Air Full of Prayers

We are all surviving on varied diets of Babribeoul. Of that, more than anything else in this heat, I am sure.


Temperatures are up this Ramadan, and the days are long. So, naturally, tempers are running short. The other day at the bank, a customer was angry at the clerk for calling him “Yaar” (Informal: friend). It was sometime during the first week of Ramadan, and not everyone was adjusting that well.

Ramadan is a low key affair in Kashmir. There are no popular night time markets. There are no fairs. And for the most part, markets are deserted except during the days before Eid. I guess, the sun is keeping the people indoors.

But the early morning Sehris are cool. The young guy in the mosque hastily shouting “Waqt -te- Sahar” three times to officiate the hours before the Sahar Khan with his drums and bugle makes the rounds. There was a time when every mohalla had a Sahar Khan, who was more or less a known figure. Now no one is sure of his identity. He is just a sound a drum beat in the wee hours, a knock on the iron gate – an audible guard of the community’s faith.

The new Imam in the mosque is good looking young guy with a neatly trimmed beard and a stirring enunciation of the Quran. And there are a lot of new faces. Many young people are absent. But even with a new Imam and new followers, the prayers are still the same. After each congregation, there is a brief pause. An Aameen hangs in the air as a collective sigh of the people who have agreed, heart broken themselves, with every word the imam has uttered – asking for the well being of all people from Kashmir to Palestine.

Yet, the one thing the imam seldom prays for is hope. If I could ask for one thing tonight – I would ask to be hopeful. For God to take away the leaden despair from our lives and fill us with the faith of  a better tomorrow. Things start looking up, when we do. And tonight, I need that more than anything else.

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The Last Beautiful Dregs

 
I have been trying to recreate a Sehri from the past, and I must write down what remains of the last beautiful dregs of the time in my memory. Memory is a fleeting, floating channel and we can only be children once. Alas!

The past when as eager-to-fast children we would wake up to calls of hurrying parents. When Sehri meant having a full fledged meal (because, you know, what if you felt hungry?) followed by tea.

The mornings were dark. That is the first of few. And cold. We would pile on sweaters and jackets; just enough in number that the cold wouldnt get inside yet not as many that would restrict movement.

We would tread lightly over the floor as the cold bit into tiny feet, with mother’s directives, “slippers, slippers”. And rush from the kitchen to the small room for eating by the gaslight. Electricity would still be sleeping when we woke. The sound of Sahar Khan’s bugle affirmed that we were on time. No other sound emerged from the valley, except the heavy army convoys moving at that hour. Instantly and instinctively we would ignore them. My memory bids the same.

Someone would vaguely and uselessly try to rekindle the kangri. Few things are as disappointing as a kangri gone cold. We would warm our hands on the gas burner and rub them to feel the heat spread.

Half a jug of water was heated up and mixed with cold water to make it drinkable. One couldnt drink cold water without catching a cold. A little hot water was swirled in glasses too, to keep them from cracking.

The rice wrapped up in shawls and blankets like a baby and kept in the bedroom to keep warm through the night. Even then it wasn’t hot – warm just like the water, which meant that everything else needed to be hot. The kitchen was cold, cold and dangerous to visit. The air would make the spine shiver, literally. And yet, mother would stand at the cooking stove in her blue shawl, to heat up everything, in the candle light. Warming her hands on the utensils when it got very cold.

 
 

She would leave the nunchai on while we had the rice. The tea used to be perfect. May be the darkness that ripened the taste or the cold that added the flavor, the tea was never a letdown.

Behind timidly parted curtains, the morning was still night. The frosted window pane admitted no light, and the sounds from the mosque were distant. Those days, announcements from the mosques were frequent and inaudible. And outside, it was all frost. Gwould steal out a moment and light a secret smoke in the darkness outside just before the Azan. We all knew.

