention.

At a table lined with plastic cups, I took some bright pink liquid, which tasted like sweetened rose water. The turbaned man behind the counter, stirring an enormous pot of the liquid, did a double take when he saw me and quickly had his assistance pour me a cup of a different liquid, which they call sherbet. It tasted like the pink drink, mixed with milk, and I happily accepted.

Walking around outside, I had become less diligent about my scarf, and it had slipped. Drinking my sherbet and taking in the carnival-like atmosphere, it took me a minute to realize my cover was totally blown. About this time a policeman, dressed in an olive uniform and standing with half a dozen of his peers, asked me where I was from. I hesitated only a second before saying “America.” He informed me that I was not safe at the festival. Looking around, I found that quite hard to believe, and I told him as much. He indicated that the area of town I was in was not safe (read: Muslim) and that I might be happier on the other side of the gate (read: Tourist Area). I told him I thought I was perfectly safe and that everyone had been very kind to me. In fact, would he mind taking a picture with me? He declined saying “ok, ok,” and relayed that if I wasn’t careful people might push up against me. I thanked him for his concern and walked a few feet away where I stood watching the scene from more of a distance.

Yes, it was true that many people were staring at me, but I did not sense anger in their faces, only curiosity. While Udiapur is a tourist-filled town, even just a kilometer or two outside the main streets was another world, and a white western woman was a curiosity – much like a women in full sari might be stared at walking around a suburban mall in a suburb of Indianapolis, Indiana.

The seed, however, had been planted. The police officer’s words had clouded my mind, and instead of noticing the smiling faces, I became increasingly aware of the few serious and sullen ones. Instead of noticing the old man holding the little girl dressed entirely in pink, I noticed the groups of police standing with arms folded and surveying the scene. Instead of noticing the contrast of the brightly colored women’s saris and the men’s white Punjabi suits, I noticed the contrast of my slightly paler face to their slightly darker ones. Saddened, I turned toward the infamous gate and slowly walked away.

Before I passed through the ancient stone archway, a runaway bull cow took off down the street, narrowly missing me in its quest for a doe-eyed female. He mounted her at full speed, taking out a motorbike, which nearly toppled a boy sitting nearby, before the cow made her escape. I honestly believe, with all my heart, that the bull in heat represented a far greater danger to me than the hundreds of men, women and children gathering to celebrate the birthday of their prophet.

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Next week: Two Weddings