5 years is a long time.
When I started this blog in 2011, it was out of a sense of loneliness. Living alone in a big city wasn’t the best way to be when the time came for Ramadan. The month is all about togetherness and community, and sharing together in its joy. So I started going out to mosques every evening to share Iftar, and later on shared my experiences through this blog. It was a process of discovering hidden gems in different parts of Delhi.
Looking back at how the blog’s content has evolved over the years has been a process of discovering myself too.
I’ve been back in my hometown for the past couple of years now. I got married last year. Living with my parents after being away for around 17 years has been rewarding. So has the experience of learning to live with someone, with whom the rest of life is to be shared. In that sense, the loneliness which prompted this blog has been replaced by the warmth of living with family. That’s how long 5 years has been.
This year, I’ll be posting stories of individuals from a few cities across U.P. Right now, the plan is to cover Kanpur, Aligarh, Allahabad, and possibly Lucknow. I’ve had a close association with each of these cities at different times of my life, so it should be interesting revisiting them during this month.
The other news this year is that the project is being done in collaboration with Two Circles, which will also be posting the stories I encounter as a series. You can follow them on Twitter and Instagram here. And while you’re at it, you can show some love by following my Instagram and Twitter account too, in case you don’t already.
May Allah grant us with the ability to make the most of this month.
“Men are absolutely useless.”
For a moment, Shadab lost the patience in his voice. Working with underprivileged minorities for more than a decade, he has extensive experience about how families function in such societies.
“First they spend whatever they earn on booze and gambling. Then they snatch whatever little the women have made.”
The narrative isn’t very different. Across U.P., conversations with anyone engaged in working with disadvantaged minorities express different versions of the same reality. What’s different is the way he, along with similar minded friends, has been trying to make a difference to lives. Most of which has been through learning after making what he terms “mistakes”.
Providing financial help as charity is one of the easiest ways to reach out to a community in need. However, Shadab’s group soon realised that money didn’t matter. It went down the same gutter of addictions. Now, they provide food rations to beneficiaries identified after stringent checks. “At least this way, there is food for children at home”, he remarks with satisfaction.
Ramadan is a time of giving. Most individuals on whom Zakat is mandatory distribute it during this month to individuals in need, or to groups and organisations which can do it on their behalf. It’s natural that the increased funds for disposal strengthen their outreach programs, allowing them reach out to larger sections of communities in a better way. This comes with not just increased workload, but a greater responsibility.
In recent years, he feels that awareness of the importance of giving Zakat has increased among those privileged enough. However, he finds it somewhat troubling that they don’t really care as much about how their charity gets spent.
His concern is understandable. I have been guilty myself of simply passing on Zakat to whichever avenue first comes into view. Treating it like a matter of convenience, it ends up becoming a responsibility which has to be fulfilled, but whose execution remains suspect.
Having to ensure that the money reaches the right hands, this makes the task two-fold for someone like Shadab. To make it easier, he does constant evaluations through the year to ensure having a list of beneficiaries who are truly deserving in keeping with the guidelines laid out for dispensing Zakat.
Where possible, his group will provide clothes for Eid depending on a need based priority system. Similar to the past, the focus this year will be on arranging food packs for families during Ramadan. Talking about the contents of the pack–flour, rice, sugar, daal–he stops talking for a moment, and speaks with a forlorn sensitivity.
“Do you know there are families which don’t get to eat meat throughout the year, not even festivals?”
“I don’t have any memory of my mother,” says Farzana, wiping the sweat off her forehead with hands still wet from washing clothes. She vaguely remembers how her father raised two children as a single parent. Locking them inside home after preparing food for both of them, he would leave for the day to earn a living as a rickshaw puller. This continued till the father’s protectiveness was overtaken by his children’s age.
Having never attended school, it was at a sewing class where unable to understand measurements, she realised the importance of an education. “I used to feel so bad, that I would just cry,” she remembered with a shy smile. She enrolled herself in an informal school, which helped her to understand not just numbers, but confidence too. The beam on her smiling face showed this: she had passed 12th standard in this year’s Madrassa Board results.
Her older brother, who works on a lathe, returns home by sunset. By then, Farzana looks forward to having Iftar with him.
“After all, what’s the point of having Iftar alone, without family?”
“What do I say? Ramadan is the same every year.”
Ahmad Faraz lights up with a smile when thinking about the month. There is a great deal of truth in what he says. Between observing a full day’s fast, engaging in additional prayers and dhikr apart from the mandatory five prayers, having Iftar and Sehri, and offering Taraweeh in between, the routine stays the same every year.
