Of my mothballed nostalgia, my Muharram memories are the fondest.
Muharram is the first month of the Islamic calendar. Ironically, Muslims do not celebrate the new year (no sending Happy New Year cards or SMSes); the month coincides with the martyrdom of the Prophet’s grandson Husain on the 10th day of the month. Even as Imam Husain was martyred in just one day, the entire month has come to be associated with mourning.
As a child, I would spend nine Muharram days listening to a cleric paint a picture of the burning Iraqi desert sands, of crafty manoeuvring that cut Husain’s flock off the Euphrates, how Husain’s family and attendants wilted in the October thirst, how the menfolk were massacred one afternoon.
As a child, Muharram was ‘Husain and nothing but’; after four decades, Muharram has morphed in the mind; the ‘film’ of the noise, smells and characters of Muharram has assumed a 70mm dimension.
Muharram will always be about food.
Before we stepped into the waaz (discourse), three thaals would be placed inside the sehen (large-ish ante chamber). One thaal would have maleeda (traditional wheat-based sweet), the other one would have kani no laarvo (matted ladoo) and the third would have the normal laddoos we get today. Each laddoo would be the size of a cricket ball. You could attack the mountain of maleeda or the ladoos. Courtesy demanded that one nibble on them. I had a sugar weakness; I would make a meal of the laddoos (with cold dahi, what a combo) until it became too embarrassing to eat with fellow thaal-sitters watching me.
All those tabloids that drool about the Ramzan eateries will never know that the best-kept secret was the Muharram afternoon and evening jaman (collective meal); how when the cook Mohammedbhai (they called him bhatiyaara, which phonetically sounds like he was a blacksmith) was alive, the whisper during the morning waaz would be that he was going to be cooking the post-waaz lunch and evening’s niyaaz. So even as the poor cleric would still be completing the description of Husain’s tragic martyrdom, the last three rows would have already begun to decamp for the community eating hall, only for the cleric to issue a shrill SOS: “Bhaiyyo! Beso! Beso! Bayaan pooru natthi thayu. Koi uthi ne jaaye nahi!’ (Brothers, please sit, please sit, the sermon is not over. No one to leave now!)
The meals of Muharram
Then there would be jostled queuing to get to the thaal where one would be served the evening meal. The scramble for sitting space; as soon as you sat at a near-empty round thaal, the lone person sitting alongside would turn to you with “But I am keeping place for seven others. They should be coming in 10 minutes” and off you went looking for space to another thaal where you encountered the same destiny until you came to a thaal where the bhai moomin (believing brother) would accept you with relief because he would be worried that if he was the only one on the thaal then he would not be served (minimum eight to a thaal for you to get your collective meal).
If all the thaals were occupied, tough luck. You would have to wait until all the guests had eaten, the khidmatguzaars had sanitised the place and were ready to serve all over again. That would take another hour. The term we used for each eating cycle was ‘khayp’. If someone said he had eaten in the pehli khayp (first round), there would be awe. “Jagah mili gayi?” (Did you find place?) “Hamari toh set place chhey” (Our place is fixed). Even bigger awe.
There used to be a smell about the food. If it was the seventh Muharram evening, the jaman would be hosted for the entire community by one family. We never called them by their surname; we referred to them by the name of their Clive Street shop; in this case, it would be EH Taher & Co and the menu was the same as had been for 30 years — jalebi (thick rounded stem) followed by biryani and cold flavoured mattha (cold!).
On other evenings it would be oily tarkari and spiced dal. Those were the days before we had been educated that something as innocuous as tari-rich (oil-rich) ghosht tarkaari could cause someone to seize his chest in pain at a later date; those were the days when you would dip the naan deep into the oily tarkaari and eat with guilt-free relish; those were the days when a firni would be placed on the thaal with a handwritten slip that mentioned the name of the person in whose memory you needed to recite a fateha (prayer); those were the days when they served machine-churned ice cream (smooth as silk, not the branded country cousin).
The heroes were the people who served
On most days we would eat in the large community hall where Mahmood and Ayaz sat thigh-to-thigh and ate the same meal. But on the other days, the host of that evening’s dinner would invite you specially to eat in another cloistered room they mindlessly called ‘VIP Hall’, where they gave you a couple of dishes and ice cream servings more than what they served everybody else (they hadn’t heard of governance in those days).
The heroes of the piece were the people who served. The khidmatguzaars. The guys who ran successful businesses during the day but doubled as helpers carrying large thaals or steel tarkari buckets to feed the hungries like us with a single-use plastic aproned around their midriff. These are the guys I would like to say a thank you to. I know they may never read this but Qadarbhai Habashi (because he looked like Frank Worrell, nobody called him by his surname Dahodwala) thank you, Asgarbhai Pakka thank you, Sibatra kakaji thank you, and thank you to all those people who got home dead tired at midnight so that we could get home by 8.30pm.