It would all begin a week or two earlier. My father would visit the head priest at the local mosque who, upon consulting his holy books, would pronounce the muhurat, the auspicious time: the precise minute on the evening of Diwali at which my father should open the accounts of his business for the coming year.
Like many Bohras, my father was a trader. He supplied tools and machine parts to factories on the outskirts of the city. Bohras are a Shia Muslim community from Gujarat. In the 19th century, many of them migrated to Bombay and settled in the areas around Fort and Crawford Market. In fact, a part of the Fort neighbourhood is still known as Bora Bazaar although few Bohra businesses exist today.
My maternal great-grandfather opened a hardware store in a street off Crawford Market in 1878. The family lived above the store. This is where my mother and her siblings and cousins grew up. Over time each street had come to specialise in a particular trade – hardware, pipes, glass, paper, gems, paints. Bohra, Khoja and Memon businesses stood cheek by jowl with shops started by Hindu and Jain traders of the bania castes from Gujarat. Bonded by language, place of origin and business ties, their day-to-day interactions were intricately bound to each other.
A silver coin
On Dhanteras, my brother and I would accompany my father, first to a small silver shop in Zaveri Bazaar where, as is the tradition on this day, he would purchase a silver coin. Except that his, instead of an image of Goddess Lakshmi, had the word Allah etched on it. Our next stop would be at a stationery store in Abdul Rehman Street. An order for all the account books needed for the year, ledgers, registers, bill books and the like, would have been placed days ago.
These would now be wrapped in a red cloth by the shopkeeper, and with a bamboo quill placed inside, carefully deposited on our outstretched arms. As we walked down the streets, our skinny arms groaning under the weight of the heavy books, we would pass other children, some of them with a tilak on their foreheads, carrying similar loads.
On the way, we would stop at the family store. Here, my maternal uncles would be supervising the cleaning. Floors were being scrubbed off grime and shelves dusted off cobwebs that had gathered during the year. Later, marigold and white aster garlands and twinkling lights would be strung on the shop front.
A deep cavernous space that even boasted a fresh water well, the store was our favourite haunt for hide-n-seek games, its dark corners filled with magic and mystery. On its walls were hundreds of boxes filled with screws, nails, nuts and bolts of every size. Sometimes, when the elders had left for the day, we would be allowed to play with them.
The day of Diwali would arrive with anticipation for the evening to come. Well before the appointed time, the entire clan would gather at the store, the women in their elegant saris and the men with the trademark Bohra cap on their heads, enjoying bowls of hand-churned ice-cream as they chatted with relatives they hadn’t seen in a while.
Then, at the exact moment of the muhurat, as the first firecrackers were set alit and the deafening sound shook the building, my father would open an account book to the first page, sprinkle a bit of saffron water, dip the bamboo quill in a pot of ink and write, in Gujarati, the first words: Bismillah ir rahman nir rahim, in the name of Allah, the compassionate and merciful.
Our family was not an exception. If you were to have walked down those streets, you would have seen countless Bohra shops decked in flowers and lights, similar rituals being carried out at the same time as the Hindus were doing Chopda Pujan invoking Goddess Lakshmi in their stores.
The morning after Diwali, on the Gujarati New Year, all the businesses would be open. Dressed in our best, my brother and I would go along with my father as he visited friends and colleagues, Muslim and Hindu alike. As the men clasped their hands together wishing each other saal mubarak, we would be busy stuffing our mouths with dry fruits hoping some kind “uncle” would offer us a Thums Up.
It was not our new year, of course. The Bohra new year falls on the first of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar. And although we do enjoy some feasting on this day, it is already marked by the days of mourning and lamentation to follow. The Gujarati new year, on the other hand, was a happier occasion.
A city torn apart
Things started changing in the early nineties. The destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and the riots that followed altered Bombay’s character forever; a little later, the start of the financial year was mandatorily shifted to April 1, an arbitrary date shorn of all ritualistic and religious significance; the name of the city itself changed to one that asserted a new nativism; the Bohra community changed, becoming myopic and inward looking, its members preferring to stick to their own kind; the ways of doing business changed where paying obeisance to the old courtesies was no longer necessary. And slowly, as time went by, the locality changed, old businesses giving way to new shiny shops selling cheap Chinese goods.
My father was a deeply religious man. He rarely left for work without reading a few pages from the Koran, never missed namaz on Fridays and kept rozas in Ramzan all his life until his health failed him. And yet, it was perfectly natural for him to extend his palm for prasad at a Ganesh pandal or throw coins in a Holi fire as it was to drink water at a sabeel or watch the taziya procession during Muharram.
I have often wondered where this confident, self-assured identity stemmed from. How was it that all the bits and pieces that made up my father’s sense of self sat comfortably together, none in conflict with the other? Even the shock of the 2002 pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat could dent neither his faith in his God nor in our common humanity.
Did it have to do with being part of a generation that came of age in a newly independent India and in whom the values of tolerance and secularism were deeply ingrained? Were we always doomed to lose these values as each subsequent generation was further away in time from the struggle that created this country and only loosely bound to its founding ideals? Be that as it may, it’s hard to reconcile with what we have become.
In the polarised India of today, it seems incredible that, until just three decades ago, these celebrations were commonplace. As I mourn the loss of syncretism, of tolerance and civility, of identities that were fluid and accommodating, I feel compelled to put these words down lest these recently lived traditions be forgotten, lest history remembers us only as warring hate-filled communities.
In those dark days of the Bombay riots, my father often got calls at home from Hindu colleagues afraid for their shops and businesses just down the street from where we lived. “Nothing will happen,” he would assure them. “Don’t worry, I am here.”
As a supercilious 20 year old I would roll my eyes and mock him, “Do you think you are Amitabh Bachchan?” The idea of my father fighting a mob as ridiculous to me as the convoluted plots of the Hindi films he so loved. It was only later that I understood that perhaps this was simply his way of telling his friend: the city may be up in flames, but nothing will change between you and me.
Farida Pacha is an award-winning documentary filmmaker.