On the flight to Bombay—which a British single mother with an addiction to horse tranquilizers, or a benefits administrator dispensing them, would call Mumbai—I came across a Times of India news report entitled “6,000 Ulema back fatwa on Terror.”  I recalled that the first time I heard the word fatwa was in connection with Salman Rushdie’s blasphemy, a publicity trick not unlike Christopher Hitchens’.

I discovered that the ulema were Islamic scholars, who had come together at a conference in Hyderabad to endorse “a fatwa that declares that all forms of terrorism are against the spirit of Islam.”  The document, known as the Hyderabad Declaration, had been drawn up by the grand mufti of Darul Uloom, Maulana Mufti Habibur Rahman, and other luminaries of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, representing “almost all schools of thought in Islam.”  Explaining the document’s rationale, Maulana Mahmood Madani said: “Terrorism has no religion.  Don’t link it to Islam, Hinduism or any other faith.”

On my arrival to the Taj Palace Hotel in Bombay, I scoured Western newspapers for coverage of the Hyderabad conference.  There was not a word.  And yet, intuitively, to a man who had chanced upon the exotic word ulema some hours previously, it seemed a hugely important event.  Imagine 6,000 university professors coming together to condemn political correctness in academia, or 6,000 ministers of the Gospel signing a petition against abortion.  Would that not make the papers?

I had come to Bombay with an old friend, the photographer Gusov, as a guest of the Taj Mahal group of hotels.  Gusov was shooting a catalog for the group, culturally a tricky affair to which extremely thin Indian models, leaning on balustrades with an air of Western metropolitan unconcern, were to lend a suitable degree of marketing sophistication.  I was there to observe, but also to keep my traveling companion from making a nuisance of himself.  To paraphrase Bismarck, a man who screams at the waiter to get his damn fingers out of the curry has no heart, while a man who asks the stick of a girl whose name he cannot pronounce up to his room has no mind.  Gusov can combine the two kinds of depravity in the span of a single luncheon engagement.

A few days after our departure for a remote atoll in the Maldives owned by the Taj, a small band of malfeasants in jeans and T-shirts got off the boat in the nearby harbor, unpacked some Kalashnikovs and explosives, and proceeded to trash the hotel and several other buildings in the city, killing 141 and wounding hundreds.  The catalog Gusov had photographed was now more than a little misleading.

As of this writing, investigation of the incident in Bombay is threatening to escalate into a war between India and Pakistan, both nuclear powers, on the tenuous evidence that the malfeasants in question, called “Muslim fanatics” by the Western press, “received their training” in Pakistani Kashmir.  I say tenuous, because whatever training is needed to point an automatic weapon at unarmed civilians, so long as somebody out there foots the bill for the clips, can just as easily be received in nondenominational Minnesota, Merseyside, or Minsk.  Six-thousand ulema can’t be all wrong, I reckon.  Religion had nothing to do with Gusov being bombed out of a catalog.

Exactly a century ago, the wisest man of his generation, the immortal Saki, wrote of the


feuds, springing up and flourishing apart from any basis of racial, political, religious or economic causes, as a hint perhaps to crass unseeing altruists that enmity has its place and purpose in the world.


Indeed, had my companion not grown bored of brushing his teeth with Evian, this page would have been taken up by my obituary, as persuasive an argument as any for relating the Bombay incident to religious intolerance.

“I cannot accept this application,” the clerk at the Indian consulate had said to me as I was getting my visa.  “It is having been filled out with an improperly blue pen.”

“Look here,” I protested, “every single pen by every single window in this place has got blue ink in it!  Haven’t you made me go through the whole rigmarole, writing out all my previous reincarnations as man, beast, and political animal, so you could catch me out as a potential terrorist?  Can’t you catch me out if I write with a blue pen?”

“No,” he replied.  “It must be a rigorously black pen.”

Was this a peculiarly Indian form of madness?  Only as far as the phraseology.  Anybody who has trespassed on bureaucratic territory, whether in Minnesota, Merseyside, or Minsk, will agree that the absurdity of limiting the search for putative malfeasance to individuals who instinctively avoid using free ink provided to them by the government is no more specifically Hindu than the Bombay massacre is distinctively Muslim.

I decided to try a less rigorous floor.  In the cavernous gloom of a superior’s office, far from the teeming multitudes below, another clerk, after an examination of the Taj logotype on the contract, accepted the forms.  “The Palace Hotel is a veritable landmark status of the city of Bombay,” he added.  “Overseas visitors will find it most comfortable there.”