By Zehra Kazmi:
Ramzan is obviously an important month for me but it’s true that I have been thinking about it more since I am writing a column on it. At this time last year, I was more concerned about the DU cut offs than what it means to be a Muslim. If I didn’t have to write a piece every 2-3 days, I would have probably just gone about this month the way I had been going about it all my life.
I grew up in a town far away from my extended family in Uttar Pradesh and Delhi. My parents’ social circle mostly included fellow government servants – almost none of them are Muslims. I had Muslim classmates growing up in school but I am close to very few of them. Ramzan is a quiet affair in my house. We pray, we fast, buy new clothes before Eid and try to do our bit. As I was mulling over what I should talk about next in my article, a suggestion by my brother made me wonder about how people who do not necessarily belong to a background similar to mine celebrate Ramzan.
Iftekhar Ali co-owns the R. Ali and Sons Bakery with his brother. The shop is situated in the most important shopping area of Ranchi, unimaginatively called Main Road. The bakery has been around for almost a century and like most of Ranchi’s Muslims, is my mother’s preferred destination for the family’s iftaar shopping. I talk to him before he leaves for tarawih (extra prayers performed by Muslims at night in the month of Ramzan).
For him, Ramzan is a month of “discipline and prayer.”
“Not watching useless TV“, he repeats with a mildly annoyed expression on his face. His eyes light up as he explains to me the different culinary traditions of the month, “We focus a lot on baked goods this month. There is sheermal and baakharkhani. We have different types of baakharkhaani-khoya, keema and banana are always popular. We import dates from the Middle East. Some customers demand for ajwa dates which cost approximately Rs 3000 per kilo. We import them from Medina in Saudi Arabia. They have been recommended by The Prophet himself in the hadith. Honey and chocolate dipped dates have also become quite popular. Of course, sewai is the most important food item of the month. Banarsi, qimami and sheer sewai are some of the different preparations.” When I ask him if people’s tastes have changed in the past few decades, he muses, “Yes, people want something new every few years. Things have changed from our father’s time.”
He must leave for his prayers now.
I catch up with Yasir Rizvi, who is in his early thirties and working for a large multinational bank in Gurgaon. I ask him about how his Ramzan has been like this year. “I didn’t keep the first three rozas this time but it doesn’t feel like Ramzan if I don’t fast, so I won’t miss anymore. I look forward to meeting my family and celebrating Eid together and also the food. Lots of food,” he grins widely.
“I am trying to organize an iftaar at Shah-e-Mardan Dargah and feed as many people as I can this year but the dates are all booked. Let’s see, I hope this works out.” What are his impressions of the month? He tells me, “I like how the anticipation builds up to Eid. I miss the atmosphere of places like Aligarh where the excitement is so palpable. I am sure it is the same for certain areas in Delhi as well. I don’t really see much of it around me because of the kind of lifestyle people like us lead,” he rues.
He goes on to add, “What really touches me is how my non-Muslim friends go out of their way to be considerate towards me during this time – my boss might let me off early and they don’t let me do any heavy work. Some of them are surprised that I fast during the month, they don’t expect me to. They are all very inquisitive to know what Ramzan is all about and they try to correlate it to their religious festivals like Navratra. I invite them over to my place for iftaar. The cultural exchange is what makes living in a multi-religious society truly fascinating. For me, Ramzan and Moharram are both spiritual and socio-religious markers of my year.” I could see that he felt strongly about the idea of community. A sense of nostalgia pervades his words.
Mir Wasim Raja is a twenty year old medical student in Guwahati Medical College and Hospital. He sheepishly admits to me about not being particularly religious. When I ask him how he approaches Ramzan, he says after some thought, “Ramzan gives people like my parents the power to exercise self restraint, deny temptations. That it would strengthen their faith, and anything that strengthens faith for people to believe in something greater than themselves, I can respect that. God knows the world needs more of faith and less of cynicism. Well, Ramzan’s roza is well and good. But the fanatical may seek to fast or impose it on people whose faculties may not be able to keep up with it. Religion was meant to provide people with a medium to believe in something in moments of despair, to never feel alone, to provide peace of mind, bring people together. The world needs it no doubt. Provided it is adapted.” For Mir, both cynicism and faith overlap in the way they do for a lot of us.
I decide to meet Shagufi and ask her what Ramzan means for her. She neatly pins her dupatta around her shoulder to ensure that it covers her long black hair. She lives in Hindpiri, a predominantly Muslim locality of Ranchi. Her father works as a driver for the Forest Department in the city. Her earnest face radiates with pride as she informs me how she hasn’t missed a single roza this month. “The month of Ramzan feels special. I just pray that everyone is healthy and happy and I do well in life,” is her response when I ask her what she likes about Ramzan. After much prodding to tell me what she wants this Eid, she replies, “I want to feed a poor child in my neighbourhood and buy her clothes. I can feed her but it’s not possible to buy clothes because we can’t.” I was pleasantly surprised by how a little girl didn’t demand an Eid present for herself but wished to feed someone less fortunate that day.
Inequality and disparity are the realities of modern-day India that we all live with. The way ‘an average Muslim’ chooses to understand something like religion differs not just across classes but also individuals. It’s interesting how all these diverse identities and opinions seem to converge at this time of the year to give some semblance of a community. I hate to generalize and quote universal truths but I guess, despite everything, everyone looks forward to a happy Eid and good food. Whatever our definition of happiness is or means are, festivals like Diwali or Eid should remind us to give and think about others. Their purpose is achieved.
This article is part of Youth Ki Awaaz’s special coverage of Ramzan this month. Follow Ramzan With Zehra for more.