By Nafees Ahmad:
It was 3:39 a.m. in the morning when my phone rang. The call was meant to wake me up for my sahri (a pre-dawn meal). I only had ten minutes to wolf down whatever was available in my room. I hurriedly chopped a muskmelon and ate it. Now I was left with three more minutes, and I quickly gulped down as many dates and glasses of water as I could. Had I been another 10 minutes late, this would not have amounted to my fifth sahri of this Ramadan. Phew, that was close!
Yesterday, I did better and got up early at 2:00 a.m. and decided to step out to have tea. I left three tea stalls in a row to reach my favourite one. I had two cups of tea while browsing through my Facebook page on my mobile phone.
Many of you might wonder, “why tea” in the middle of the night. But wait! You will spot in Jamia Nagar, many tea stalls and street-side eateries remaining open throughout the night and people forming small groups gossiping, smoking and sipping tea, throughout the whole night. Tea is almost a pre-requisite before starting a fast. And living in Delhi makes it easier to procure tea in the night which transforms the entire fasting experience altogether.
Since 2009, I have been observing fasts in Delhi. It is easier to fast in Delhi with modern amenities such as round the clock electricity (barring a few hours of sporadic outage) and availability of everything near one’s residence unlike back home in Mewat where I used to fast before 2009. Another factor which makes fasting in Delhi different is its night culture. Throughout the month, Delhi’s Muslim-majority localities like Jamia Nagar remain lively during the nights. The liveliness starts from dusk when people break their fast and venture to tea stalls sipping tea, lassi and soft drinks. They remain in tea stalls until the call for Taraweeh is made at around nine. The Taraweeh, a special evening prayer organised only in Ramadan, further revives the atmosphere. Post Taraweeh, you can spot people gathering in numerous street-side open eateries savouring various sorts of chaats, kebabs, rubri, momos, pakodi, mewad, falooda and some special nightly feasts etc.
Back home, things are quite different; people in Mewat sleep immediately after Taraweeh and nobody is awake during the night. And the story is similar across most of rural India. Fasting in rural India especially during summer is very strenuous. Moreover, this year’s Ramadan, with the longest fasting hours in 36 years as reported by Hindustan Times, will be more demanding amidst hot and humid conditions.
So why is it necessary to starve in such blistering heat? Many of my friends in Delhi wonder how one can abstain from food and liquids for such a long period of 15 hours at a stretch. Many wonder if it is compulsory for everyone. This call in question, begs us to go back to why Ramadan is observed and how is it abided by in different regions.
Ramadan is the holiest month of the Islamic calendar based on the fluctuating lunar system. It is the ninth month which culminates in Eid-ul-Fitr. Muslims believe that it was during Ramadan that the Qur’an was first revealed to Prophet Muhammad. During Ramadan, observant Muslims, comprising 1.6 billion, all over the world, abstain from eating, drinking, smoking and sex during daylight hours. This is because Ramadan is obligatory on adult Muslim men and women and is one of the five pillars of Islam.
Muslims observe fast only during Ramadan which occurs only once a year. They are not allowed to have anything – even a sip of water or juice during the whole day – from dawn to dusk. It is not compulsory for everyone; some categories of people are exempt from fasting – the sick, the elderly, children, travellers, pregnant and menstruating women.
Although Ramadan is observed by Muslims from all walks of life but there are certain variations. Muslims are a diverse and multi-ethnic community with different rituals and traditions. They also subscribe to different schools of thought. Their cultural habits differ with varying regions. In Mewat, one can see people having sahri with roti and dahi smeared in ghee whereas in a city like Delhi people have korma and roti or some people just prefer to have a light meal like fani (vermicelli), bread and milk.
In Mewat, one of the rural districts of Haryana, where I was born and brought up, Muslims face a lot of hardship during Ramadan because they are agriculturists and they have to work hard to sustain themselves in the blistering heat. Areas which do not have potable water, are the hardest hit, as the females of those villages travel miles to ferry water while observing their fast. People who are dependent on animal husbandry also have a tough time managing their cattle during the day while observing fast.
Despite problems and varying cultural differences and practices, Ramadan is celebrated across the country with great fanfare and ebullience. It cultivates self-discipline among devout Muslims and also acts as a spiritual detox for them. It teaches self-restraint. The Qur’an describes the main purpose of the fast as being to “attain taqwa”, or “God-consciousness”. It brings Muslims together during Iftar and hence fosters unity among them.