A student of management studies, he recently completed his PhD from AMU. It would have been easier for him to enter the corporate world after postgraduation or doctorate. Instead, he opted to work with a foundation that’s engaging with disadvantaged minorities across U.P. This year is the first Ramadan in his new role.
“A lot of work is lined up ahead. This might be one of the busiest months.”
In his own words, Mohammad Tarique has been a late bloomer at school. His father works in the local lock-making industry, and is helped by another son.
Clearing his 12th standard, Tarique is now pursuing graduation from an open university. A soft spoken young man, a diligence precedes his voice through the gentle manner in which he conducts himself at work. He assists in the running of a local school, and spends his evenings teaching underprivileged children at a coaching centre. His schedule will get busier during Ramadan, with time to be set aside for prayer.
“During this month, I hope to gain more focus and understanding of my subjects.”
To accommodate the demand for residential spaces, Aligarh has been expanding steadily on its periphery. It is one such plot of land situated a few kilometres outside the city that’s keeping Faisal busy. Graduating from AMU, he worked for a while in Delhi. But the lure of Aligarh was strong, and the real estate market provided an opportunity.
Busy with the plot’s development, Faisal spends most of his time looking for investors these days. The project is named Sir Syed Farms. As the name suggests, farmhouses—a relative novelty in this area—are on sale. Brochures showed rendered images of a modernist house set on one side of a manicured lawn, with a pool on the other.
The plot is in the early stages of development. Spending a day at the site office is hard work during Ramadan. But Faisal has a lot of hope from the next few weeks.
“It’s a time for vacations in the Gulf during this month. This project is targeted towards NRIs, and they should start visiting any time now looking for property investments.”
Working at the ART Clinic, a typical day for Unsa is busy. Attending to HIV+ patients, not just local but also from neighbouring districts, she keeps track of medication and monitors their health indicators.
Unlike any other department in a hospital, she feels that working here makes her interact with patients over a much longer time period. “Here, we can build relationships with them,” she continues with a smile, “and in other places, the relationship ends as soon as the patient gets discharged”. At the same time, there needs to be the right amount of counselling with a great deal of sensitivity, which requires a lot of emotional involvement too.
Ramadan is a trying month, catering to the workload at the clinic while fasting. With a calm and pleasing demeanour, she goes about her responsibilities considering them an opportunity provided by the Almighty to serve people.
Through most of the day, the temperature hovers around the mid-forties mark. In the narrow streets leading up to Mustaqeem’s shop in the heartland of Kanpur, it feels much hotter.
The power outages don’t make it any easier. Sitting in his 6’x8’ shop jutting into a 6’ lane, he reminisces about Ramadan during winter. “It’s still not that bad, you now,” he talks about how it’s been this summer, “when the month started, I was actually quite unsure how tough it would be.”
Fasting was much easier when he was a teenager, having started assisting his father in the wholesale clothes accessories business that had been running their household. The holy month fell during the winter season. “We just didn’t get to know when the day got over. Even on the days that we would miss Sehri. It used to feel like bas abhi Sehri kari, aur bas abhi Iftar ka waqt ho gaya.”
“Oh, it used to be much more strict in our times.” Nafees Fatima remembers growing up in her household, where there was emphasis on offering prayers on time. “Whenever we would hear our father’s footsteps, we would quickly wrap our dupattas, spread the jaanamaz and stand for namaz,” she remembers with a chuckle, “woh bhi bina wudu”.
One of her grandsons is reaching the age to begin fasting. The question of when to host his roza-kushaai took her back to a time in her youth when there would be grand Iftars to celebrate the first roza of nephews, nieces, and then her own kids. On one such occasion, three of her nieces, between the ages of around 8 and 10, had their roza-kushaai together. One of them kept going frequently to the bathroom. When the number started reaching an unnatural figure, the child was followed stealthily. Bursting in a loud laugh, Nafees Fatima shared her discovery that cracked the mystery: “She was drinking water from the lota”.
As a young boy, Aafaq lost one of his legs to polio. It’s been a few months since he moved to Kanpur from a neighbouring village. A young father of two little girls, he has been working as the caretaker of a residential property. For a while, he tried setting up a shop to fix cycle punctures, which didn’t last. Still tries to work hard towards earning a living.
Ramadan was different when he was back in the village, living in a joint family. He would wake up with his mother and sisters, and they would have Sehri together. His other brothers, who did manual labour for a living, couldn’t join in fasting. It isn’t easy for him at times too. Starting to fast during Ramadan when he was in his teens, he has been finding it difficult to keep up in recent years. When asked about the reason, he replied with a sheepish smile: “Bhai, masalay ki wajah se badi mushkil ho jaati hai.” (Brother, it gets very difficult because of the habit of chewing tobacco.)