I’m a Hindu woman married to a Muslim man and as anyone with common sense would have predicted, our life together has its share of unexpected turns.
“It must be hard to be married to a Muslim,” friends and strangers often say rhetorically. Sometimes they lower their voice to a whisper when they speak as if they are feeling embarrassed on my behalf.
It is hard. Very hard. Specially in the month of Ramzan, when the pace of our life gets completely disrupted.
The man fasts and the woman feasts. I’ll tell you about it.
Both of us set alarms on our phones to wake up in time before sehri, the pre-dawn meal that precedes a day of fasting in the month of Ramzan. I get out of bed 15 minutes earlier than him, just after 3.00 am. I peel a mango and pulp it. I love the whirr of the mixer in the dead of the night. I look out at the quiet, dark house from the open kitchen, enjoying the stillness. I check the time and call out to the man.
His sehri meal usually includes a glass of cold water, a mug of thick mango shake, and a cup of tea. I have mango shake too because I love mango shake even when I am half- asleep. Plus I am feeling highly empathetic.
Sometimes when I wake him up, he gestures a no with his hand on his stomach to indicate that he is still quite full after last night’s meal. Now there is extra mango shake at 3.15 am. I drink my share and then drink his portion too.
Don’t judge me, I’m a busy woman. Who has time to drink mango shake in the daytime?
I can already see his fasting-for-Ramzan expression when he wakes up in the morning. He walks around the home slower than usual. Reads the newspaper quietly. Then he bathes. He spreads the jahnamaz – the prayer mat – on the floor and prays. The children leave for school.
I have a cup of tea with biscuits. I try to dunk lesser biscuits than usual in my tea. I am aware of the silence as I hold my teacup. By mid-morning, I have breakfast. He is still fresh after his bath. I notice his crisp white shirt and his black reading glasses as he walks between the room that is his office and the rest of the house, organising things for his working day.
He seems calm but I’ll admit that I am quite anxious by now.
At lunch, I have the previous day’s dinner and iftar leftovers. Don’t be misled by the word leftovers. It is great stuff. Some of it tastes even better than last night. He is in and out of the house, visiting his various work sites. He pauses to pray.
By afternoon his legs hurt. Sometimes I read aloud to him, something I have saved up to share with him. He might fall asleep. The loud ring of his own phone wakes him up too soon. I remind myself once again to turn down the volume when he finishes his call. Sneak away his phone and put it on silent. Hide it.
By now I am also feeling the kinds of aches and pains he is describing. Maybe it is empathy, maybe it’s old age. He prays again.
“Who will sit on my legs?” he asks as he lies down, looking hopefully at his children. They disperse quickly. “My children...” he calls after them.
Sometimes I will massage his legs. “Don’t do it half- heartedly,” he will say. It is true that I am distracted. The notifications are piling up on my phone screen. Work can wait for a little, but I am tempted to respond to the friends who are pinging on WhatsApp. I wish he would really get some calm sleep. The second half of the day crawls slowly.
For the last few years, the month of Ramzan, which is determined by the lunar calendar, has been coinciding with the month of June. Believers are fasting on the longest and hottest days of the year. I follow the updates of my Muslim friends online – Sabbah in Jammu, Shubnum in Durban, Mozaffar in Chicago, Saima and Aneela in Delhi. Their self-deprecatory humour is the best part of my Ramzan.
By early evening, I start making fruit chat for iftar, the ritual that marks the breaking of the fast at sunset. Kanta, who works in our kitchen, has prepared the rest of the iftar essentials. I help myself to an advance glass of lemonade. It is refreshing, but my bones feel guilty.
“Don’t be uncomfortable,” he reminds me. “It is against the spirit of Ramzan to make anyone feel guilty.”
Some days my father will call me from his office to check on us. “Afzal must be fasting,” he will say. “Yes, Papa,” I will answer.
“No food? Not even water?”
“Yes, Papa, not even water.”
“Tell him to take a break, he has fasted enough now.”
“Papa, he took a break when he was travelling.”
“Tell him to take another break, this is too hard.”
“Okay, I’ll tell him,” I reassure my father.
Sometimes his sister will call to check on us. “You are not fasting, no,” she will say.
“No, I am not fasting,” I say.
“Not even one day?”
“Not even one.”
“Not even alvida jumma,” she asks, referring to the auspicious last Friday of the month of Ramzan.
“Not even alvida jumma,” I repeat after her. “But we’ve got new clothes for all of us,” I reassure her.
“How are your rozas coming along,” a friend will sometimes ask casually.
“He fasts and I eats,” I often reply, smiling at my own private joke. It is ungrammatical, it breaks rules, yet it pleases me. It reminds me of falling in love with the one who fasts. There was no pressing reason to do it, it just felt good. It made us laugh.
Meanwhile, Afzal’s productivity seems to peak in the last couple of hours before iftar. He is talking loudly, he visits his accountant, he makes tea for the colleagues in his office. Suddenly he snaps and now he is yelling at someone on the phone. I feel a tight knot in the pit of my stomach. I wish he would exhale. I call the children to begin to lay the table for iftar. I have a glass of water.
Finally, it is 7.00 pm, time for sunset. We are all seated at the dining table. The children follow the hands of the clock on the wall. They remind each other to not touch the snacks or drinks in front of them before Papa says it is okay to do so. They had briefly considered fasting with him this year. Then they decided to do a gadget-roza instead, taking a break from all internet-enabled gadgets for a week.
When it is time, he says a silent prayer and breaks his fast with dates and lemonade. There is something comforting about the slowness of this ritual. The rest of us also break our non-fast with dates and lemonade. He eats a little and goes away to pray. I get up to make tea, this time for both of us.
Half an hour later, like him, I have also eaten and drunk too much too soon. We feel bloated and heavy. We promise not to make this mistake again. Tomorrow we will eat a light iftar. We will have an early dinner like classy, mature people.
Soon he is searching for something meetha after dinner. He needs his sugar fix today, from tomorrow he will abstain. I can barely walk straight from how much I have eaten all day.
I check that there are mangoes and mango pulp for our middle-of-the-night mango shake date in a few hours. He prays for one last time before the day is over. We sleep and wake up for sehri again.
Are we different from each other? Yes. Can we still be intimate? Yes. Do we get annoyed with each other? Yes. Which one of us likes mango shake better? It is hard to tell.
Excerpted with permission from Immortal for a Moment: Small Answer to Big Questions About Life, Love and Letting Go, Natasha Badhwar, Simon & Schuster India.