Shaukat Ajmeri

Ramadan, iftaar and nostalgia

14-minute read

During the Cold War American presidents had a handy way to manipulate the masses. All they had to do was cry out “the Russians are coming, the Russians are coming” and the gullible Americans would be spooked out of their wits. Similarly, there is a way to spook the Muslims? No, it’s not “the Americans are coming”, although that is more terrifyingly true than one can imagine. I’m referring to something closer to home, something integral to their faith.

Yes, you guessed it. Just say “Ramadan is coming” and a sudden dread fills their heart. As soon as it is said they want the thought banished lest it may linger and spoil their mood, and the person who says it is considered rude, not fit for polite company. Of course, for the pious and pretentious this is the most blasphemous thing one could say, but I’m not talking about them.

I’m talking about Muslims Lite, the kind who were born into the religion, given a Muslim name and faith, and were conditioned into accepting its ways and norms the way we are conditioned into accepting schooling, market forces, marriage, taxes, traffic rules etc. In short, they are Muslims for no fault of their own. Or, to put it more delicately, of no choosing of their own.

So, once a Muslim is always a Muslim. That is the general norm, although there will always be an odd apostate here and a victim of reason there. Even then, neither of them has much to fear, for their lack of faith was preordained. The Quran clearly says that it’s up to Allah whom He makes believers and whom He does not. Of course, Muslims Lite do not know this, nor do they care. And the mullahs even if they knew would never let on, because revealing the finer points of revelations does not make good business sense.

Muslims Lite tend to struggle with their Muslim identity like they do with their, say, skin colour, but as they grow old and are cast into the chaotic world of cultural diversity they begin to cleave to their Muslimness and even begin to take pride in it. Yet, it is rare for anyone of them to take that leap of faith and become truly religious. For them religion is a little more than a cultural thing. It gives them an identity, a community and social occasions where men and women can come together to gossip and kvetch about the world.

Their knowledge of religion is sketchy and almost always second-hand based on hearsay. For them religion is rituals, and that’s all they care about as it makes them feel and look like Muslims. Practice of formal religion, superficial and perfunctory, is as far as they would go in being religious.

And I’m with them all the way. No amount of devoutness or deep study of religion will bring them any closer to what is promised. There are no guarantees – none in this life and even fewer in afterlife, no matter what the scriptures say or how the mullahs interpret them. As for mullahs, Muslims Lite treat them with snickering contempt. But if you’ve the misfortune or the stupidity of belonging to the priest-infested Orthodox Bohra fold then it’s mullahs who hold you in contempt and snicker in your face. Yes, such a thing is possible.

Muslims Lite tolerate mullahs only because they are needed to perform rituals and, when rituals demand, tell stories. One such story is popular about Ramadan. The legend has it that the one-month Ramadan was a real deal that Prophet Mohammed struck with Allah. During the Prophet’s trip to the Seven Heavens – Miraj – Allah prescribed six months of fasting for Muslims. The Prophet baulked at the suggestion and, fearing revolt from the believers, asked Moses to intercede, who with tact and much haggling brought it down to one month. That by any stretch is quite a bargain. But for Muslims Lite it is still 30 days too many.

Even in the best of seasons, the very thought of Ramadan unsettles their mind. But it positively unsettles their life when it arrives in summer months when the days are long, the sun is hot and the mood is not just into it. It is not just the prospect of fasting for long hours that rankles them so but the fact that they have to plan their parties and vacations around the Holy month. And heaven forbid if they have to forgo some of the fun to make room for it.

For the pious and pretentious sacrificing fun is a good thing, right up Allah’s alley, the very raison d’être of religion. But for Muslims Lite it is a waste of life. Even so, no matter how much they gripe and grovel, they have little chance against 14 centuries of conditioning that has paralysed their psyche with fear and guilt. They finally give in to the inevitable. Ramadan arrives and the dull dread in the heart, in a surprising twist, gives way to solemn piety.

There is a frantic exchange of greetings on Ramadan’s arrival – and some eager souls start it days in advance much to the irritation of Muslims Lite. The greeting’s format is pretty much standard and it normally ends with the mandatory plea asking others to remember one in prayers. Muslims Lite do not normally pray the whole year but during Ramadan they make it a point to pray regularly. As mentioned, the emphasis is on rituals. It is easy to be seen to be praying, but not so with fasting which is a quiet, private activity. This leaves the young and the pretenders ample room to play fast and loose with fasting.

