It must have been sometime in the winter of the early Seventies when I accompanied my parents for my first visit to Upper Assam, more specifically to Sivasagar, the place we hail from, and Dibrugarh, where my father grew up and used to have a house then. Though I fail to recall when we reached Dibrugarh after a daylong journey by road from Gauhati, as my hometown was known, what remained etched in my mind is the wee hour of the following morning when I was still coiled up on bed covered by at least two warm and heavy quilts to evade the extreme cold.
As the blue light of the early hours entered through the ventilators of the Assam-type house forming a soft hue across the walls and the white ceiling, the lyrical sound of Aazan reverberated from somewhere in the neighbourhood, drawing me out of the bed even in the damp and cold clime, to look out of the freezing cold, frosted glass-panes. I had never heard Azaan from such a close proximity before, and the sound of what was explained to me by my father whom I address as Deuta, as prayer read out at a mosque situated not too far away from where we were staying, seemed to have an immediate, mesmerizing affect on me even as a child of around six years of age. Since then, Azaan, especially in the early morning hours when the birds begin to chirrup, continues to evoke in me an unexplainable sense of bliss despite growing up ideologically into a non-believer of religious faiths.
On that winter morning, as the sun had shone warmly and kissed the dewdrops on roof edges, on the emerald grass blades and the foliage, Deuta took me out to Ismail kakas home in the neighbourhood immediately after breakfast, and introduced me to the man whose voice and its mesmerizing lyricism kept resonating within me even hours after I had heard it.
The name, Ismail, was already familiar to me since the man used to often call us through what was then termed as trunk calls, to enquire about the family’s well-being. Being an employee of the Post and Telegraph department, and posted as a call operator, it was understandably convenient for Ismail kaka to make frequent long distance calls and pass on the news about our well-being to my uncle who was his neighbour. As we approached the small, weather beaten rickety wooden gate of Ismail kaka’s house which used to make a strange shriek every time it was opened, the delicately framed salt-and-pepper bearded man adorned in a white kurta, and pyjamas which I found funny since he wore it shorter than ankle length, besides a white skull cap, was seen busy cleaning his bicycle which must have witnessed ages pass through its wheel spokes bearing deposits of time the man and his modest wheels had travelled to witness.
When kaka saw us, he hurriedly wiped his hands and rushed to the gate to welcome me and my father. His immediate reaction was to lift me onto his lap and kiss me all over my head. The excitement in the man was too dramatic to forget. Similar warmth was evident in Ismail kaka’s wife, and his two daughters, as the rest, too, rushed out of their modest home to greet us with smiles as comforting as the winter sun. The warmth of the man and his small family drew me to all of them as I started visiting their house more frequently during the two week’s stay. However, Ismail kaka and his youngest daughter, Bokuli, were my favourites; kaka because he used to often take me out for evening rides on his bicycle singing old Hindi film songs, and buy me round shaped white and orange coloured candies, while the young and pretty Bokuli ba often took me along to where a Jolphai (olive) tree stood at the edge of a field where cranes flocked freely and the cattle gazed, to collect dark green olives which we used to have together with a pinch of salt she made me carry in my pocket. At other times Bokuli ba involved me in games like Kori khel which was relatively new to a city-bred. In course of the entire stay it became a habit to rise early even when one didn’t feel like leaving the warmth of the bed. Yet, I used to rise early only to listen to Ismail kaka’s Aazan which had left a lasting impression.
The following summer I revisited Dibrugarh with my father who had to be there on an official tour. Soon after reaching our house and much before our luggage were shifted from the car booth, I rushed out of the courtyard and headed straight on my own to Ismail kaka’s home. The wooden gate still made the same strange sound announcing a visitor’s arrival.
As I stepped into the ever welcoming home, there was none to greet me this time. Even Ismail kaka seemed indifferent. As I stood at the doorway of a small room of the house facing Ismail kaka who was on his knees with extended hands, the middle aged man who endeared me during my last visit, rarely paid much attention as he looked at me through the side of his eyes only to shut them and return to his prayers. The excitement experienced in Ismail kaka, khuri, and his two daughters when we had met them first a few months back, seemed non-existent on this occasion.