Thank God For Little Pleasures – XVII

Srinagar is hot these days. Hot like a girda just poked out of the oven by the local kandur-bai. And as its Ramazan, so most probably the kandur-bai is poking out geowdar czot. But hot as they come! With all that people are still fasting. Living life on small doses on nun-chai and larger ones of treish. And wondering whether its going to be a 29 day or 30 day Ramadan.

After a long and tiring day of fasting, home is where babri-beol is. The throat is parched by the end of the day. A slight giddiness in the head when you have spent the day arguing at workplace. ACs are largely non existent in Kashmir.  At Iftar time, under the whirring of a fan, waiting for the Imam to shout “Iftar, Iftar, Iftar” before one can grab a glass of babri-beoul and down it. To refresh the soul and in general bring life and light back.  And relax in the soft sound of the little seeds being chewed upon.

A man clears his throat on the mosque loudspeaker and calls out the Azaan.

May Allah accept our fasts. Aameen.

Prayers

These hordes of people coming out of the mosques, what did they pray for? What did they ask God for? Of all the bounties, hanging like ripe fruit on low branches, which ones did they aim for?

There is a downward sloping path from the mosque. A middle aged man walks hurriedly towards the door. He is already late for prayers. The congregation has just started. In the last few rows people have not yet started their prayers. He joins in second to last row, and quickly raises his hands to his ears. The gathering falls and rises in unison. Almost a hundred people in the large freshly painted hall of the mosque. The green and the white sparkling clean. “Allah” written next to the name of His beloved, “Muhammad” (Peace be upon him). The imam, a young fellow with a high pitched voice and fluent recitation leading the prayers.

Ahead of this man, is an old man. White beard, soft hands, a faded face. The old man is slow in his movements. He only prays the first raka’at standing. He doesn’t stand for the taraweeh. He can’t. He looks at the people towering over him and adjusts his knees. After eight raka’ats as the crowd thins, he moves on the first row.

When the prayers end, there is a brief moment of silence. Just a few seconds before people start to leave. Some touch their foreheads to the ground, some raise their hands to heaven. Some gather the dust of the mosque. A few say Salam and leave. Some simply wink at the imam.

In that brief moment, the whole congregation prays. Small individual prayers. Prayers for themselves and their families. The old white man, raises his arms high and prays for his sons and daughters in an affected voice. His deep breathing makes his prayer audible. He hardly asks anything for himself. One is sorry to overhear such a private whisper sent to God.

I imagine, after all is prayed and done, the prayers would rise towards Heaven like mist disappears slowly from mountain tops in a Spring morning. Prayers filled with hopes and desire. With unrestraint and abandon.With courage and fear. With anticipation and regret. What all must a million prayers fulfill! What do the people pray for? Those who leave early with quick prayers and those who stay till the end and leave after the imam. Do people who attend the congregations to answer a duty, fall in love with them mid way? Do their prayers take on a different colour after that? Do neighbours ever pray for each other? For the man who was standing next to you during the prayer? The imam makes an effort – he prays for the whole congregation. For Kashmir. And then in continuation for Palestine too.

The lively bunch of kids at the back of the mosque have it easy. They tick off the things they need to ask God for – good marks, better than expected results and the like. Not everyone knows what to ask for. Some people cant speak out their prayers. They have lost the words for them in the mist. They leave it to God’s will. He already knows.

While returning the middle aged man stops to buy himself a pack of cigarettes from the last open shop of the mohalla. He stops under a street light to light it. And moves away.

In the News

A ‘friend‘ on Twitter pointed out that Kashmir Monitor, a daily newspaper from the Valley, had decided to carry a post from this blog. A Basic Guide to Ramazan Food in Kashmir. It appeared in the newspaper on 12 August, 2012.  

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However, they skipped crediting me or the blog for the post. So I decided to write to the editor to point out the oversight. Within an hour, he replied, saying that they had thought Rich Autumns was not the name of the writer and that it will be corrected on the following day. Sure enough, Monday’s newspaper carried a note of regret. 
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And that, dear reader, is the story of how I got published as Rich Autumns.

