BY ADITI CHOWDHURY
I am always intensely thankful that the Assam we grew up in provided us with the rich legacy of a multi-faith tradition to live in. My childhood, spent in the tea town of Jorhat in Upper Assam, imbued me with an amazingly layered and textured upbringing. It is difficult to envisage that a small pocket in the backwaters of Assam could foster such an eclectic mixture of influences. But we were truly blessed to have grown up in an ambience where so many different strands of culture and ethnicity fused into a harmonious whole.
Jorhat has been the ancestral home for some of the oldest Muslim families of Assam. Our interactions with many of them had always been at a very close personal level. Eid was as much awaited for with great expectations as was Magh Bihu. Maybe because both these festivals were specially geared to please our gastronomical appetites!
My father’s best friend and business partner was a Muslim and I remember the happy times during Eid, when we were invited formally to their house. We were always awe struck by the lavish spread laid out perfectly on the table. It was at their place that I made my first acquaintance with exotic dishes like Hyderabadi Biryani, Nargis Kofta, Haleem and Roganjosh. To my inexperienced eyes, their house seemed to epitomise the highest standards of gracious living.
What strikes me so markedly in retrospect is the fact that in all those cherished memories of the past, we never felt any reverberations about our religious beliefs. The fabric of our lives then, was woven, not with threads of discrimination or differences, but with common cultural affinities and mutual respect and love. More premium was attached to being an Assamese rather than being a Hindu or a Muslim. Our religions and our ethnicity were wonderfully enmeshed. Faith was definitely an integral part of life, as familiar perhaps as our skins. But nobody wore religion overtly on their sleeves. Festivals from both religions were times for celebration, often together. Times for simple pleasures like buying new clothes and gorging on glorious food. In every sphere of community life, there was a gentle coalescence, a caring and sharing.
I remember my mother’s close association with the three extremely accomplished ‘Islam Aunties’ as we called them — Razia, Shireen and Meena. All of them made Jorhat their temporary home when their husbands served a stint of their government service there. The celebration of Eid in those three households was an experience never to be forgotten. My mother was no mean cook herself, but I remember her waxing eloquent about how these ladies honed their craft to perfection. My father’s favourite way to needle my mother was to say that the meat he ate on Eid day or any other day in his Muslim friends’ houses, could never be replicated in look, taste and flavour in our house.
There were other lasting ways in which I benefited from my father’s many Muslim friends. In fact, my initiation into the world of Ghalib, ghazals and even Rumi started in those fun filled evenings spent in my father’s friends’ houses in Jorhat where Iftar was followed by the strains of music.
This criss-crossing of culture and friendships continued even after I got married. My father-in-law had close Muslim friends and my husband grew up with so many of them. The nuances of Ramzan and Eid continued to resonate in our lives. And the points of convergence have not diminished with passing years.
While I was still working, it had become a favourite pastime during the month of Ramzan to talk to a young colleague and friend of mine about how misleading interpretations about religion could very effectively colour our perceptions. I learnt so much from her about the true presentation of the Quran. She explained to me in depth about the significance of the fasting and feasting and also how many of the rituals were formulated to facilitate the nomadic lifestyles of the early Islamic believers. She opened my eyes to so many similarities and parallels between her holy text and our own Hindu texts. This realisation led me to believe firmly that the actual starting point of all great religions is the same — that God is one, merciful and compassionate.
Therefore, after tracing my own long association with the spiritual and aesthetic refinement of spirit that illuminates and energises the observation of Ramadan, I am happy when my daughter shows respect to the spirit of the faith she is surrounded by, cooking meals for Iftar for her friends and co workers in distant Sudan, even though her constant demand for recipes tires me out!
To the common Indian, life and beliefs continue to be the same as it was when we were young. Mistrust and doubts infest only a handful of minds. The ordinary Indian on the street will celebrate Eid with the same joyous gusto as we did during our childhood years. India has always had a mighty heart. So many disparate elements come together in this great country of ours and commingle effortlessly. In the holy month of Ramzan, 2016, let us shun discord and root for harmony and love. Ramzan Mubarak to all my friends.
Aditi Chowdhury retired as Associate Professor, Department of English, Handique Girl’s College, Guwahati.