Ismail kaka simply gestured with his hand asking me to seat, while his eyes remained closed. Pained by what was unexpected, I dejectedly walked back, almost dragging myself through a cobbled narrow way, to spend rest of the afternoon under the shade of the tall Amlokhi (gooseberry) tree at our courtyard, planted by my grandfather with whom I used to be deeply attached. Little later, as I was having a wash, I heard Ismail kaka’s familiar voice from the washroom. By now I was no more excited to see him, but it seemed he was as Ismail kaka along with the pretty Bokuli ba carried a couple of bowls placed on plates, with spotlessly white Crocheted covers.
As Ismail kaka longingly pulled me towards him and hugged me, I could once again experience the same warmth which had endeared me to the man when we had last met. Kaka was ailing, which kept him away from going to the local mosque for his Namaz. As he sat on a round cane chair holding me next to him, he explained to me why he couldn’t talk to me an hour back, about the sanctity of the prayers and what it meant to him. That day I had my first insight into Ramzan, what it meant to a believer, though it was difficult to believe that one could stay for long hours without swallowing one’s spit. That day I had for the very first time tasted the delicious Sewai Khuri had prepared for Iftar. The following evening Ismail kaka especially invited me and my father to their place for Iftar, and as I recall the evening from forty-one summers back, I can still vividly remember the taste and aroma of the pulao and the mutton which accompanied it, setting a beginning to my love for treats during the month of Ramzan.
Growing up as some of us did in a far less socially complex Seventies, when the world was yet to witness political assertions resulting in blood-dimmed tides, when populist self-proclaimed god-men were far less in number, almost unheard of, and human faith was as integral as fertility to man, the people then abided by their faiths with deep spiritual inclinations and not out of compulsions created through commoditization of insecurities which have emerged as one of the many banes presented to the world by crony Capitalists and neo-liberalization.
Forty-one Summers back I had not only learnt about Ramzaan, I had also learnt from Deuta, that Ismail kaka’s late father who was also a pious Muslim, was endearingly addressed by him and his siblings as Tawai, a term which was until then alien to me, meaning one’s father’s closest friend. The thread of bonhomie which tied both the families together across a generation was evident when Ismail kaka and his family extended the tradition of human warmth with an openness which was both physically and metaphorically true to both the families as the elders took care to pass it’s essence on to me too, at yet another time.
My childhood world had no sense of divide or discrimination among people who lived together as a single community. It was a broad world determined by the warmth of human longing driven relations. Closer home at Guwahati, I remember playing Holi and getting smeared by colours in the company of Reza da, a neighbour’s son who was much elder to us. One used to of course get to occasionally hear, that the believers of Islam detests from playing with colours as it isn’t permitted by their faith. Reza da and his family’s practice didn’t even remotely suggested any stiffness or divide in the form of any conservatism; rather, it bonded us together as his family, besides that of many others following the same faith, extended their spaces for us to be a part of their festivities whenever the festivities arrived or were celebrated.
Such acts ascertained a togetherness of being amidst a milieu undeterred by personal priorities like people’s faiths. An invitation to the neighbour’s places during Eid, and for some of us teenagers even for Iftar, was a natural conclusion of the bond which we used to share as a part of growing up in a colony where people following different faiths resided. As for me, these enriching childhood experiences went on to cement the edifice of my liberal humanist outlook which happens to be my sole faith in a life which has learnt to revere the great human race as one, and detest and remain staunchly critical of forces of all creed which have, from time to time, tried to create hatred between communities through diabolic divisive drives.
My philosophical understanding of Islam has developed over the years because of my abiding interest in the poetics of the faith, and how it has in infinite ways inspired the arts. From miniature paintings to calligraphy, literature, verses, architecture to dance, music and even cinema have been immensely influenced by the poetics of Islam. The defining Iranian school of cinema, and its consistent resistance against repressive forces by strengthening their narratives through the principle poetics of Islam, have vastly obscured fundamentalist forces’ drives to repress what is humane, which has steadfastly been the soul stirring themes of Iranian cinema.
