The never-ending Iftar: An ‘Akshay Patra’ of love

KAANCHAN BUGGA

Today, we look on our differences with suspicion: “She’s not like me”, “He doesn’t think like me”, “They look different”, are just some of the thoughts that I often come across on social media. Strangely enough, to me, growing up in the multicultural environment of a Reserve Bank colony, these differences were what constituted ‘normal’. All through my childhood, I lived in pluralistic, multi-cultural communities across the country. My neighbours spoke languages that were different from mine, ate food that was different from mine and some looked distinctly different too. But that never bothered any of us because for us that was the accepted norm.

Looking back, I now realize I’ve never lived in a homogenous community or had friends who were exactly like me. Did this matter to us? Not at all! On the contrary, it was great fun because we were surrounded by choice. Feel like eating dosas? Just pop in to Jaya’s place at tiffin time and Ramamurthy Aunty would serve up the tastiest snacks. Mukherjee Aunty’s Fakir da dished out the most delish luchi-tarkari and they had a beautiful female Alsatian, Koli (short for Kalabati), as a bonus play mate. Meetha Eid meant sevaiyyan from Habeeb Aunty’s kitchen… and the list goes on and on.

I grew up playing with Fauzia, Jaya, Usha, Kittu, Sudeepta, Sunil, Uma, Ravi, Niti, Kuldeep, each of whom belonged to a different community, and it never occurred to us to think much about this: Wasn’t that how it was everywhere?

The Twelve Apostles of Change

Clearly, things had changed over the years in our country. Somewhere, we appeared to have lost out on our multi-cultural roots and developed blinkers when it came to empathy. Little wonder why 12 women friends decided they needed to come together and host an Inter-faith Iftar so that people could share in each other’s lives, appreciate differences in tradition and celebrate them instead of expecting a cookie cutter community.

Who are these twelve apostles of change? Nazia Erum, founder of The Luxury Label and woman of many hats, Rana Safvi, teacher,  historian and author, Hana Mohsin Khan, pilot and journalist, Rukhsar Saleem, founder of Mother Digest, Shahla Ahmed, food entrepreneur, Gunjan Hassan, food entrepreneur, Firdaus Shaikh, biker, Sumaira Khan, television journalist, Meena Rizvi, writer and researcher, Seema Rao, lawyer, Tabassum Zia, television journalist, Amina Mirza (who’s based in the US, incidentally and was there in spirit though not in person!)

The Power of ‘Dratted’ Social Media!

How did this come about? Casually asking a few questions on her Facebook page and on Gurgaon Moms, a Facebook community that both she and I are part of, led Nazia to realise that quite a few of her non-Muslim friends had never attended an Iftar. That came as a revelation and she decided it was time to make Ramzan more inclusive. A quick recce among another circle of friends, (this time on Whatsapp – all of whom firmly backed the idea) and she was ready to launch an Inter-faith Iftar hosted by a dozen Muslim women for their non-Muslim friends and their families. The ages of the hosts and guests spanned three generations, different outlooks, faiths and comunities yet they all shared the two quintessential qualities needed to mingle in harmony: An open heart and an open mind. 

What is an Iftar?

For those who may not know, an Iftar is a meal had after the traditional breaking of a ‘roza’, a fast kept during the sacred month of Ramzan. A roza is a day devoted to reflection, meditation and prayer, where the devout abstain from impure thoughts, deeds and also food and water. Usually, an Iftar doesn’t imply that only Muslims be present and in India, Iftars have been attended by people of different faiths for as long as I can remember.

Strangely, in spite of having a Bohri Muslim as one of my closest friends, I had never attended an Iftar. Just co-incidence, I guess, because I stayed over at Sabiha’s home quite a few times each year. Not just because her cook Nafeesa’s skills were phenomenal and because she was very fond of me, bless her loving heart, and always went out of her way to feed me her choicest specialities but also because in Bombay where distances dictate everything, it was just not practical for either of us to return home after spending an evening together. So when fellow Rodinhooder and buddy, Nazia Erum, invited me for Iftar recently, I was thrilled and filled with anticipation.

Look, no burqas!

It was a meeting that was to shatter quite a few myths. Our hostesses were all self-driven achievers: A pilot, a television anchor, writers and columnists, a communications specialist, an avid biker, a few journalists and several entrepreneurs, all meant we were surrounded by an amazing array of talent and skill. Not to mention charm and grace…in the most beautiful ghararas and sarees. The men were in an array of dress from pajama-kurtas to the usual trouser and shirt. Just like any gathering of Indians, anywhere. As we all introduced ourselves and got talking, it was apparent that there weren’t going to be any stereotypical conversations that evening. No one there quite fitted into a mould and both hosts and guests came across as surprisingly frank, open, warm and friendly. There were irreverent jokes being cracked, long-believed-in myths being shattered and bonds being forged. I can confidently vouch for the fact that that evening, we all made some friends for life.