Everybody is expected to fast during the Holy month, those who don’t remain mum and furtive, and then there are those – Muslims Extra Lite, the godforsaken – who are open and unabashedly public about it. Regardless, iftaar – the breaking of the fast – is something they all enjoy and look forward to. And iftaar, after fasting and prayer, is the most important ritual, and perhaps the only one that takes up Muslims Lite’s most time, thought and enthusiasm.

But say what you may, after the first few days of sleep deprivation and tea-less, heavy-headed mornings Ramadan settles into a nice rhythm of fast and break-fast, and Muslims Lite begin to enjoy the religiosity of it all. Except that by the end of the first week everybody is soundly constipated. Barring the digestive and sleep problems, a diffuse air of spirituality begins to hang over their homes and Muslims Lite go about their day with stoic self-control hoping as hell that all this that they are subjecting themselves to will come good on the Day of Judgement.

Or is this all a hoax? The doubt is always at the back of their mind. But they go through the paces anyway, not wanting to take any chances. Because perchance if all this turns out to be true, then they have got, to put it crudely, their asses covered. Well, at least partly covered. The notion that appearance is all that matters is deeply ingrained in them– and they know it works. Detaching intention from action is the way of the world and they think it will work with God as well.

One has a hard time explaining Ramadan to non-Muslims. They actually think it is self-torture but Muslims Lite are always quick to justify it as a noble deed, a way of feeling the pain of the poor and hungry. But nobody tells them that feeling others’ pain will not make their hunger and poverty go away. Isn’t it better to feed the hungry rather than just feel their pain? Another explanation which is quite common and I believed in it for a long time is that fasting is good for your health. It helps get rid of toxins in your body (not to mention the sins of the soul). Then there are those who use Ramadan to get back in shape. Trim the fat and earn (heavenly) reward points – a win-win situation. But, to be fair, this and other such justification are only partly true.

So far as I’ve understood, Ramadan has two main objectives.

One, the sense of deprivation that day-long abstinence creates is designed to force us to realise that our life, our very survival is dependent on God’s bounties. At iftaar we are supposed to partake of food, water and other nourishment with gratitude and a deep sense of humility. Our own Thanksgiving, if you will. But it is more than that. Ramadan cuts our ego, our arrogance down to size, and shows up we humans to be what we truly are: vulnerable, weak and at the mercy of Mother Nature. Maybe, there is a Green message in there.

Two, Ramadan provides Muslims a chance to shun the material world so that they can come closer to their Creator. Fasting is their hidden, private passage to God, a way to commune with the divine. Those who have any idea of what spirituality is about will know that it makes a lot of sense. The break from unconscious daily routine – from food, water and other needs and pleasures – does create opportunity and space for God to creep into one’s consciousness. The sense of spirituality one feels during Ramadan is none other than the presence of the divine.

But there are several problems with Ramadan as it has come to be practiced. First, even most devout Muslims have no idea why they fast. Two, the whole thing is bogged down in rituals and there is little time for self-reflection. And without reflection there can be no connecting with God. Three, the sense of spirituality – if at all sensed – is too ephemeral to leave any lasting impact on one’s consciousness. Four, Muslims have been taught to fear God who demands absolute obedience. Hence the emphasis is on obeying God’s laws rather than communing with Him. Besides, any relationship based on fear cannot lead to Love – which is God itself. Five, when you’re hungry all you can reflect upon is food not God unless of course you have the self-discipline of those yogis who starved themselves in hopes of achieving nirvana. Thankfully, Ramadan was not designed to be so taxing. The sunrise to sunset abstinence was thought to be good enough. Yet, it seems to me that spiritual gain of fasting, if any, is quickly lost in the material binge of iftaar.

And for Muslims Lite iftaar is the only light at the end of the fasting tunnel. Depending on one’s social class and family tradition, iftaar can be a quick routine affair or an elaborate glutton fest. For Muslims Lite who are generally well-off the latter is normally true. My family was typical Muslim Lite, in fact any sign of more than necessary religiosity was frowned upon and actively discouraged. Although we were quite well-off our iftaar was a pretty spartan affair, perhaps in keeping with our small-town culture. Samosas and tea were pretty standard in most homes. In bigger cities and richer homes iftaar was quite a feast with a variety of fried goodies, cold drinks, lots of fruits and the customary almond encrusted dates to break the fast with.

