INDIA. Delhi, Jama Masjid: I was visiting Old Delhi’s Jama Masjid area on the first day of the pious month of Ramadan, to experience the breaking fast rituals during Iftar. Due to the deadly second COVID–19 wave, I was apprehensive, but my Muslim colleague, Rashid got me ready to go for it. It was a sizzling hot day in April, and the auto-rickshaw ride through narrow and winding streets of old Delhi and relentless heat forced me to take out my water bottle at regular intervals. I could sense the uneasiness on Rashid’s face, but he displayed no ill feelings whenever I sipped my drink.
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Empty markets – scene at the masjid
I was welcomed by empty markets as the usual festive atmosphere was lacking. People stayed indoors and most shops remained shut in the wake of restrictions due to COVID resurgence.
Rashid guided me through the narrow lanes in the neighbourhood of Jama Masjid. Walking through incessant heat, we passed through a few open roadside shops displaying headscarves, long flowy dresses, kurtas and sherwanis, stylish burqas and veils, tughra – framed calligraphic art of Quranic verses, and other items that people normally buy for Eid celebrations.
“There has been no business activity for months, many have lost jobs, besides there are restrictions. So, the enthusiasm and festivities are naturally less this time,” said garment trader Ramiz.
Breaking the fast
“There normal festive mood of people coming to the markets and the mosque is missing this time due to the current restrictions as people are keeping indoors,” said Rashid’s cousin, Mehtab.
Also since there is a lockdown, most of the food shops have not stocked much. Even the traditional food item for Suhour, the khajla-feni, was available in small quantities only. For your information, Khajla-feni is a crisp pancake made of fried, coiled strands of vermicelli that is mixed with phaini, sweetened milk flavoured with cardamom, and studded with pistachios. The phaini softens up the khajla, making it soft and crunchy.
We talked to one shop owner, who claimed to be there for the last 50 years, said, “We fetch special varieties of sevai (vermicelli) for Ramazan, and we prepare various types, like khimami, rumali, moti and bareek sevai. We also have three varieties of pheni (a kind of pre-fried sevai),” Nazib, the shop owner said. The last year and also this year the business is very dull due to the pandemic.
Rashid now left me near a street food joint as he went inside the masjid to offer a special prayer, Taraweeh that is only held during Ramadan. I found his devotion to prayers, fasting, ritual, to faith unbelievable. As for me staying without food on a fasting day was manageable, but no water – that would be almost impossible for me. Rashid supplemented my knowledge base by saying that they are not permitted to even gulp the saliva generated in your mouth.
The afternoon slowly faded away and so did the sun. The air-cooled enough to make things a bit easy, and shadows elongated as the sun started setting on the western horizon.
Rashid wanted to tell me more about the traditions of Ramadan and invited me to join him for the breaking fast ritual. I was curious to know more about their evening iftar, the ritual breaking of the Ramadan fast, so agreed to join him and his relatives.
Final moments before breaking the fast
The time for iftar, the most delicious time of the day was approaching fast. Almost every Muslim on the streets now started moving through the narrow winding streets to reach their evening iftar. Rashid also signaled me to hurry, and I also moved, admiring the intense beauty of the sunset and the azure sky that slowly started melting into a flood of scarlet, peach, rose, orange and gold. The atmosphere was serene, and all along the masjid area, I could see hundreds of Muslims sitting expectantly at wooden tables lining the courtyard and streets, and calmly waiting for the sun to finally set down and the call from the masjid, signaling the end of the day’s fast.
At Rashid’s uncle’s place, his relatives greeted him with smiles and handshakes. They warmly welcomed me, too, and I took a seat at the table covered with dastarkhwan (table cloths), heavily laden with towel-covered baskets and bowls that were filled up with dates, biryani, succulent kebabs, hot parathas, fruits, hot tea, and so on and on… The setup resembled a picnic.
Soon, the first notes of the beautiful call of an azaan, a prayer resounded from the Jama Masjid, and everyone in the courtyard collectively paused, listened in silence, and started praying as per rituals. The strips of lights decorating the mosque brightened the ambiance and broke the spell. People around me gulped water to quench their painful thirst. And then the feast began.
Everybody was happy, no signs of despair now on their faces, there was laughter; there was singing; there was rich conversation; there was joy.
And after what seemed like hours, everyone now fully content moved for a night’s rest, only to return just before sunrise, to fortify themselves with food once more before greeting the next day of Ramadan.