Iftar at Calcutta Muslim Orphanage in Shariff Lane, off Ripon Street
For all my well-wishers, who say ‘wow’ when I tell them I will be fasting 30 Ramazan days, I have a confession. I am a fraud. I sleep four fasting hours, spend eight in an air-conditioned office, commute chauffeured and type copy as my form of the most exerting Ramazan labour.
So as a penance for this strategic inertia, I have selected to write a piece on all those who have brought this fraudness upon me. My Ramazan heroes.
If there were a Ramazan Fauja Singh, it would probably be Mohammad Siddique. Rickshaw puller. Eighty six year-old. Terrain MG Road to New Market. I catch him after iftar at Weston Street: “Normally I run my rickshaw 10 hours a day but in Ramazan, I just do four hours,” he says, a trifle embarrassed with this under-delivery.
The “just do” is still equivalent to around six kilometre without Gatorade; when he breaks sweat or breath on the streets of central Calcutta, he lowers the rickshaw to the side, sits alongside the pavement to regain his momentum and is ready to run again; when the sawaari recognises that they are being driven by a man twice their age and thirsting, they hold their patience; when they don’t, they “tch-tch” and look around like under-serviced customers regretting the choice of their vendor.
Even as much of the world would be a wee bit guilty about a society that can have a buzurg running himself to extinction, the man could actually be turning the biological clock back. Just last year, “chacha” had a creeping “paalish” (paralysis) on his left side but he dismisses this with a “halka sa, koi takleef nahi”, which is probably the kind of regimen or attitude that has kept him running.
He downs eight bottles of liquids at sunset, nibbles on fruit, is off for taraawi prayers at 8.15, finishes at 10.45 and takes the last 47B home to Belgachhia.
I provoke him: doesn’t he feel like breaking his roza on a difficult afternoon? He responds with the dignity of a man who may be poor but never too poor to be beaten: “Upar waala jaan hi ley ley, lekin paani peeyenge nahi!”
If there were a gold for a Ramazan marathon, it would probably go to Tayyeba Khatoon of Park Circus. Ninety six. Fasting break-less for 88 years. Largely bed-ridden. You would think that apart from the small inconvenience of not being able to have her meal on time, there really would be no challenge in her Ramazan.
“But there is”, says a family member, “and it is in the worklessness. Until just two years ago, when she was still mobile, she would walk slowly into the kitchen and we would give her some vegetables to cut as that would keep her engrossed for a couple of hours (and we would know exactly which ones she would have cut because while eating some pieces would be larger and uneven). So even as the Ramazan challenge for most is the hunger and the thirst, hers now is the passing of time. She will call us every couple of hours to ask, “Beta, waqt hua?”
And even though the grand old lady from Amroha doesn’t quite step out of bed, even she feels a drying of the throat in the afternoon and a sweeping energy drain by the time Ramazan is into its third week. So I make a deliberate faith-questioning provocation: “Then why fast at all?”
And she answers with the unhurried patience of her age: “Haan, it is difficult, haan gala sookhta hai, haan I feel weak, lekin baavajood (regardless)….” And then to emphasise, perhaps because I may not have caught on, she repeats what could be the ultimate Ramazan single-liner. “Baavajood!”
My third hero. Mokhtar Alam. Rugby teacher, coach, player, referee and coordinator. Each rugby game consumes 80 minutes; Mokhtar reckons that he would be doing about “three kilometres” during a game without giving any of his team members the rope that he may have slacked off; following the final whistle when his colleagues reach immediately for their chilled barley liquid, Mokhtar must wait 45 minutes to sunset.
This is the least of his tortures; the following day, he could be refereeing, so he has to be “on the ball” and this time he reckons that he could be doing at least eight kilometres. Up and down. Up and down. Then, when he coaches, he has to be out in the sun with his boys for three hours. And when he coordinates, he has to be out for eight. Six days of a week at rugby and fasting. So what keeps him going?
“Two litres between sunset and dinner as a discipline puts all those liquids back into the body and the result is that only in the last year have I felt the occasional muscle pull, otherwise khuda ka shukr, no complaints.”
Then there is 57-year-old Basheer who cooks iftar on a wood-fed fire in Ripon Street for 600-1,000 people each evening but cannot taste; there is Mohammed Wasim who hauls 500kg containers (with a team of five) in the Bantala leather complex but cannot nap; there is event manager Rehan who extracts a khajoor to nibble fuss-less at sunset even as models are sashaying down the ramp; there is waiter Manzoor in Chandni Chowk who must soak in the biryani aroma that he serves without tempting his senses; there is the businessman Saifuddin who ekes out only three sleep hours between prayers on any Ramazan night but cannot turn the alarm off; there is Fatema who rises at 2.30am to prepare sehri but cannot miss a day; there is Murtaza who walks two kilometres pre-dawn to the Brabourne Road masjid and back with another 13 hours to go to finish line but cannot hitch a ride; there is 10-year-old Adam who logged 30 fasts (including a 13km school commute) but would not cheat at the canteen.
These stories I can explain as the power of a maahaul. But how do I explain Priya Home of Park Circus who was born a Hindu, became a Christian and is a practising Muslim? Fasts in Ramazan. Shuns cosmetics. Iftars with widows. In the name of peace, harmony and solidarity. This could have been dismissed as an occasional, but for one detail. She has been fasting 30 practicing days for the last 12 years.