Open up your mind and your potential reaches infinity…


Growing up in New Delhi in 70s and 80s was very ordinary. It was not until the late 80s when the Ram Janm Bhoomi issue surfaced, and insecurities increased,  that one realized what seemed an ordinary childhood, was actually une expérience extraordinaire.

We lived in a neighborhood where majority of the residents were of other faiths, most of them warm and friendly, with few exceptional ‘communal’ individuals or families.Their prejudiced remarks gave a little break to the usual monotony of goodness, and nothing more.

Those who had not met any Muslim families before befriending us, pampered us with adorable innocent judgmental compliments, “We didn’t know Muslims are so nice and broadminded too.” 

As ambassadors of a ‘good’ Muslim family, we were unknowingly breaking the stereotypes of  ‘backward’ Muslims.

Papa would often  joke, “Jee main Musalman huun mager meri ek hi biwi hai, aur sirf teen bachey hain. Aur merey daarhi bhi nai hai.”  There would be laughter and  humorous replies in response like, “Jee hum Brahmin hain lekin  hamare bhi sir per choti nai hai.” 

All was going well. 🙂

Our cultural boundaries were unmarked by our parents, thus letting us experience  fascinating blend of Ganga Jamuni Tehzeeb. One of the most beautiful examples this blend was Ammi. Though from a Syed family, she grew up in Jaipur amidst Rajputs, and then got married in a Sheikh family of Delhi.  She switched from reading Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas in Sanskrit  to understanding  Ghalib’s Farsi poetry with equal ease. Ammi  fasted  in Ramazan, never missing a prayer,  but  then would also hop on the adjacent roof top with her friend Meera next door to view the moon through a sieve on Karwa Chauth, declaring that she too had fasted all day, for Papa’s long life.

Sharma Auntie who lived nearby did not have any children. I do not recall how it began, but from early school years till I passed out as a medical graduate, I would go to her house on every Diwali to make a rangoli in her angan.  I was referred by  her as her ‘susheel beti’ and with tons of prayers “Ishwar tumko hamesha sukhi rakhe”.  Sharma Auntie would also make sure that she visited us on Eid with an envelope of Eidi  for me.

rangoli

On the day of my wedding, she came  early in the morning straight after her Pooja with a shagun( auspicious offering) for my happy married life. And while I was having my Bidai, there were my two mothers crying, Ammi and Sharma Auntie.  My in laws who had come from Pakistan were in awe to see we had so many nice Hindu friends.

Looking back and reading the news of current spate of  violence in India and ban on Muslims in Garba, it is hard to swallow how much have things gone awry. And why?

As kids, certainly not to radicalize us, but to familiarize us with our Muslim customs too, we were taken to Dada Abba’s house in Jama Masjid, or to Nani’s home in Jaipur and Agra to witness occaisions like Juma’t Ul Vida, Eid Prayers, Ashura processions and at times even the not so pleasant Qurbani on Baqr Eid.  They were as Papa called them, ‘fun  and learn’ trips.

With the current tussle on social media to ban ‘Shia processions’ in Pakistan I wondered if we ever as kids imagined Moharram as a Shia thing? My Nana Abba and Mamoojans in Jaipur, being prominent family in the community, took out their family Taziya, accompanying the Muharram Juloos all the way to the local Karbala. As the Ashura Juloos passed in front of Nana Abba’s house, there were volunteers waiting with bucketfuls of pink Sherbet to be distributed to them. We stood at the side watching one Taziya pass after another, eagerly waiting for the special ‘Bara Taziya’ and then at the very last the Gold-Silver Taziya donated  by Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh of Jaipur.

Around mid day would arrive Sattar Bhai,  with all his groceries required for the making of Khichra( Haleem)- a complete food with grains, pulses, meat and rich condiments in a deep and wide degh. Maleeda, made out of crumbs of sweet thick rotis was the accompanying dessert. My cousin informed they now make instant maleeda from Sheermal. Since it was Niaz meal, a great care was taken that there was no wastage and no left over food will be thrown away.

Similarly Ammi’s extended family in Agra, which was also a prominent Syed Sunni family of the city, not only had their own Taziya but also organized a sabeel: creating a miniature village exhibit quite similar to what we see here in malls in the West during Christmas season. I had faint memories, so I whatsapped a cousin, to find the details. This is how she responded immediately:Muharram1 And as obvious from this conversation, the tradition still continues in many Sunni families.