A Basic Guide to Ramazan Food in Kashmir

This Ramazan is the hottest and the longest we have seen in Kashmir since the armed militancy began. Typically Kashmir has longer days (the period of sunlight from dawn to dusk) than India and Pakistan. The first day of Ramazan the fast lasted from 3:55 a.m. to 7:48 p.m. 

 It isn’t easy to wake up so early on most days, and then to get up early enough in order to have a meal ready is quite another issue. Come to think of it, it’s another blessing of Ramadan that you can dine at that early an hour – in other months it would appear too cumbrous to do.

 If you are a Kashmiri or hoping to spend your Ramadan in Kashmir there are a few basics for a perfect Kashmiri Ramazan, food-wise.

 In Kashmir, just like other meals, Sehri (the pre-dawn meal) is considered incomplete without rice. In Kashmiri psyche, you are not eating at all if you are not eating rice. Or you are plainly awkward. The next step in a typical Kashmiri Sehri is tea. Not just any tea, but the special Kashmiri pink tea. Nun chai (salted tea). The tea is accompanied by the geow-dar csot (bread made with ghee). It is a Ramazan speciality in Kashmir, made only during this month. In other months, it is prepared on order.

Geow-dar csot

 There is a lot of guzzling down of water these days, knowing that the day is going to be long and hot. Or lassi (a frothy liquid made by whisking curd and water), if you like it. In Kashmir the lassi is salty, unlike its Punjabi cousin which is sweet.

 The streets are much less crowded. A lot of people don’t come out till it’s necessary. A lot of them chew meswak and spit on the road. A lot of girls take to wearing hijab for this month. The road-side eateries stay closed during the day. Even on the Khayyam road, which is famous for its barbeque shops, the shops would open only around Asr prayers (afternoon prayers). Many shops are veiled behind curtains during the day, allowing those who are not fasting to dine in secrecy. If you are observant enough, you’ll see some people talking on their phones while hovering around these shops looking for an easy entry.

 Since in Ramazan you wouldn’t be looking for mid-day snacking, it comes as no surprise that most of the street vendors open their stalls late, at around Iftaar. However, make no mistake! By that time the bakery shops in Srinagar have been swept clean of all produce. We sure,  love our bakeries. In the nooks of crowded markets, like Dalgate, the smells and sounds of frying all mix together to produce a spicy atmosphere where hawkers compete with each other for customers. Same goes for those who set up stalls outside shrines where the aromas of the fritters mix with those of the offerings brought in by the disciples. The barbeque vendors singe their spices as they fan away the smoke rising from the coals, and the pickle sellers patiently wait behind their vats of scarlet coloured pickles.

The Iftaar in most houses again follows a set pattern. Basil seeds which have been left in water till they have swollen well are mixed with water, milk and sugar, the sherbet here is called Babribeoul treish. And the mandatory dates, of course. True to the minute, the muezzins in all the mosques call out for Iftaar thrice, followed by the shrieks of kids in the mohalla doing the same (which they do out of their own goodwill, of course).

a jug of Babribeoul treish.

The Iftaar is followed by dinner. And the dinner by taraweeh. The taraweeh by tea. Lipton tea, as we call it here.

 For any good deed the reward in Ramazan is multiplied by seventy. And so, charity is common in all Muslim societies. People, here, distribute dates or halva or phireen (a kind of semolina pudding) or sherbet of milk and basil seeds in mosques for Iftaar. And to the neighbours, and also to the gatherings on Shab Qadr. Watch out for these goodies! The Halva with a generous sprinkling of poppy seeds (khashkhaash) is traditionally distributed on by a csot, which acts like an eatable platter. But modernity has brought in the aluminium foil boxes and disposable plates.

There seems to be no end to the blessings in Ramadan. Allah’s Apostle (SAW) said, “When Ramadan begins, the gates of Paradise are opened.” May this Ramadan usher in for us a period of blessings and abundance.

PS: This post appeared on The Kashmir Monitor. Read here.