Sharing a Meal, Sharing a Culture: Mitra Phukan

MITRA PHUKAN relishes the inter-faith Iftar organised by Women’s Hub in Government Blind High School in Guwahati

The centrality of food, of food habits, and of traditions growing around food, is a given. After all, it goes without saying that food and drink are things without which we cannot live. Literally. No wonder, therefore, that there are so many rituals, customs, and also taboos that centre around food, its preparation and the eating of it. Sometimes, these customs and sanctions divide and separate, at other times, they bring a sense of bonding and of closeness.

In many cultures, “breaking bread”, as the saying goes, resonates with meaning. It implies camaraderie, a sense of kinship and loyalty, which finds echoes in sayings such as “Mainey unka namakh khaya …” that is, literally, “I have eaten his salt,” implying of course that a debt of gratitude and loyalty is due.

On the other hand, also, there are other traditional cultures where eating outside the prescribed norms, or eating with people who do not subscribe to those norms, is taboo. So, for instance, a traditional Brahmin widow is not “permitted” to eat certain foods, or even eat at the same table as those who are eating those foods, the meats and fish and other forbidden foods from which she is barred forever.

But those of us who insist on living only within the bounds of “what is permitted” are not paying our dues to the society in which we live. For culture has to be a moving thing that accommodates the new, not a fossil that stagnates within boundaries that were never relevant, or within contexts that no longer exist. And each one of us has to push the envelope a little bit, in order to make these cultural practices dynamic enough to be relevant in today’s swiftly changing world.

One of the most moving things about Islam, for a non-Muslim, is the sense of brotherhood that it incorporates. This sense of fraternity is not just there in the Book, it is also part and parcel of the lived life of a Muslim. The sight of hundreds of men, (and in some other countries, women too) offering their prayers shoulder to shoulder, with no distinction of caste, no divisions of class, has always been an extremely emotional one. It is also there in the way they are enjoined to share what they have with the less fortunate, during the Holy Month of Ramzan, and even otherwise. This is written. And there are the practices of eating from a single platter, full of, perhaps meat and rice. This is unseen in several other cultures, and yet it is such a meaningful thing, this practice that gives a sense of equality among those who sit eating around that single dish.

It is because of these reasons, and more, that an invitation to an Iftar meal is something that comes with much more than an invitation to eat. Though of course, there is that, as well, for a well-cooked Muslim meal is always a temptation. But let’s face it, in today’s fraught political climate, even a simple act such as eating elsewhere, in somebody’s home or an institution, can become a complicated act.

 Of course, there was none of this in evidence on the June 9, when the vibrant organization, Women’s Hub invited me to share the Iftar meal with its members at the Government Blind High School in Basistha, Guwahati. This is a loose collective of women professionals from varied spheres of life, all of whom are moving ahead brilliantly in their chosen careers. There are academics, journalists, entrepreneurs, lawyers, activists, dramatists, and others, many of whom are well known for their contributions to society. Several are women who travel the world, on their own, attending work related events. The aim of the collective is to motivate young girls, and create goodwill and understanding between communities, with the motto being “Each One, Inspire One.” They organize the annual Yamin Hazarika Woman of Substance Award to acknowledge the contribution of a woman from different spheres of life.

The gathering at the Blind School was attended by about a hundred people, in the sylvan settings of the institution. Besides the students, there were people from various walks of life, and different faiths, too. A few of the students had observed Roza, as had many of the members.

I always find it amazing that people can fast for 13-14 hours at a stretch, and yet move about their daily business as though it was nothing. They do their work without any murmur, never asking for any special treatment because they are fasting. I deeply respect the daily wagers who labour under this unrelenting sun, not shirking their work and not even drinking a drop of water to slake their thirst. This discipline, this commitment, is something that never ceases to move me.

Besides my love of Muslim food, and the hospitality of my Muslim friends, it is this respect that I have for this practice, that always makes me drop everything else on my schedule, and go for an Iftar invitation. I do not fast, but yes, I feast with them. But I do know people, non-Muslims, who fast along with their Muslim friends, not out of compulsion, but out of a sense of brotherhood. Perhaps, one day, I hope that I too shall find the strength to do that. In a small way, I try to experience the beauty of other faiths when I visit churches during Christmas and take part in the singing of the holy hymns.  At one time, I offered shabads in prayer at the Shillong Gurudwara. These remain some of the most cherished experiences of my life. And no, it’s nothing unusual that I am doing, because I know many who do that, and more.

Within the airy hall of the Blind School, the children sang songs of astonishing beauty. It was of course compulsory that given the occasion, they should sing also the iconic Jikir, “Saheb Jai Agotey …” Their joy at having the renowned singer Kalpana Patowary among them, and then actually joining their voices with her in song, was a pleasure to see.

Neurosurgeon Dr Navanil Barua and singer Kalpana Patowary talk about the syncretic culture of Assam
Neurosurgeon Dr Navanil Barua and singer Kalpana Patowary talk about the syncretic culture of Assam

Among the others who were present were senior member of Women’s Hub, Dr Swabera Islam, who spoke of the objectives of organizing this Iftar gathering. There was Gurpreet Singh Uppal, a Sikh, married to a Muslim, whose mother in law is Christian. Wow. He does not observe the Ramzan fast, but he invites others in for the Iftar meal. This is the true spirit indeed of India, the real India that lies behind those blazing headlines of hatred and mistrust. As journalist Teresa Rehman observed, later, why do we focus on the negatives? Looking at the positivity of this gathering, surely all of that is irrelevant.

Neurosurgeon Dr Navanil Barua spoke about how observing the fast in this month teaches people lessons in piety, self control and compassion. There was media person Florence Handique Rabha, who added joy to the event with her vibrant songs and delightful conversation. The Principal of the institution, Bhaben Barman, spoke of his pleasure at having a function of this kind in the institution. It is through this kind of programme that people of different faiths can move closer together, he opined. Activists Nurul Laskar and Aman Wadud explained the meaning behind this practice of observing Roza, The programme was anchored by a dental surgeon Dr Shabnam Choudhury, with the vote of thanks offered by Rehna Sultana, a research scholar in Gauhati University.

The breaking of the fast, in which all joined, was with the traditional food of dates, fruits, a little cooked chickpeas, and pakoras. This was followed by delicious vegetable biryani, with paneer curry and more. This was provided by Zouk, the new eatery in town and run by Hub member Intibah Murtafi. It was washed down with juice, and rounded off with home-made custard pudding by filmmaker Sakina Rashid.

The evening’s programme was truly a meaningful example of the principle of sharing, especially with the less fortunate, which Islam enjoins during this Holy Month. Those of us from different faiths who took part in it, will certainly remember the occasion for a long time.    

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.