What we saw on occasional trips to Nani’s house in Jaipur,  Ammi had grown up observing Ashura since her birth. I never saw my Nani, Nana, Mamoos or Ammi wear black in Muharram, I never saw them crying in Muharram, but I found them somber and refusing to attend wedding invitations in the month of Muharram. Till date she commands me on every 10th Muharram, “Beta aaj music mut sun-na.”

Unfortunately interfaith fences are getting higher, as Ashura Juloos is perceived as ‘Shia’ in Pakistan and Garba has become a ‘Hindu’ event in India. It has become almost  impossible for moderate parents to let their children grow and absorb the goodness from each side, and discover on their own that there are no right or wrong faiths and no good or bad cultures.

The dilemma of not able to take sides on sentimental grounds, leads one to be judged a RAW agent when supporting India or a Taliban when associated with Pakistan. Equally narrow has become the sectarian outlook, where if you criticize Iranian Theocracy, you are hurled a Yazid slur and if you criticize Saudi extremism, you are a confirmed Islamophobe.

The more the religions become tools to play politics, the more these age old traditions will be presumed as exclusive shows of religious supremacy rather than inclusive cultural practices.

Things are progressing from bad to worse at a pace never seen before. Human beings  certainly don’t appear in a mood for tolerance, what to speak of inclusion. One is left to wonder whether God will salvage the inclusive traditions of Muharram Juloos or Garba Festivals from the bullies of Sectarianism or Nationalism?

Comments on: "Withering Inclusion and Harmony" (5)

  1. Excellent rather mesmerizing write-up!

    It not only invoked some flash-backs but also stirred up my mind but also forced me to think about the same question you asked.

    Belonging to a Syed-Sunny family, watching Ashura with my father and observed my family participating different activities to comfort and to ease the emotions of the sadden with extreme sincerity and purity of heart.

    I grew up with same feelings of helping, participating, having fun and responsibility along with my Shia friends, debating and discussing this event in historical prospect, analyzing different anecdotes, sometimes heated reasoning but there was never a hatred or antipathy. It never ever crossed to my mind along with other friends that we are different, having different faith, different traditions.

    We all were one community.

    However, it started to change during the second half of Zia’s Dictatorial rule in Pakistan. To win the favor of religious segment of society he favored the anti-Shia element and then gradually it became rolling snowball getting converted in an avalanche of hate resulting in killings and murders of scores of innocent and prominent personalities.

    I fear this world would never be the same. After 9/11 political set-up of each country got changed. Dissentious political activities found a way, again, for personal gains.

    There is no political will yet to overcome this and it would continue for a while; may be for few more decades or may be forever.

    Humanity is facing a FREE FALL since long time.

    • Thank you for writing this detailed account which documents similar sentiments of inclusive society in Pakistan, of the days gone by.
      Yes humanity is on a FREE FALL at the moment, I concur.

  2. Excellent rather mesmerizing write-up!

    It not only invoked some flash-backs but also stirred up my mind but also forced me to think about the same question you asked.

    Belonging to a Syed-Sunny family, watching Ashura with my father and observing my family participating in different activities to comfort and to ease the emotions of the sadden with extreme sincerity and purity of heart.

    I grew up with same feelings of helping, participating, having fun and responsibility along with my Shia friends, debating and discussing this event in historical prospect, analyzing different anecdotes, sometimes heated reasoning but there was never a hatred or antipathy. It never ever crossed to our minds that we are different, having different faith, different traditions.

    We all were one community.

    However, it started to change during the second half of Zia’s Dictatorial rule in Pakistan.(Mid-80s)

    To win the favor of religious segment of society he favored the anti-Shia element and then gradually it became rolling snowball getting converted in an avalanche of hate resulting in killings and murders of scores of innocent and prominent personalities.

    I fear this world would never be the same. After 9/11 political set-up of each country got changed. Dissentious political activities found a way, again, for personal gains.

    There is no political will yet to overcome this and it would continue for a while; may be for few more decades or may be forever.

    Humanity is facing a FREE FALL since long time.

