This piece was published in an edited version in the latest issue of Time Out Mumbai
We must concoct a new name for the extreme sport of sitting in the path of whooshing traffic on Mohammed Ali Road with your back to it. Limb and possibly life is risked for a plate of saffron-hued firni outside Suleman Mithaiwala, but one spoonful is all that is needed to make the risk worthwhile. Above and beyond your head, long haul cars speed past nonchalantly on the snaking flyover with many names, the one that connects the Sir JJ School to the Sir JJ Hospital. At the Al-Madinah, plastic chairs and makeshift tables are always full at this time of year, occupied, quite comfortably by growling bellies in need of satiation.
Once upon a time, when Ramadhan was pronounced Ramzan, the all-denominational greeting ‘Khuda Haafiz’ had not yet been essentialized to ‘Allah Haafiz’, indeed when the concrete reptile flyover under whose grimy underbelly we now cheat death in order to gain the Kingdom of Culinary Heaven was not even imagined, eateries on the cross lane to Minara Masjid and beyond would lay their spread out nearly across the busy Mohammaed Ali Road,. For a month, at dawn and at dusk, vehicular lanes would be re-imagined as food plazas. Bombay’s hordes would descend on Saarvi, Shalimar and Noor Mohammadi, full of piety and perfume in time for Sehri and Iftaar. The moments before sunrise would pass swiftly, suffused with prayer and humility but the nights were long, filled with loud conversation and conviviality.
Life did take a downturn after the unimaginable events of the early nineties, but then life does find a way. Today, Allah be praised, even in its relatively constricted circumstances haleem, nalli nihaari, and a variety of char grilled kebabs occupy the mind as much as firni and maalpua, assorted barfis and the awe-inspiring aflatoon (the word by which the Arabs knew Plato). Elsewhere in the city, politicians hold Iftaar parties to stem the erosion of their flock, while the food corner between the Suleman and Zam Zam confectionaries requires no agenda to flourish.
Ramzan in Mumbai is a month of charity and fasting, but also thirty days of collegiality and general bonhomie. The fasting hours these days are quieter, given a summer that has stretched longer than usual, but evenings, despite the delayed monsoon go on and on, full of good cheer and loud humour. Does fasting make our city a warmer place? We should all try it then. Our city’s streets are used particularly well, transforming into spaces for eating, shopping and prayer. If the rains do not play spoilsport, each lane outside overflowing mosques accommodate the faithful. Azaad Maidaan on the day of Eid becomes a vast makeshift Idgaah.
Unlike other parts of the Muslim world that have taken the more rational path, using calendars to determine the times of fasting, India is still fixated on mandatory sightings of the sliver of moon for beginning the cycle of rozas and, especially for ending them. As children, this was a time for one-upmanship, running up to the terrace and trying to spot the Chaand. This year, the chaand was attested to by several reliable witnesses on Facebook, a public service act that was, in turn duly liked and shared. Whatever works.
In the days before television, Muslim neighbourhoods of Bombay would be woken by a volunteer walking from street to street like a town crier calling the faithful to rise for Fajr prayers. Today, times for commencement and breaking of fasts are easily regulated by downloadable Android and IoS Apps, loaded with alarms that indicate various times of prayer. But the crier’s sonorous voice, often using popular tunes of the day resonates in my memory decades after this tradition gave way to loudspeakers and recorded calls.
We live in a world of punctuated chaos, a term coined by Bill Gates. He alludes to our current times as one of constant upheaval marked by brief respites, unsettling to those who experiencing them. There was a time (that Gates calls punctuated equilibrium) when we believed the world would never change, at least not much, when the full enjoyment of a month that brought the city together was enjoyed at a slower, more deliberate pace.
For me, this pace is represented by tongawallahs and Victoria drivers, those urban transporters who played a crucial role in short-distance commuting in Bombay right until the late seventies. Plying a beat that extended from Colaba to Jacob Circle, these horse carriages could carry four or five persons along Bombay’s North-South roads. After stuffing myself silly at Minara Masjid, staring up at starlit skies unencumbered by flyovers, sky walks or luxury housing, I could slide into satisfied somnolence to the offbeat clipclopping of the horse’s hooves, nodding my head to a rhythm that would take me home. It this slow city that I miss the most.