Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Sights, sounds and aromas of Ramadan

Fasting has been enjoined upon the Muslims in Ramadan which is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. It is a month of intense prayers, devout worship and religious zeal. But another dimension that makes Ramadan such a unique experience in Pakistan is the accompanying profusion of sights, sounds and aromas that permeate the air and enrich the soul in this holy month

The last days of Shaba’an see a heightened sense of anticipation among the faithful. People crowd on rooftops, remain glued to their radio sets or gather around the television for the news of sighting of the Ramadan moon. As soon as the sighting of the thread-like crescent is announced, the air is filled with cries of “Ramadan Mubarak.” People ring up relatives and friends to convey the glad tidings and wish each other “Happy Ramadan”. 

There is much excitement in households as menus for sehri and iftaar are discussed. Then the muezzins call the faithful for Isha prayers and people go forth in large droves for the first of the taraveeh prayers of the month. For those who stay at home, the television networks telecast soul stirring recitation of the Holy Quran, naats and live taraveeh from the Holy Kaaba.

Predawn time again sees a flurry of activities. Harassed mothers bang on doors to wake up kids, alarm clocks are silenced, bathroom doors are banged and wide yawns are stifled as everyone rushes about preparing for sehri. There are groans from those who are not accustomed to waking up this early and stumble about half asleep on their feet. 

There are shrill, ear piercing whistles from guards who double up as signalers to rouse people. In some areas, people pay drum bearers or ‘dholchis’ to go about waking the slumberous. 

After this cacophony of sounds comes the aromas as sehri gets prepared. Fried parathas, curry, porridge, fried eggs and hot toasts, omelets, fresh fruits, yogurt, juices, lassi, tea and water or any other food that suits the palate adorns the dining tables as people eat enough to last them for the day. With the advent of night jobs and 24-hour open restaurants, there is no shortage of traffic even at this semi dark time. 

Roadside canteens, halwa puri stalls and tea vendors do a sterling business. The clamour of cutlery and cooking utensils reach their peak just before the fajr prayers as more sleepy heads join the fray. A siren blares through as the end of sehri time is announced. Forks and spoons are put down and eating and drinking comes to a complete stop. As the first Allahu Akbar rings out, mouths are rinsed and ablution performed as once again people make a beeline for the nearest mosque. 

The first day might pass in a state of drowsiness. But being Pakistanis, we use every occasion as a reason to celebrate and indulge in our favourite pastime____ eating. Office chatters are filled with plans for elaborate iftaar parties.  Families too plan get together as more and more people want to earn the blessings of Allah by providing food for others to break the fast. 

As the day progresses, it is not unusual to find that people and places go through a marked transformation. Shops seem to be emptier and mosques fuller. Cinemas and restaurants have a deserted air about them. Offices and educational institutes close early. 

Most taxi and bus drivers forsake their penchant for vulgar Punjabi songs and put on cassettes of na’ats, durood sharif and recitation of the Holy Quran in deference to this month. There seem to be more beggars on the streets invoking Allah’s name for the sake of alms, zakat or sadaqah. They knock on car windows, follow you around and ring door bells incessantly. 

Around Asr time, the streets come alive again. “Splat”, “sizzle”, “splash,” “crackle.” Vendors start preparing the mouth watering wares that will be used for iftari by millions of people that day. Spicy pakoras, aalo and qeema filled samosas, channa chat, fruit chat, crisp papri, dahi bhalay in yogurt, sweet jalebi, sour tamarind chutney are some of the delicacies that are bought by fasting men crowd. The air is filled with the aroma of ghee, spices and hot food making the stomachs grumble.

Everybody is in a tearing hurry to get home before iftari so that this special occasion can be celebrated with those closest to heart. Frantic travelling causes the inevitable traffic jams on our roads with frantic manoeuvring by volunteers and traffic police to unclog the blocked avenues. Horns blare and tempers fray but for some even this is an opportunity to be hospitable and charitable. 

In such busy junctions, some philanthropic people set up huge iftar dastarkhwaans to help those who are stuck in the jam break their fast. Dates and milk sodas, samosas and jugs of cold Rooh Afza are passed around. Allah’s bounty makes its presence felt and more and more people donate food for the poor, the impoverished and the less privileged.  

At home, women frantically try to get everything prepared before the Maghrib prayer. Food is placed on the table, trays laden with iftaar delicacies are sent around to neighbours and acquaintances. Many people are busy reciting Suras and prayers as this is one of the times when prayers are heard and obliged most by our Creator. 

Dupatta clad women and topi clad men take their place at the dining table and listen for the sound of azaan. With the onrush of consciousness of Allah’s blessings and bounty, there are tears in many eyes as people fervently beg forgiveness for their past sins and pray for more blessings and mercy.

The countdown to iftaar begins on the television which had previously been airing religious sermons and cooking shows. Children are usually most excited at this point and when the dua for breaking the fast is announced, they grab dates wrapped in silver warq, ready to pop it into their mouths as soon as they hear the azaan. People usually partake a little food and slake their thirst and then offer their prayers. After that, the family again sits down for a proper meal, tea and fruits.

As the month progresses, so does the discipline and spiritual zest. Waking up at sehri or going without food and water all day long no longer seems difficult. People make exceptional arrangements for special prayers like Salat-ul-tasbeeh and Itikaaf, the practice of spending the last ten days in mosques for strict prayers and worship without worldly distractions. 

These last ten days also see a sharp increase in shopping for Eid. Shops display colourful clothes, shoes, accessories, glass bangles, mehndi and Eid cards. Everything seems to glitter and shine just like the eyes of young shoppers who throng the markets looking for their special Eid clothes.

Ramadan is the most keenly awaited month in the Muslim calendar. It is a time of reflection, introspection and unbridled religious fervor. It is the month of abstaining from physical desires, reaching for taqwa and attaining piety. It is also a time of greater sense of community spirit, of giving to the poor and asking for blessings from Allah.

It is a time of enjoying family re-unions and iftaar parties. Even though prices of food items spiral up and the expenses of Eid-ul-Fitr loom ahead, everybody enjoys this special month for all its excitement and benedictions.

Ramadan Mubarak!

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