Feasting without fasting

By Mitra Phukan

One of the major joys of living in a multi religious, multi cultural country is that all of us get to celebrate each others’ festivals. True, in today’s India, when there is hatred and violence in the name of religion, this might seem to be rather a naive thing to say. But it isn’t. The common people, you, me, and the person next door, mostly live and let live as far as religion is concerned. This is especially true in the urban areas, when religion is increasingly becoming a private matter, as indeed it should.

And so it has been that during Christmas I visit a Church, to join in the beautiful hymns that are sung in praise of the Lord. How does it matter that I am not a Christian? At Buddha Purnima, I chant the Buddhist prayers, as best as I am able. I have sung shabads in Gurudwaras on Guru Nanak’s birth anniversary. During Durga Puja, I listen with devotion to the Chandi Path recitation by Birendra Kishore Bhadra. And during Eid, I put on Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s “Allah Hoon” and listen to his voice, timbred with devotion, in the songs that inevitably transport me to a different world.

And I know that this is no big deal, that I am not doing anything extraordinary. In fact it is too little. A person I know, a Hindu Brahmin, whose roommate in college was Muslim, observes the Ramzan fast rigorously, in solidarity with his friend.  It has been decades since the two passed out from college, but the practice continues. And there is this other young friend who is in the Army, and is posted in Kashmir. Though a Hindu, he has been observing the Ramzan fasts every day, and so, indeed, has his young wife.

I, on the other hand, am a poor fast keeper. I cannot go on an empty stomach even to the most sacred Hindu temple. During Lakshmi Puja, when my mother would fast for the whole day, and on the Durga Puja days, I always go to the Goddesses after a hearty meal. She, the Devi, will understand. After all, Gods and Goddesses are compassionate, and they know that if I am hungry, I will be too grumpy to concentrate on the prayers, or feel any kind of devotion towards Her. 

It has always been with a great deal of respect, therefore, that I look at my Muslim friends who fast so austerely during this month. Not a drop of water, even, passes through their lips. That too, in this horrendous heat of summer, when it is, as an older friend of mine told me recently, fifteen hours from start to finish. This discipline, this commitment, this devotion, is amazing. And on top of that, they go around on their normal work, not shirking any of their tasks and duties. And I have never, till today, heard anyone voice even the slightest complaint.

Several of my Muslim friends, during childhood, were taught Arabic by a Maulvi who would come home to do so. Today, they read the Holy Quran in Arabic during this month, sometimes staying up late into the night, after returning home from work to do so. How enriching this must be, I always feel, to be able to read in a language so different from ours, and to peruse an ancient text in the original. I, alas, cannot access the religious texts of my own faith in the original, because I do not know Sanskrit. What I read has been passed through the filters of multiple translations. How I envy those who can tap the fountain of their religious Book at the very source!

The other aspect of this time of fasting and prayer that really evokes admiration from me is that of Zakat, which is one of the five pillars of Islam. It is the requirement of giving part of one’s income to the needy.  Islam is a religion that teaches brotherhood, compassion, and sharing with the disadvantaged. And I am always moved by images of hundreds, maybe thousands of people, kneeling down in devotion, shoulder to shoulder, in unison, offering prayers to the Deity. There is no difference between rich and poor, Caliph and Commoner, Prince and Pauper as they pray.

And there is this other thing about this month, and indeed, the religion itself, that has evoked a great deal of wonder in me, that of homogeneity in its practice. As a Hindu, I am often bewildered by the vast diversity of ways in which we worship any or all of the thirty three crores of deities we have in our Pantheon. Modes and rituals of worship in Karnataka, or Tamil Nadu, for instance, are very different from how we do our Pujas in Assam.

But when, for instance, as a teenager, I was invited to an Eid feast in Nigeria, where we lived at the time, things were very familiar as far as the religious part of it was concerned, though nothing else was. One of the invitations was to the region’s Sultan. He lived in a huge mud walled compound in splendour, with several wives housed in different homes within, along with their children. The food and hospitality was lavish, as was the decor. I remember the walls were hung with brocades, and the people were all dressed in splendid robes and turbans. But otherwise, there was this similarity with the Eid celebrations that we had attended when we had lived in Hazaribagh, where my father had worked before this. The month long fasting had been the same, and the call to prayer had sounded very much the same in both places, and indeed in others across the globe, throughout. My Muslim friends in different parts of the world today follow the same rituals, the only difference being that in the US, for instance, and perhaps in some other countries, too, women can go to the Eid congregation too, to offer Namaz.

In Shillong, for several years, we lived in a double storied house with wooden floors. A Muslim family lived upstairs, while we were on the ground floor. The four girls above and I were good friends, and indeed, still are. During Ramzan, they would wake up at dawn, and their footsteps would echo on the wooden boards above our heads. After that would float down the delicious aromas of the pre -dawn meals. I would cuddle up into my quilt, smiling, knowing that I would be visiting them in the evening to partake of the Iftar, to which I was always welcome.

Indeed, thanks to the hospitality of my many Muslim friends, in this month I am often feasting, without going through the rigours of fasting. And while they always shed weight during this month, I, alas, always gain some. The Iftar food is always tempting. My many Muslim friends keep a wonderful table, and their parathas and sewian are to die for, as is their korma. And while on this topic, I wonder why Hindu kitchens like mine cannot turn out these items to have the same flavour, even though we follow the recipes faithfully? The parathas of the Hindu kitchen and those of the Muslim one are very different. Tasty, both, but different. And therein lies the appeal of diversity, in the culinary context.

Muslim cooking across India has its own exclusive place, but during this month, and also during the lavish Eid feasts to which I am kindly invited, the kind of spread that is laid out is possibly unique to our part of the world. There is a touch of Western influence in the rich cakes, jam tarts and desserts that are laid out, along with the kormas and biryanis and parathas which come with the Mughal influence. This is fusion cuisine at its best, and has been around much before the term became fashionable. And Muslim women, without exception, are all excellent cooks, turning out vast and delicious feasts effortlessly. Even after a month of fasting, they turn out such a wonderful spread, cooked in a highly labour intensive way, with love and affection. And I am always moved by the way they, like my Christian friends, take great pains not to have any beef dishes at all when Hindus are around. They often invite us on a different day from the days they have relatives who love their beef dropping in. 

Different parts of the country, and the world, have their famed dishes specific to this holy month. There is the legendary Haleem of Hyderabad, and all the various delicacies on offer after sundown in the twisty lanes of Old Delhi. And it is worth noting that many of the customers here are non Muslims. Indeed, the Haleem is packed and sent out worldwide these days to customers hungry for this famed item.  For let’s not forget, food, like music and literature, unites people.  

Ramadan Kareem to all who are observing this fast, and Eid Mubarak in advance … May Allah’s blessings be showered on you and yours, bringing peace, joy and prosperity always.

Mitra Phukan

Mitra Phukan

Mitra Phukan is a writer, translator, columnist and classical vocalist who lives and works in Guwahati, Assam. Her published literary works include four children's books, a biography, and a novel, "The Collector's Wife". Her most recent work is another novel, "A Monsoon of Music" published by Penguin-Zubaan in September 2011. Besides, her short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies. Her works have been translated into several languages. She is the Northeast correspondent of the Chennai-based journal of the performing arts, "Shruti" and a member of the North East Writers' Forum.