Such luxury was unheard of in our town and our home. Minced-meat samosas was the only delicacy we knew, and to our young minds, the only reason to fast. If you fasted you got to eat more samosas. If you didn’t you not only got fewer but also survived the day on leftovers. Definitely a bad deal. Then there were occasional shaami-kababs to break the routine. And on days when there were pakoras – the lowliest of fried goodies – you felt cheated. Even insulted. But, then, it was all relative. The people who could not afford meat samosas seemed quite happy with lentil samosas or pakoras, and on a good day when they felt like it they allowed themselves meat samosas but there was more onions than meat in them and they made them small and lean.

In our home they were thankfully fat and stuffed. They felt so good in your hand, crisp brown crust with a glistening patina of oil, a perfect triangle of voluptuous goodness. Oh that first bite, crunchy and juicy, was just heavenly. Our own sensuous, culinary communion with God. And there was no such thing as enough samosas. But in a joint family with uncles and aunts and cousins there was only so much to go around. Besides, children were the least of everybody’s priority. Adult men got the lion’s share of everything. The world never seemed more unfair than at iftaar time. Where was God’s justice, I secretly and constantly wondered.

Maybe it’s because I don’t pray, I tried to rationalise. Because instead of praying I was trudging to the mosque at maghrib time (evening prayer) with a kettle of hot tea in one hand and a bundle cups and freshly fried samosas in the other. This was the iftaar fare for the men of the house who went to the mosque for prayers. Most other men would carry their own food, but the men in our house were calibrated differently. They insisted on their food delivered exactly at iftaar time so that the tea was hot and samosas crisp.

We children were pressed into service. During that 10-minute walk carrying that precious cargo I was filled with anticipation and shame. Anticipation for obvious reasons and shame because I was not among the other boys my age lining up in the back row praying. It really felt humiliating to be ferrying food like a girl while my peers were doing the boy thing. On days when I reached before time I just lingered outside the mosque trying hard to be invisible. The thing was I did not know how to pray. Well, I knew some of the stuff which we had learned by rote but I could never bring myself to practice it.

But I did not know then that those boys did not know much either. They were there for fun – pushing each other when they went into sujood (prostration), snatching caps and kurtas and harassing some old coot who happened to cross their path. I was too timid and protected for such rambunctious horseplay, and had no wish to be part of it. I still envied them, though, for they did not have to deliver food, and that they were wearing suitable “Muslim” clothes unlike me who in half-pants, gangly legs felt exposed. And ridiculous.

As soon as the maghrib prayer ended the congregation would break for iftaar and the collective sigh of relief was almost palpable. I would enter the mosque in the nick of time and melt in the crowd hoping nobody would recoginse me. Those who lived close by would rush out to their homes for a quick bite, the rest would hurry up to their respective spots, huddle around in small clutches and, squatting on their haunches, proceed to eat.

My father and uncles would come to our designated spot where I would be waiting – and the fast would be broken without much ceremony. We all ate in silence, except when someone would comment on how the tea was not hot enough or the samosas lacked salt or some such thing. By the way, the samosas for them could never be perfect. There was never any appreciation for the effort that went into making them or the humiliation involved in delivering them. I would look around to see what others were eating only to learn that the general fare and palate was fairly limited. It felt good as my private shame found temporary refuge in the smell of food and din of chatter that hung over the mosque.

When iftaar was over and before the muezzin called for the next round of prayer I would slink out and trek back home, convincing myself not to do this next year. But that never happened until fate took me to the big city where I had no choice but to claim my place among the boys in the back row. I had finally arrived. Even so, I could never come to terms with religion and my relationship with it remains uneasy and conflicted. To this day.

It’s only appropriate to end with a couplet by Faiz:

Aaayiey haath uthain hum bhi,
hum jinhein rasme dua yaad nahin

Come let us also raise our hands (in prayer),
Those of us who have forgotten how to pray

Ramadan Mubarak! God bless us all.