Breaking bread and forging bonds

Almost all the guests arrived a trifle early so as to be there on the dot, to participate in the breaking of the fast at sunset. At 19.17 pm that evening, we all sat down together to give thanks. That’s what the prayer recited at an Iftar basically is: Saying thank you to Allah for his grace and presence in our lives and seeking his continued blessings. One of our co-hosts, Rukhsar Saleem translated from the Arabic as her husband Shaquib bhai recited the prayer. Then we broke the fast with a date and a glass of sharbat. Simple and pretty similar in essence to how my mother broke her ‘nirjali’ Shivratri fasts.

The breaking of the roza was followed by the Iftar snacks. A meal in themselves, some of the guests had these snacks only to realize that the main meal was yet to come! Vegetarian preferences were lovingly thought of and catered to. Infact we discovered that most iftaar food is usually vegetarian and the food was all home-made in our co-hosts’ kitchens. It really was a sharing: Of abundance, of affection, of genuine warmth and heart-felt giving. Guests, too, came bearing gifts in appreciation of this wonderful opening of hearts.

A meal lovingly prepared for strangers

Let me describe some parts of the delicious spread wrought by loving hands: The phirni made by Rana Safvi was just what a summer evening ordained. The non-veg biryani and shammi kebabs rustled up by Shahla Ahmed of Khala’s Kitchen were simply fabulous. And Nazia Erum’s shahi paneer was light yet rich. And as for the creme caramel by Gunjan Hassan (she runs a catering service, Healthylicious), it was to die for. So good, it calls for a whole separate feature!

My special thank you to Hana Mohsin Khan for opening out her home to us all. Thank you to her lovely parents as well. I thanked them before leaving and her mum just smiled as we held hands. She (Hana) has the sweetest thing to say about them… “…They are my parents, Kaanchan, not my parents-in-law… so please only use ‘parents’, thank you.” How utterly loving is that… from both sides. And I get this totally because my parents-in-law are as much my parents and the ‘in-laws’ bit disappeared long ago. More power to such love, Hana, God bless.

An evening to cherish

How do I describe the camaraderie that infused and permeated each moment of that evening? It may have begun with some curiosity and a tinge of apprehension for some (I know that some of the frank jokes made me a bit nervous till I realized how deep I from a the they were!) but it went on to just quietly underline our rich tradition of tolerance, acceptance and inclusion. In India, we have always not just accepted our differences but celebrated them. In short, it took me straight back to my uncomplicated and harmony-infused childhood. Quite a feat in today’s world of increasing hostility and undercurrents of suspicion. 

What did it this act of love take? Just a dozen Muslim women and their couple of dozen non-Muslim friends who decided to come together and break bread during the holy month of Ramzan, along with their families, observing, respecting and celebrating each other’s traditions. It was but ordinary food we shared that evening but it had the magical power to nourish our souls and alter how we saw each other for all time to come. When strangers open out their hearts to each other, share their misgivings, and feed each other with love and caring, the world is transformed into a place of extraordinary enchantment where hope swells and fears are put to rest. So it was, that day.

Joy, food and laughter, the best weapons ever

And that, my dear friends, is really all that change takes: A dash of bold imagining, a large dollop of defiance (against the status quo) and a whole lot of love.  (Okay, a lot of delicious food, too! Don’t ever undermine the food!)

Here’s hoping more such acts of harmony and sharing spring up all across the country! There’s heartening news to back up this prayer: An Inter-faith Iftar was recently conducted in Mumbai and Guwahati, another organized in Delhi and one is planned for Hyderabad and Pune. Further, some of us were joined by yet other like-minded spirits to take part in an Inter-faith Iftar at Jama Masjid followed by a walk around old Delhi, partaking of Ramzan delights such as a ‘Pyaar-mohabbat wala Sharbat’.  (But more about the walk in another feature!) In addition, we are all seriously planning to continue this Inter-faith Iftar tradition annually, as our own tribute to the inclusiveness of the Indian spirit. In fact, I have already signed up to be co-host.

There is definitely something to be said for the inclusiveness and healing touch fostered by community eating. I can’t but recommend it strongly especially after this wonderful experience. This Iftar is like an Akshay Patra of love that has inspired a series of loving acts of good faith. May this goodwill never run out and always brim over!

Bismillah, Jai Gurudeva, Wahe Guru, Amen, Shalom, and Jai Hind!

*Akshay Patra means a vessel with an inexhaustible supply of food (Akshayapatra (Sanskrit: अक्षयपात्र) meaning inexhaustible vessel, is an object from Hindu theology. It was a wonderful vessel given to Yudhishtira by the Lord Surya which held a never-failing supply of food for the Pandavas every day.

(Kaanchan Bugga is an Engagement Specialist & Content Strategist. She is Creative Director & Co-founder, Will Tell.)