It was midnight in Mumbai as I stepped off the jetway into Chattrapathi Shivaji International Airport last August. I expected vestiges of the British Raj—I just didn’t expect everything to be in English. With so many languages and dialects, English is India’s national language by default. British rule ended in India 63 years ago. In the irony of war, we speak the language of our conquerors…until we are conquered by somebody else.
Will the next streamate generation in the U.S. speak English? From an internal social revolution, will we speak Spanish? Or will we speak Arabic, the result of a global jihad? The loudest language in Mumbai last fall was the language of terror. I stayed at the Taj Palace hotel, right next to the Gateway to India. Within a few weeks of my visit the luxury hotel was smoldering from the vestiges of a well-armed terrorist siege. Across the city in four horrific days nearly two hundred people were killed. One of them was the brother of a friend.
I fell in love with pictures of the Taj’s façade, the stately cupola, and the plaza that overlooked the ocean. I wanted to sleep, just once in my life, in the same lavish luxury enjoyed by John Lennon, Winston Churchill and Princess Diana. I was disappointed when the doorman in full Sikh attire ushered me into the lobby after a ninety-minute midnight cab ride. Low modern white furniture, an endless sleek teak registration desk, smoky mirrors. Did the cabbie drop me at the Philadelphia Marriott? I craved paisley and incense, not computer terminals and Otis elevators.
Though there were lots of hotel employees, there was little security. Sometimes the guys who milled around the elevator wanted to see my keycard, usually they just nodded. My bags were never searched. I was never questioned. I was exploring Mumbai alone. I felt safe. India is not a melting pot. It is a stew—lumpy, smelly, delicious and awful. There are no buffer zones: the fingers of poverty extend into the entryways of elite apartments; there is raw sewage in the gutter just outside the Taj Palace. Across the street there is a fine linen shop abutting an open stall that displayed toothpaste that looked like war surplus.
I met Muslims, Jains, Hindus and Christians in my two-week stay. Ironically, the least tolerant was my Christian guide, who, when asked the difference between Hindus and Jains, shook her head disdainfully and said, “It’s just the positions of their gods. They’re the same.” That’s funny, I thought. Tell the Jasminlive folks in Belfast that all Christians are the same. Prejudice is as universal as religion.
On Thanksgiving, when I saw the face of the boy terrorist with an assault rifle on TV, his eyes glowing like a rabid feline, my heart fell. This boy should be slapping his buddies on the back instead of shooting people he doesn’t know in the chest. I am thankful that I live in the United States. I’m thankful for my safe journey. I’m thankful that the worst assault I had at the Taj Palace involved British food.
I’m worried that we parade a western lifestyle which is both repugnant and attractively unattainable. Our political decisions have provided fertile ground for terrorists, who prey on nations with large populations of disaffected youth. Borders smolder. We need protection, but we also need to offer alternatives to the bonds of brotherhood that jihad has to offer. Remember the old poster of Uncle Sam pointing that he needs you? Now imagine that you are impoverished, hopeless and raging with hormones, and Uncle Sam and Jesus are recruiting for a holy war. My roots are Jewish and my stomach aches.
What can we do to protect ourselves and “dis-courage” terrorists? How can we give hope to people we don’t even want to understand? The language of terror does not need an interpreter. Last fall in Mumbai people lost their lives as part of a stunt, a deadly tactic that speaks loudly to a watching world. What language will our next generation speak, and who will teach it to them?