The weaker the intellect, the greater the tendency to deviate from fact and logic into miracle and magic
Ramzan, the month of so much fun in the days of the joint family, has passed this year in Delhi with Jahangirpuri as the bleak backdrop. Three of our sisters fasted while the non-fasting four brothers, me being the eldest, picked up the blessing almost as our birthright. The different approach to religiosity has something to do with our divergent schooling.
To keep the wolf from the door, the declining gentility of Awadh fell into deep thought about the next generation’s education. The family was divided down the middle on the subject of Western education. The conservatives, with abiding family affiliations to the Congress Party, insisted on an Urdu education. They saw their role model, Jawaharlal Nehru, as an Urdu-speaking, sherwani wearing (a rose in the buttonhole) Awadhi and a Kashmiri Pandit.
The progressives in the family, all Communists, invoked Nehru’s other persona — as 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 in Lucknow, 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, though, my parents had changed their outlook. Naheed was sent to the same school as the boys. In the long run, it didn’t seem to matter. Suraiyya, the eldest sister, topped her law, and Najma took up popular causes in Lucknow University. Sadly, Suraiyya’s admission to Berkeley and Najma’s study of Kathak were both scuttled by the conservatives. These accomplishments would obstruct them in the depleted marriage market.
The boys respected namaz and fasting, on which our sisters were firm. For ourselves, we had found an elegant escape route in our poets. Ghalib was just one of them.
It is a truth insufficiently propagated 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 itself. It entails a critical, even satirical contemplation of its 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. The aalim, or the religious scholar, was always 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).
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 the large joint families. The 50 per cent who did not fast wore expressions of austerity for the benefit of those who did.
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?
In the course of some 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.