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Opinion: Caught up in Prophet Mohammed's birthday

How a Jewish American woman found herself carried along by the tide of a celebratory procession through the streets of Mumbai.

Rizwan Shaikh celebrates Eid-e-Milad-un-Nabi with friends in Mumbai on Feb. 27, 2010. (Hanna Ingber Win/GlobalPost)

MUMBAI, India — My housekeeper arrives at my apartment early. As she cleans, she rushes me to get ready. She tells me I should wear Indian dress today. “There will be a lot of men, not good,” she says. “You know, men’s eyes …”

I put on a salwar kameez, show it to Chandbi and she nods in approval. I go to slip on my flipflops, and Chandbi’s face turns to horror. “You look nice in Indian dress,” she says. “You are going to wear those?”

I change into leather sandals, and Chandbi puts on her headscarf. We catch a rickshaw to go to her home in Parkside, a poor community in eastern Mumbai, to see how the anniversary of Prophet Mohammed’s birthday is celebrated here.

Chandbi is 50 years old and has been working as a domestic helper since she was 8. Having an employer go to her home and celebrate a holiday with her is a big deal. She is talking a mile a minute.

“At night it will be nice,” she says, pointing out the string of lights decorating the shops and mosques. “Very nice.”

We pass red and green flags, which I recognize from photographs of protests in the Arab world. We pass men wearing green bandanas, speeding along on motorbikes with large flags blowing in the wind.

This year the holiday, called Eid-e-Milad-un-Nabi, comes before the Hindu holiday of Holi. It is good that they are on separate days, Chandbi says. Some years they coincide and “then there are problems.”

Along the way, Chandbi points out her bus stops. She must take four buses to get from her home to mine each day. This bumpy, noisy rickshaw ride, which will cost about 100 rupees ($2.20), is a luxury. We stop in traffic, and a man walks over selling 10-rupee bags of sliced sugarcane. Chandbi takes one for her grandchildren.

When we arrive in Parkside, we find a big truck smack in the middle of the neighborhood. Islamic flags run down the sides. Hot pink and gold tinsels dangle over the windshield. The community’s young men and children sit on the truck’s roof, feet dangling over the side.

They are leaving for the procession now, Chandbi says. They won’t return for hours.

“Can we go with them?” I ask.

Chandbi laughs at me. Women do not ride on the trucks. They stay behind and watch. But Chandi talks to the men and before I know it, they are shooing us into the truck.

There is no time for second-guessing. I stifle my nerves about going off with a bunch of men I don’t know and climb up.