RELIGIOUS FESTIVALS

Ramzan nights, not just days, have their own rhythm and soundscape

During the holy month, which ends this weekend, the time after sundown has its own rituals, something I learnt growing up in a huge joint family in Aligarh.

In the holy month of Ramzan, the holiest period is the last ten days. By this time, the bodies of regular rozedars, those who observe the fast, tend to have become habituated to the routine of daylight deprivation. More than the days, Ramzan claims the nights, which during the waning moon are specially marked for spiritual seeking. So to see Ramzan only in terms of its daylight rhythm of abstinence is to overlook the night-time patterns of sleep and wakefulness that define the month for many Muslims. This year, it ends on July 19, with Eid ul Fitr.

Ramzan nights come with landscapes and routines entirely their own. How they are populated depend on many factors. For myself, the nocturnal hours are linked to my earliest memories of Ramzan, which occurred during the summer months then, as it does now. I grew up in an old rambling house in a small town, and often members of my large joint family would sleep in the courtyard to escape the stuffiness of our rooms, made worse by intermittent power cuts.

My slumber would be broken by voices that filtered out to the open, of the adults having their pre-dawn meal or sehri. I came of age as a rozedar on one of these nights, when I was permitted to share the sehri before my first few fasts. I recall my excitement at finally being a part of the exalted crowd of grown-ups, and eating fried eggs with bleary-eyed pride.

These nights came with their own soundtrack, one that has changed over the years. A generation ago, the streets of small towns and villages would be filled with groups of sehri singers, who roamed their neighbourhoods, reciting verses and poetry of various kinds. These included compositions about the blessings of Ramzan prayers, the virtuous children and their rewards for fasting, as well as naats in praise of the Prophet. The raised voices, often using a basic sound system, were intended to help the faithful stay awake or rise in time before the morning call to prayer.

Rozedaron ka chamka sitara, maahe Ramzan hai pyara hamara went one such composition. Blessed are those who fast. The month of Ramzan is beloved to all.

In some parts of certain small towns, such groups can still be found. A family friend recounted being woken up two years ago on a visit to a city in western Uttar Pradesh by a group who used more robust language than he was used to, presumably for stubborn sleepers.  “Wake up you unfortunate ones,” they called out as they rattled the door-latch. “Wake up from your disgraceful slumbers.”

Ramzan’s soundtrack

My own nights, once I began fasting regularly, were punctuated by the crackle of loudspeakers coming to life, and the magnified but still familiar voice of our neighbourhood Imam sahab counting down the minutes to the fast with unnerving intensity. In later years, it became the sound of TV shows with Islamic Q-&-As beamed from Dubai, which were considered appropriate viewing to pass the final moments before the azaan. The final halt would be sounded by a siren that signalled it was time to stop eating.

Years later, a passage in Sara Suleri's sublime memoir Meatless Days touched off a memory of this siren. Suleri wrote that her grandmother, a feisty old lady took issue with the diktat of the siren because she “enjoyed a more direct relationship with God than petty municipal authorities”, and insisted that she was allowed to keep eating. Some of my family did the same, defiantly chomping through dates and fruits until the azaan sounded, while the rest of us scurried around, already sealed into our fasts.

In Aligarh, where I grew up, these nights were sharply divided by gender. My male cousins spent their hours outdoors, on the streets that buzzed with all night carrom contests, feasting from the street stalls, washing down their sehris with thick mango shakes and lassis laced with Rooh Afza.

We girls spent our nights indoors, in my case grudgingly, but densely packed with elaborate private rituals that unfolded inside the interlinking rooms of our home or in the courtyard where we prayed, foreheads to earth, the smell of jasmine in the air.

As we got closer to chand raat, the night before Eid, we would venture out to the local bazaar that catered to every possible need and taste, and that would stay open till late. Women would throng its streets as they shopped for accessories and last-minute accoutrements, of which there were so many – the edges of dupattas that needed hemming, for instance, or the identification of the right shade of shameez.

In recent years, this bazaar has expanded to include roadside mehendi stalls, where women and girls sit on stools while their hands are decorated, much to the disapproval of some and to the delight of others. These night-time outings were the closest we got to the fabled sehri parties that we heard happened in places like Karachi and Dubai, stories that we absorbed with wide eyed wonder. They could well have been on another planet.

Flying the nest

When I began college in Delhi, there was some concern in my family about how I would observe the fasts in a place with no sehri sirens, no iftar breaks. But the authorities in my hostel responded with great grace, offering a cold meal and hot tea in thermoses in the dining hall. I was joined by friends who shared this ritual with me, partly in solidarity, partly for the adventure of trooping into the mess at a time when it was usually out of bounds.

Up until now, my nights had been dense with the companionship of other rozedars. With time they came to be populated with diversity and a spirit of sharing across cultures and faiths. I found the same sharing in London, where I spent a year as a perpetually poor student. The early sunsets and long hours of darkness disoriented me, as did the cold, giving an unusually hard edge to my fasts.

One evening, I wandered hesitantly into a mosque, unsure of how I would be received, whether I would even fit in. I spent a part of that night sharing food and prayers with families from around the world, basking in a warmth that transcended language.

My first experience of Ramzan with mostly Muslims around me was in Kabul in 2011. Most foreign workers I knew either went abroad if they could or sequestered themselves from the city, giving its streets a charge of seeming both emptier yet more intensely occupied. The days unfolded according to the rhythm of the fast; offices closed early and markets filled during the afternoons and evenings.

This activity peaked about an hour before iftar, when the bazaars thronged with families buying bread, fried bolanis, samosas and kababs. But after that, all you heard was the sound of the ice cream van doing its nocturnal rounds, and the sound of the night prayers from the mosques.

To my Indian eyes and ears, this seemed to be a pretty empty Ramzan. Even the iftar spread seemed meagre to my eyes, since the Afghans I shared a house with ate their dinner right after the evening prayer, and couldn't be bothered with the flummery of sundown snacks and drinks so entrenched in my routine.  So I cherished the invitations to people's homes, where in the midst of Kabuli family life I found myself in the familiar swell of chatter and food, and the evening extending seamless around me.

Nights of prayer

Most important for observant Muslims, of course, are the nights of prayer. The odd-numbered nights towards the end of Ramzan are marked for special worship, in anticipation of Laylat ul Qadr, the night of power and blessings. To search for this holy night, Muslims are encouraged to stand in prayer through the hours before dawn.

Sometimes in company, sometimes solitary, these nights are about communion with your creator. Somewhere in this rhythm, of bending and rising, being alone and being together, comes an examination of the internal landscape of your life. Somewhere in these nights I find equilibrium and the sense of spiritual renewal needed to prepare for the year ahead. For me, this is the essence of Ramzan, a beat of silence in a crowded and noisy world.

I now live in a small apartment in suburban Mumbai, and sometimes during these past few nights of Ramzan I look out of my window in the hours of deepest sleep. I hear bikes whirring past, boys on the road. In the buildings around me, I see some windows lit up, and inside these squares of light, I imagine people like myself, lost in private routines and prayers, all oblivious to each other, all bound together by our wakefulness. Most talk of Ramzan is about food, and it is said that nothing binds strangers together like sharing a meal. But so does sharing the night.

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