However, no intellectual quest to understand cultures can be complete without the experience of food which is central to every culture. As a faith Islam has assimilated well with the native nuances of the places the faith has travelled along with its ancient preachers. Human migration forms the foundation of the historical narratives of the world, and it’s on occasions like Ramzaan and Eid that one gets to actually experience the delicious variety integral to culinary traditions with roots that can be traced back to the Middle-east and Western Asia.
Personally, the love for Iftaar food which was introduced during my childhood by Ismail kaka continues still, as I make it a point during the Ramzaan month to visit the Hazi Musafir Khana locality in Guwahati, simply to enjoy the delicacies that are served at the stalls which springs up during what the followers of Islam consider as their holiest month. Even during my many stays outside Assam, and more recently at Hyderabad which is known to be one of the major food hubs of the country, I haven’t missed out on my love for food served especially for Iftaar during the Ramzaan season. Legend has it that the Nizam’s kitchen boasted of forty nine types of Biryani. What the hotels of Hyderabad serve nowadays may pale in comparison, but the lip-smacking Haleem, a speciality typical of Nizam’s Hyderabad, and Biryani, ought to be tried during the month of Ramzaan. My love for Haleem and Biryani, besides other varieties of Afghani and Lebanese food the city presents, increased manifold during last Ramzaan.
Every evening after returning from work, I used to walk down to an alley adjacent to a large mosque not too far from my house at Hyderabad, to have my share of the delicious variety served and sold in abundance during Ramzaan. The most memorable experience, nonetheless, was when I along with a few of my students visited the Old City around the historic Charminar on the first night of Ramzaan last year. This is an area famous for traditionally cooked Nizami palates. This also happens to be the best place to visit in Hyderabad, to experience the Ramzaan ambience. Together, I and the few students sharing similar openness towards good food, moved from one joint to another gorging on Haleem, Biryani and the famed Patthar ki Gosh, which still remains a mouth watering experience.
A year later, as I observe in my eleven year old son similar openness and interest which I have endearingly lived with for my love for good food, and more importantly, out of respect for traditions, their seamless assimilation, and faith, I feel convinced; that what was introduced by Ismail kaka and my parents’ liberal sensibilities, has made its way into my child growing up in another century, carrying the baton of cultural refinement which alone can promote what essentially entwines people together for the brotherhood of man. The day I heard the eleven year old caution a guest from uttering something communal, I was confirmed about my life being lived well!
My story is not simply about my own life alone. It could be the story of many others living in Assam with slight change in a story’s contours germinating out of a unique social reality of tolerance and togetherness propagated by both, Srimanta Sankardev and Ajan Fakir, the greatest social reformers of the land who propagated through their respective faiths the brotherhood of man. The Brahmaputra Valley has been a witness to many streams of migrations bringing along unique cultures from distant lands.
As the bard Bhupen Hazarika penned and passionately sang, ‘On both the banks of the mighty Brahmaputra lies the confluences of myriad cultures forming a cauldron of fortune and oneness’. Assam is a land where the people have always transcended religious barriers to participate in occasions belonging outside one’s own faith. While Ramzaan bore significance for me and many others who doesn’t practice Islam, and yet recognize the spirit of the occasion, I am also aware about many natives of my land following Islam, who have been traditionally participating in the spiritual Deodhani performances of Darrang, or been a regular participant in Holi or Diwali like Reza da from my childhood was.
As new challenges are emerging across faiths getting increasingly commoditised, with divisive purposes of stifling traditional bonhomie between the denizens of the State, I simply hope, that the people of Assam would continue to see sense and meaning in the social fabric of togetherness woven centuries back by none other than the two giants of social reformers the society abidingly reveres as saints.
Maulee Senapati is an award winning film maker whose films have been screened at international film festivals held in India and abroad. He is also a film academic, until recently heading the Direction department of an international film institute based at Hyderabad, India.