Current Affairs

Maadeva won't be Charlie

Maadeva is confused.

Four months ago, he took a young European couple to his coffee plantation. The trio started a walking tour soon after they arrived, right after they'd had a round of coffee. The place raised the spirits of his guests after the somnolent 220 kilometer drive from Bangalore and, after the long walk round the place, when the group were back at the plantation bungalow, the guests sighted a cow at the back of the labor line a short distance from the bungalow. "Holy cow!" the man cried and, checking himself, turned toward Maadeva to look for possible offence on his face. Maadeva kept his eyes on the cow. He scowled and, unable to think up a response, stared on at it. I don’t think Maadeva will ever come up with a response. He's not good at that sort of thing.

They spent two nights on the plantation. After dinner and during long drives they took in the coffee district, the couple asked to know how Hindu traditions help make life's decisions, and how Hindus address big and small problems. After a time it became clear to Maadeva why their talk centered so much on that subject. The lady was faced with a deadline to make a choice between admissions she'd landed at Oxbridge, and at an Ivy League institution. The man was desperate that she should choose England, for their relationship had just begun, and he'd told Maadeva over drinks in Bangalore how pleased he was regarding how well the affair was going. He was just as keen as she for some help from Hinduism, or Marxism, or anything at all that would help keep her nearabouts him. Maadeva struggled for something that could look like a Hindu response, because poor Maadeva is the regular Hindu who knows only a few rituals of his culture, and very little regarding the philosophy that lies beneath his blessed religion. And, moreover, his roots are the Sudra's, and the Vedas and the Upanishads or any other scriptures were seldom mentioned during his upbringing.

And so the cow is no more holy to him than it was to his guest—though he's been party to ceremonies that involve the cow, such as when his homes in Bangalore and in Malnad were house-warmed. On both occasions the priests dragged in a reluctant cow and it snorted all the time and slipped everywhere and dropped copious dung along the length of the house and the green slime splashed on fresh-painted walls. Both times Maadeva put vermillion and turmeric on the brow of the hapless animal, wishing for a quick end to the misery of beast and himself, fearful all through for lacking in devotion, of what that meant for his life and his prosperity.

Maadeva doesn't eat beef. But he doesn't eat lamb either. Or fish. Or chicken. Or even egg, if he can help it. He drinks flavored milk but the smells of cheese nauseate him. In theory it shouldn't matter to him if someone mocked a cow before him, even if the cow was his. But he lost all warmth for the young European after the Holy Cow Incident, and he is confused. He wants to know if his feeling for a friend is so shallow, and is so easily shattered.

A French colleague brought up the Charlie Hebdo tragedy at lunch a day after it happened. She had asked to share his table at lunch. He’d read the news, but it hadn’t moved him. The colleague had wanted to observe silence in the hall where she works in Maadeva's facility. Maadeva was silent, and afterward when he spoke he told her how a bomb had taken down a woman only three weeks ago on Church Street. It was news to the woman because she’d been away in France for Christmas at the time. To that news of the bomb in Bangalore she was silent.

Of course, the woman who’d died was only an aunt from Chennai who was visiting her nephew in Bangalore.

“We are upset because of the attack on our freedom of speech,” she said. “And our liberty.” Maadeva registered that, and rather liked what she said and how she said it. “They make fun not only of Moslem people, but also Christian people and Jewish people.” Down the week Maadeva gathered that the men who’d died were beloved artists in France. They were household names, Time magazine said—though Charlie Hebdo printed only 60,000 copies a week. Maadeva gazed at the photos of the men who were shot. Nice faces; good men’s faces. Faces of intellectuals, gifted artists. A regular Moslem or Jew or Christian wouldn't be able to think up a response to the satire of those deep-thinking men. A man of faith would be just as confused as Maadeva, not wanting to be thought of as bigot, not wanting to be seen as lacking in humor, and not wanting, at the same time, to have his faith taken as meat for satire. Specially by a foreign man, or a man of another faith, or a faithless man.

On Sunday he admired France and felt shame that Indians have never managed such a show of solidarity. He felt respect for the dead and the mourning. But he also felt confusion. The dead had shot acid arrows of wit at people of another faith, unafraid and uncaring how deep they'd pierced sensibilities of people for whom their faith is a serious matter. Also, the folks they’d shot at were incapable of fighting back with equal wit, not being blessed with the centuries-old tradition of satire. For the death of the cartoonists, Maadeva felt sorry. He felt sadness for the police who died defending them. But he felt no grief, he noted, and wondered about himself.

And so he thought it best to bury his thoughts, and he went to work in peace at his factory on Monday. And read on the Internet during the break that Charlie Hebdo were printing a million copies with the Prophet on the cover. The Prophet, saying, “I Am Charlie.” In step with that news, Angela Merkel had confirmed she’d join a march of German Muslims in Berlin to show solidarity with her four million Muslims. “The Europeans are so cerebral,” Maadeva thought. “They’re so evolved.” He bent down his head and went back to work again, but in the evening over dinner he told his wife when she handed him a puffed-up hot phulka, “it’s all so confusing…”