Eid Milan put on hold; a private Eid this year with prayers for better times

Some years ago, Lord Meghnad Desai and the late Swami Agnivesh accompanied me for saheri to Karim’s in the old city, writes Saeed Naqvi before adding, "in recent years I have given up trying..."

Muslims offering namaz at the Jama Masjid on the occasion of Eid-ul-Fitr in New Delhi
Muslims offering namaz at the Jama Masjid on the occasion of Eid-ul-Fitr in New Delhi

Saeed Naqvi

Bash me up for gender bias if you like, but during Ramzan, my three sisters fast and four brothers, myself being the eldest, pick up the blessings. This arbitrary division of labour has its traces in divergent schooling.

To keep the wolf from the door, the declining landlords of Awadh fell into deep thought about the next generation’s education. The family was divided down the middle on western education. The conservatives, with abiding family affiliations to the Congress party, insisted on Urdu education. They saw their role model, Jawaharlal Nehru as an Urdu speaking, sherwani wearing (a rose in the buttonhole) Awadhi, Kashmiri Pandit.

The progressives in the family, all communists, invoked Nehru’s other persona – a Fabian socialist with an open mind. Since, my mother’s casting vote was with the progressives, the brothers were admitted to the La Martiniere College, a finer school than which would be difficult to imagine. In consigning the two sisters, who were chronologically my immediate youngsters, to Taleem Gahe Niswaan (Lady’s College), my mother was not letting down her gender: her role models were women of enlightenment, Dr. Rasheed Jahan, Ismet Chugtai who by writing Angarey (embers) and Lehaf (quilt) had caused convulsions in the local clergy.

Boys were set on the path for careers; women would preserve traditions and look at the stars. By the time the third and youngest sister, came of age, my parents had changed their outlook. Naheed was sent to the same school as the boys.

The boys respected namaz and fasting on which our sisters were firm. For ourselves we had found an elegant escape route in our poets. In our region, Ghalib and Josh Malihabadi stoked the iconoclast in anyone who valued a life of the mind.

Ghalib said it for many of us:

Jaanta hoon sawab e ta’at o zohd

(I know the blessings of prayer and abstinence)

Par tabeeat idhar naheen aati

(But my heart is not in it)

Josh’s irreverence was elegant but of an order that would today warrant the appearance of lynch mobs at the clergy’s behest. It is a truth insufficiently repeated that there is not a single verse in Urdu where the mullah or the Islamic variant of the Salvation Army is praised: he is always the butt of derisive humour.

Not for a moment does irreverence mean opposition to the faith. It entailed a critical, even satirical contemplation of the faith’s self appointed intermediaries who were deemed to be of insufficient learning. The weaker the intellect the greater the tendency to deviate from fact and logic into miracle and magic. Aalim or the religious scholar was respected.

Even the most audacious poets never crossed certain red lines. An article of faith was:

“Ba khuda deewana baash-o-ba Mohammad hoshiyar.”

(Take liberties with God but be careful with Mohammad)

Just imagine how tolerant the court must have been where Chandrabhan Brahman crossed even this red line:

Panja dar panja e khuda daram

Munche parwa-e-Mustafa daram)

(My hand clasps the hand of God;

Why should I worry about the Prophet?)

Irreverence was an attitude to be sustained with some delicacy. Even an agnostic like Ghalib was cautious during the period of fasting. He snatches a “morsel of bread” here and a gulp of water there, as he admits in his letters.

His furtive forays into food during Ramzan must have influenced our behaviour too particularly in large joint families. The 50 percent who did not fast wore expressions of austerity for the benefit of those who did. The ranks of the “rozedars” (ones who fasted) were inflated by women and cousins who had avoided “English schools” for reasons mentioned at the outset. Schooling, even within the same family, conditioned levels of religiosity.

Cosmopolitan schooling ruptured traditionalism but it did not induce indifference to traditions which had a world to commend them. In fact Urdu culture was itself inherently urbane and cosmopolitan. A great deal of Urdu culture depended on the cultural derivatives of religion. Mir Anees, Nazeer Akbarabadi and Mohsin Kakorvi were the staple of this culture just as Tulsidas, and Malik Mohammad Jaisi were a part of it.

Just as Socrates misguided the youth of Athens, Ghalib did generations of Urdu poetry lovers, among whom was my maternal uncle, Saiyid Mohammad Mehdi, a gentleman to boot, erudite and a card carrying member of the communist party in his youth. Towards the end he did not mind The God That Failed, Arthur Koestler’s disappointment with the creed, as a book in my modest collection.

A Persian quatrain I picked from his circle of friends has remained with me as a whimsical calendar:

“Ba har hafta, faaqa,

Ba har maah, qae,

Ba har saal mus-hil,

Ba har roz mae”

(Weekly fast, monthly ‘kunjal’ or vomit, yearly purgation and daily wine)

I have always wondered if this comes from the same school of Persian etiquette as Omar Khayyam’s code for drinking?

Gar baada khuri to ba khiradmandaan khur

(Drink only with persons of intellect…..etcetera.

In the course of a litigation Ghalib famously informed a magistrate that "I am “half a Muslim” because “I drink wine but do not eat pork.”

That would be a misleading yardstick to compare me with, but I suspect my wife and I are conscientious hosts during Ramzan, making arrangements for saheri, the meal before the crack of dawn and “Iftar” the meal after the day’s fast.

With ritual regularity I maintain another practice: I visit Jama Masjid at least for one saheri and iftar if possible with non Muslim friends. These expeditions show a diminishing success rate. Some years ago, Lord Meghnad Desai and the late Swami Agnivesh accompanied me for saheri to Karim’s in the old city. I had anticipated Swamiji’s inhibitions and carried with me home cooked vegetarian food which the management graciously served.

In recent years I have given up trying. This year we cancelled our Eid Milan celebrations.

What celebrations in a mood so bleak? Yes, we shall “observe” Eid privately and ask our sisters to pray for better times.

( The writer is a well known journalist, commentator and columnist)

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