Ananya & Mohadassa Syed
(Ananya is a student of Symbiosis School of Liberal Arts and Mohadassa a student of Mumbai University)
A walk on the frenzied streets of Bhindi Bazaar raised a strange, tickling realization within me. I was an outsider, a detached observer who unintentionally found herself at a curious distance from her immediate surroundings. Perhaps, the overwhelming sea of shrieking vehicles and crowded lanes kept me from immersing into the landscape entirely. Plus, the uninterrupted rain that kept changing its intensity only made it trickier for me to gather my thoughts. Yet, alarming busyness and weird monsoon weather is characteristic for most of Mumbai’s localities.
I felt like a foreigner because that’s what I am in a locality like Bhindi Bazaar. Most of the streets I am used to walking on blare of names, images, and words that plead allegiance to Hindi or English.The speaker from the nearby mosque was delivering a sermon in Urdu along with various commands including one that instructed men to make space for women while walking on the road. Mohadassa Syed, my colleague translated the mosque’s words for me along with parts of the conversations I was to have later in the day.There were many bookstores around that exclusively sold Quran’s. Many street food vendors displayed a rich variety of non-vegetarian dishes, a significant rarity among the pani puri and chaat filled kiosks I am familiar with. While I often see skull-capped men and burqa clad women walking on the street, I have rarely seen so many inhabiting the same locality. (Not to mention, such a stark absence of vermillion/bindi wearing sari clad women.) The ghettoization of the Muslim population over the years has caused localities like Bhindi Bazaar to develop distinctive imagery. My religious identity has for the most part been an unimportant part of my personality but, I was suddenly aware of being a Hindu (legally). And, that felt strange, nearly alienating me from the same humanity I shared with the residents of Bhindi Bazaar as with resident anywhere else.
While Bhindi Bazaar remains a bustling and hectic area all year long, it attracts people from all parts of Mumbai during Ramadan. Imran, a 27 year old vendor who sells jewelry in Meena Bazaar keeps his shops open longer during the festival. Meena Bazaar consists of a long line of vendors selling nearly the same jewelry at the same prices. Many shops go on to stay open till five in the morning during the festival. Imran commented on how the area is visited by people belonging to various communities including Jain, Guajarati, Marathi, Parsee, and many others for the array of non-vegetarian dishes. He found the image of Ramadan projected as an opportunity to feast on delicacies rather funny given that Muslim individuals eat such dishes in their homes regularly. Perhaps, this image is one that is produced and articulated by non-Muslims. For Imran, the purpose of Ramadan was Mubarak and to purify himself. Being a Sunni Muslim, the most significant change the festival brings into his daily routine is the one hour of communal prayer he engages in daily. While he finds the initial days of fasting to be difficult, he becomes accustomed to the routine soon and is able to sustain great personal strength throughout the festival. When asked about his thoughts on Gokul Das, an elderly Hindu man who was beaten for eating in public during fasting hours in Sindh- Pakistan, he stated how the fast is a personal act for Allah and didn’t understand why other people eating should matter. Even if a Muslim chooses against fasting, it will be their sin and so, the matter could not affect him personally.
A little ahead of Meena Bazaar sat a group of Muslim women who belonged to the same extended family. They sat on a bench on the sidewalk sheltered by a roof made of a blue cloth. Parveen, the oldest in the lot stated how her workload as a housemaid resulted in her skipping the fast for the first time this year. She does not belong to a particular village as the family hails from Mumbai. She hopes that Allah will understand her helplessness. For Parveen, Ramadan represents an opportunity to secure a good afterlife. Her sixteen year old niece, Zohrabi was the only individual in the family who managed to keep her fast. Zohrabi shyly explained that Roza made her feel good about herself and that she didn’t find it too difficult to keep the fast. After ending her fast in the evening, Zohrabi eats plenty of fruits.
The most pleasant encounter I had that day was with Ashraf Merchant. A retired employee of a multinational corporation, he was watching over his friend’s bookstore that exclusively sold Qurans. Ashraf had agreeable warmth about him as he insisted Mohadassa and I sit down and made us laugh at his impression of a ruffian-like Mumbaikar. He began fasting at the age of 11 years and Ramadan holds great personal significance for him. For Ashraf, fasting represents an opportunity to better one’s mentality and behavior because one cannot lie and one must not look at or speak of negative things during Ramadan. In addition, he finds that staying hungry for prolonged hours builds a greater sense of empathy for the underprivileged for whom the practice is an everyday matter. Ashraf strongly believes that the experience of Ramadan helps individuals become thorough human beings. He doesn’t think that one’s daily routine is affected by the festival if time is managed properly. Ashraf wryly commented on all the people who don’t understand the meaning of the festival and think it is for enjoyment and feasting. His family doesn’t eat anything special during the festival but only eats more of fruits and dates. Ashraf believes that the police officers, who beat up Gokul Das in Pakistan, were foolish and the act was disgusting and condemnable. However, he also finds that people should not eat in public to respect the sentiments of the Muslim population but this can only be extended as a request.
I wonder how Ashraf would respond to Ahmad Hussain’s reason for fasting during Ramadan. A 26 year old migrant from Assam, he works at a retail store that sells clothes and sportswear. Fasting during Ramadan represents tradition for Ahmad, something that he must do every year. Ahmad doesn’t think that his daily routine is impacted by the festival although; there is slight growth in business in the days nearing Eid. He doesn’t find there to be any special difference in the manner in which he celebrated Ramadan in Assam and in Mumbai. He still breaks his fast with dates and water and he eats the same dishes he would eat back home.
Having grown up in a foreign country, I have behaved and felt like a foreigner in my own land at multiple instances. However, those sentiments were always directed at some sort of an empathetic reconciliation. This was different. This was a tiny, insignificant part of me proclaiming that I am a Hindu in a Muslim locality and so, I don’t belong here.
The reaction was perhaps rooted in the dangerous Islamophobic images and symbols and the hetero-referential perspective with which the fascist Hindutva imagines the Islamic identity that I have consumed through mainstream culture gone astray. These conversations however, convinced me of the fact that people can be diversely different but not divisively. Ramadan unites these individuals “divided” by class, age, region, and gender and their different interpretations of the festival. It didn’t matter who we spoke to, the message was simple and clear, the month of Ramadan not only signified a period of spiritual growth among the rozedar’s, but it also helped build an affinity with the underprivileged. It was an act simply for the sake of pleasing their Lord, and a month of peace and tranquility.
“Oh you who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may guard (against evil).”
-The Holy Quran, Chapter 2, Verse 183.