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.
They put us in the driver’s compartment, crammed together with about a dozen of the youngest children. Chandbi’s 2-year-old grandson sits between us. A group of little girls in their finest salwar kameezes, their faces decorated with gold sparkles, sit behind us. A teenager hangs onto the front of the truck, leaning against the windshield as he grasps a microphone. We take off.
A group of the guys from Chandbi’s community stand on the road in front of us. One of them, 23-year-old Rizwan Shaikh, alternates between directing the driver through the narrow streets packed with hawkers and leading our group in raucous cheers.
We pass stages playing loud Muslim music, and the guys dance in a circle. Rizwan’s friend crouches down, touches his right hand to the ground and then jumps up reaching into the sky. “Allahu akbar,” (God is great) he shouts as loud as he can.
The truck responds: “Allahu akbar!”
Even the little girls sitting behind me yell back. “Allahu akbar!” they shriek in unison and then give big nervous smiles.
Our truck proceeds onto the main streets, which are exploding with energy. The men in the street shout, clap and dance together. Groups of boys wearing white salwar kurtas and scarves over their heads march by playing tambourines. Men with wreaths around their necks ride horses.
As the evening progresses, the streets fill with mobs of people. Women in black niqabs with only their eyes showing watch from the roadside. Little girls wear elaborately beaded saris and sparkling bangles that reach half way up their arms. Men sell pani puri and cotton candy to the crowd.
Chandbi leans over and tells me this is the first time she has participated in the procession. “It’s awesome,” I say. She nods.
I jump out to take photographs and then — unable to resist — join the procession. The young men from my truck gather around me as we walk along the route. “Saddam Hussein! Saddam Hussein!” they say as we pass a truck with posters of the former Iraqi dictator.
When the group around me gets too big, Rizwan tells the boys to disperse.
I notice our truck has sped off and start to run to chase it. I realize I have left my purse with Chandbi and have nothing on me. “Slow, slow,” Rizwan says. The streets are so crowded; it can’t get far.
More teenagers come and begin to get rowdy. Rizwan sticks close to me. I feel a hand graze against my behind and ignore it. It happens a second time, and I jerk around. “Hey!” I yell, raising my finger in the air. Rizwan gets involved and within seconds the boys are gone.
Throughout the day, the excitement overwhelms me. I have seen images of Muslim men in checkered red headscarves before. I have seen the star and crescent flags. I have heard the cries of “Allahu Akbar.” But in the past, these images and sounds came to me through photographs and YouTube clips. They documented protests in which angry, often disillusioned young Muslim men protested against the United States, Israel, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, former President Bush or even President Obama.
It often felt, as a Jewish American, that these protests were somehow directed against me.
This time, the images and sounds are so similar. And yet how different it is to hear these words and see these symbols in a way that feels joyous and not scary. This time, I do not feel like the outsider being denounced. I feel part of the celebration.
Hanna Ingber Win covers Mumbai for GlobalPost. She was formerly the World Editor of the Huffington Post.