  3. Far more mesmerizing is this piece written by Mohsin Sayeed on his experience in Karachi almost the same time as mine in Delhi.
    I paste is here as it is:

    “Bache tau aglay baras hum hain aur yeh gham phir hai
    Jo chal basay tau yeh apna Salam-e-Akhir hai *

    I wonder how our children will remember Ashura. Today Ashura is not what it used to be when I was a child. Recently, niyaaz sheermaal and kebab came from neighbours whose majlis my sisters went and attended, and that meal brought back a flood of memories. The niyaaz food had its own distinct taste that we never found in the same food items all year round.
    With the start of Moharram sabeels would start cropping up everywhere. Groups of black clad women and children would go from one house to another, move from one lane to another attending majlises. All 9 days this greek chorus would happen. On the night 0f the 9th Moharram, almost ever corner, lane had a bonfire where group of boys would get together to cook haleem in big daighs (cauldrons )… all night neighbourhoods would be alive with their chatter and smell of blend of burning wood and cooking haleem. In the morning the haleem would be distributed to the houses. Other food items like xardah, pulao and doodh ka sharbat was sent to neighbourhood homes as niyaaz ka tabarruk. Amma’s childhood friend, always brought niyaaz ki biryani from her majlis. She is a staunch shia but would come herself after the majlis. Abba and her had always exchanged the same joke every year cooking sunnis and spitting in the food. No offence meant, none ever taken. Both laughed it off knowing the spirit.
    On the morning of the 10th of Moharram Abba would take us to one of his student’s flat in Sadar to see Ashura procession. Hanging from her second floor balcony we would watch the procession, the matam of various kinds. The visual treat was Zuljinnah processions after every few intervals. The zuljinahs were heavily decorated and poor horses I am sure were sedated t=otherwise they would kick everyone around who were doting on them, touching them, kissing them and passing under their bellies, tugging at their tails. I certainly would trample upon all of the tormentors if I were a Zuljinah.
    And then late afternoon Taazia processions would start emerging. Loved the colourful, embellished, colourful Tazias. Some were modeled after sacred buildings, some even were modeled after historic ones like Minar-e-Pakistan and Jinnah’s mazar. But few of them were absolutely gorgeous and masterpieces of craftsmenship. That’s why when I see bridal shows today, I want to scream to the so called designers to go and learn something from the craftsmen of those Taazias how to embellish.
    And then we would return home after Maghrib. After dinner, when we did not have a television set in the early 1970s, we would go to neighbours or Amma abba’s friends homes to watch Sham-e-G hareeban. I remember Rasheed Turabi’s bayan. In fact, Abba had taken us once to his majlis too in North Naziamabad. He was one hell of an orator. Listening to Sham-e-Ghareeban was a social experience as other than the host family, other people would also gather. After Sham-e-Ghraeeban, Nasir Jahan’s noha ‘Ghabraye gi zainab’ and then salam-e-aakhir would round off Ashura.
    I remember all ten days either no music or or very low music was played in our home. Once my phuppi was goignt o the University and she was wearing pink. Amma told her to change clothes as it was 6th Moharram. Amma saod to her: “Beta achha naheen lagta, jao koi dheema rang pehen lo”
    But today, our Ashura feels like in the Jail. Road blockades, mobile and internet services shut down, apprehension, fear, no black clad groups, no air laden with boys chattering and fragrance of haleem and coals, no sabeels, nothing….Just an air that’s so thick with apprehension and fear that it could be sliced with nothing less than a sword. Can’t even think of taking my nieces to show them the processions or majlises. They are growing up with such barren, sterile environment.
    Ashura, that once enriched our lives with cultural experiences, sensitized us, filled us with acceptance, is a symbol of fear, panic and boredom for our children.
    Nasir Jahan’s beautiful, sorrow-dripping voice– which has been inherited by his son Asad now—pierced through the heart even when I was young. It’s that haunting memory that leads me mesemrised even today, every year every Ashura to see Asad read the noha and ‘Salam-e-Aakhir’.

  4. Interesting blog, specially the words of your “Papa”;
    “Jee main Musalman huun mager meri ek hi biwi hai, aur sirf teen bachey hain. Aur merey daarhi bhi nai hai.”

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