|sent from: Bombay, India. destination: Sofia, Bulgaria|
Syedna, the 102-year old leader of the Dawoodi Bohra Muslims, died while we were in Bombay, which is also where he lived. He was beloved, much as I remember Pope John Paul II was in my youth. In keeping with Islamic tradition, he was to be buried within 24 hours. He lay in state in his home estate on Malabar Hill and the faithful flocked, coming from all over India, to see his body, including my brother-in-law. After a couple of hours in the crush of thousands near the house entrance, receiving a mix of conflicting information and rumour, he managed to extract himself, warning the rest of us to stay away. A couple of hours later, in the early morning, a message went out saying they were closing up. If it was intended to disperse the crowd, it had the opposite effect, creating a surge from the back amongst those desperate to see him. Those in the front were trapped with nowhere to go and 17 men, mostly young, suffocated.
We did emerge onto the streets the following morning to see the procession. We knew the route and walked to Chowpatty Beach. We debated whether to go dressed in the appropriate religious garb, opting in the end for western street clothes instead. We made it to Chowpatty a few minutes before the procession passed, making it through the massive crowd lining the route untroubled, perhaps because of our clothes, I can’t say. All eyes were on the India flag-draped coffin, the wail of grief and cries of “Mullah! Mullah!” at fever pitch as it drew level with us. Hands held in prayer reached in the direction of the coffin and I felt a wash of emotion – something transmitted in the crowd, binding everyone. In its wake, despite calls not to follow, a fast river of men, crying and desperate, were swiftly coming down, being added to from the spectating crowd. They ran, pushed, shoved, seeking any place with a gap. My wife held onto me tightly as they jostled past us. Then they were gone, leaving behind dazed, tearful women and an empty road strewn with their chappals.