Sandeep Bhaiyya, Malviya Aunty, Chunmun, Ram, Shyam, my mom, my wife, the many, many friends, and that hostel heater. The first sentence sounds like a cluster of people with a hostel heater thrown in between them! This is the month of Ramzan and for someone who has been lucky enough to observe the fast and behave like a ‘proper’ Muslim for a month, these are the people and things I am thankful for.
My mom tells me that I have been fasting since the age of six or seven. Needless to say, I was an early starter. Thanks to my balanced appetite and supportive and great company, I have been successfully fasting every year.
For those who don’t know, fasting begins at dawn when we eat Sahri. It is the meal that helps us last the day, and also is considered a tradition.
When I was in school, it was my mother who kept the tradition going by waking up all the kids of the house, the unwilling souls. Who wants to get up at 3 a.m. and eat? The typical Sahri at home would consist of roti or paratha with last night kababs or egg curry. There was also something called “sooth pheni” made with milk. A cup of tea was a must to avoid headaches. We would gobble as much water as we can till the time the sirens would sound or the mosques would announce that the time is over!
Life changed dramatically when I moved to the hostel for my graduation in Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). The luxury of kebabs and curries was no longer there. More importantly, there was no mom to wake me up. The independence came with accountability, and Ramzan with two eggs and one packet of milk, given to us a day in advance for Sahri. This is when the secret room heaters came to our rescue. All friends would bring out their heaters and we’d boil eggs, warm up the milk, make some tea. It was fun of a different kind. Hunger pangs troubled us often, but then this is what hostel life looks like. Three years passed away pretty quickly. Today when I think about those days, I feel like those years passed us by like a breeze!
Cut to the year 2003. My MBA programme. I stayed as a paying guest in the house of a gentleman called Sandeep Arora (famously known as Sandeep Bhaiyya) in the posh colony of New Hyderabad in Lucknow. Sandeep bhaiyya ran a corporate lunch catering business and had rented out a room to the two people including me. Neyaz Bhai and I came to Lucknow from AMU to pursue our MBA. As Ramzan approached, we began worrying. How would we observe the fast while staying in a PG accommodation, where the kitchen was always busy from the catering work and we didn’t have access to it? Adding to our worries was the fact that Sandeep Bhaiyya was a pure vegetarian! But our good luck prevailed. This time it greeted us in the form of Ram and Shyam. They both were Sandeep Bhaiyya’s employees and were assigned the duty preparing fresh Sahri for us, every morning. We were informed about it a day before the first day of Ramzan, and it surprised us, delighted us and left us with strange emotions.
Every day we would eat some new delicacy with milk, tea and freshly made chapatis. Not only that, we got wake up calls so we didn’t out on the fasting. Both Neyaz Bhai and I felt so much at home at the PG. I would have never dreamt of such an experience at the house of a devout Hindu. But those were good days, we didn’t look at each other on the basis our religious identities.
After completing my MBA I was lucky enough to find a good starting job in the city of dreams, Mumbai. And even luckier to find a place close to the office. Yet again, I found myself living, in a PG accommodation, in a cramped room with two of my MBA classmates. We landed up at the doorsteps of one Mrs Malaviya, a Hindu Brahmin belonging to Allahabad and well settled in Mumbai. Aunty (as we started calling her from the first meeting) was kind enough to give the three of us a room meant for two. The lodging came with food that she prepared herself. Again, she was a pure vegetarian.
I have been a hardcore non-vegetarian since my hostel days, but thanks to Sandeep Bhaiyya and now Aunty, I started enjoying vegetarian food too. (I am lying, I didn’t have a choice ) .
Ramzan arrived, so did the thought of skipping fasting. Aunty had a son and stayed with her husband, a small, happy family. But God was kind to me again. Despite me asking her not to, aunty got up every morning to prepare tea and fresh chapatis for me. I was actually very embarrassed the first day and insisted that she not put herself through so much trouble. But then there are souls who are kinder than we can ever imagine. Aunty did this every year for me. I stayed there for four years and every Ramzan she would happily cook for me as if I was her own son. She didn’t have to do it, but she did it happily and with love. How I miss those days!
And then I moved to a rented flat and this guy called Chunmun (Anil), a help, came and prepared some amazing sahri and iftaar with great love and care.
As of today, I have been married for five years, and living with my wonderful wife and family has made Sahri times great again. With some yummy mango shake to help polish off delicious chicken curry, kebabs and chapatis, and with my mom there with me to wake me up in the morning, just like old days, things are back to being the way they were.
Every Ramzan, I thank God for making me meet Sandeep Bhaiyya, Ram, Shyam, Chunmun and Malaviya Aunty. I am fortunate to be in a country where humanity and respect for others are way above small religious differences.
I have so many other Iftaar stories with colleagues of different faiths across Indian cities. Many who fasted for the whole day, just to share that experience with us.
God has been kind to give us this blessed month of Ramzan, and kinder to have made this country a land of diversity.
Ramzan Mubarak and Jai Hind.