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In the atmosphere of death and destruction fueled by religious fanaticism and political extremism surrounding us, standing thousands of miles away from but vicariously in the horrible wake of the fanatic Paris killings and now San Bernadino, I went nostalgic.
There’s fanaticism, fury, mayhem. What happened to restraint, tolerance, respect? The kind inspiration my late father used to share with me.
My mind raced back to memories of my teens and even much earlier, to my childhood, when my father — now no more — would sit me down and narrate engrossing stories of various religions, evoking wide-eyed wonder. And I recall his narrations now with ever growing amazement — this was my father. He, who had migrated to India from Pakistan during the bloody, massacred divide of a partition of India, walking in muddy streets from Lahore and Mianwali that, he remembered, gave slightly, softly beneath his frantic tread and pushed dirty watery pale-pink human blood to the surface as he walked, trying to ignore the severed limbs, heads and torsos hacked-hewn apart. The same man who had seen religious and communal fanaticism at their bloody worst — and which his brothers and he had often sadly reminisced about, unaware I was within rapt eavesdropping distance — would tell me stories from and instill respect for every religion.
They were just tales. Stories. The kind that an impressionable, thirsty kid driven by “what happened next?!” mainlined on. Dad cut off anything didactic. He didn’t preach, just enacted… lived the stories through his stentorian voice that boomed and dipped as he evoked the moods of the stories in — to borrow a phrase — full-throated, stentorian ease, in brilliant albeit Punjabi-pronounced English.
As a Hindu student of the missionary Saint Ignatius school in Mumbai’s Jacob Circle, I would look forward to the Bible classes in the beautiful, heritage church with its high ceiling, massive arches and pews, all the gleaming rich old used wood burnished lovingly by devout palms and knees, miraculously resplendent like the miracle of Christ Himself. Some missionary society published and sold colorful, beautifully illustrated pamphlets of the most engrossing stories from the Bible, and I wouldn’t spend my pocket money on Bible class days. Each pamphlet cost a princely six paise those days, and was a prized source of enjoyment and — I didn’t realize it then — respect for Christ and Christianity.
About the only thing Dad always did whenever we passed by a place of worship — gurudwara, church, mosque, fire temple, synagogue — was point to it and say, “Bow your head.”
“But I’m a Hindu,” I remember I had once told him.
“Yes,” he replied. “But just like you respect your gods, they respect theirs. Respect their respect,” he said.
He, who read every Hindu religious book with deep devotion and scholarly delight, even taught me a Qalma, saying, “This is how a Muslim expresses his belief.” I remember the Qalma; have never forgotten it, because he took such pains to ensure I learnt and pronounced it right:
Bismillah Rehman ur Rahim, La Ilaha Il-Allah, Mohammed Russur Allah!
In fact when I once recited it in the company of some Egyptian friends at the Oberoi School of Hotel Management in New Delhi, one of them, Alaa Afifi, his eyes wide with surprise and delight bordering on shock, rose in slow mohion from his seat, and said, “Wonderful, bruzzer!” (brother). He shook my hand for a good half minute, smiling and speechless.
Slow fade out and in to another memory.
One afternoon, I was cycling home from my college in Chandigarh — DAV College… the one cricketer Kapil Dev too went to. As I reached Sector 20, I saw a familiar sight — a masjid, a little away from the main road, in a soft-green grass plot. My head automatically bowed with reverence. Then, on an impulse, I braked, got off my bicycle, crossed the road with it and went on to a narrow cobbled path that led up to the Masjid.
On that late weekday afternoon, I had decided to enter the mosque — after all, here was a place of worship that my heart had been trained to respect, and now automatically did. I wanted to and see it, experience it from within.
My faded memory of the mosque is that of a simple, earthy, stone-floored and perhaps stone-walled structure, and not the large, smart and modern-looking building with a majestic gate that Google tells me it now is.
I didn’t have the cap Muslims wear on their heads in mosques, so I pulled out my ’kerchief and covered my head with it — just like I’ve always done innumerable times in gurudwaras — placing two ends beneath the arms of my spectacles.
As I walked barefoot into the entrance, an elderly maulana ji sitting by the entrance, looked at me, puzzled, curious; I was a stranger there, after all, and he hadn’t ever seen me visit the mosque.
I walked past him along a passage, feeling is gaze on my back, and into the main ‘prayer room’. The floor was of stone — beautiful, earthy, cool stone polished to a shine by the tread of countless devout feet. Polished softly, by bare feet. And so cool, literally. It was like balm for the soles.
There were some ten or twelve men, rapt in concentration, connected with their devout inner selves, doing their namaaz. Now, I knew only the one single Qalma, so, with my head covered, I began to follow the physical motions of the namaaz that someone in front and to my right was performing.
What enveloped me was a feeling of peace. There was silence, and everyone was lost in their own inner selves, their prayers, teeming with devotion. The room was lit by slightly fewer than enough tube lights. Their soft, weak silvery light on the dark walls enhanced the palpable devotion that surrounded my over-attuned mind.
I stood, eyes closed.
Those were some of the most peaceful minutes I have experienced and can remember.
Slowly, respectfully, putting my heart into them as I kept repeating the one and only Kalma Dad had taught me, I copied the motions of the others around me as they performed their namaaz. I remember that I, the son of parents who had lost so many family members to India’s bloody partition to violent communal clashes, did not experience any fear. To my heart and mind, both opened by my wonderful, sensible, sensitive Dad, this beautifully soothing, peace-inducing masjid — like our noble temples and gurudwaras, and the wonderous, beautiful church in my English convent school where I spent the first four years of my early schooling days — was a good, a beautiful, a noble place of worship.
I had no idea of how namaaz is performed. Nothing about the number of ‘rounds’ of actions and prayers one does. But I put my heart in front of my uninformed mind, and just went through the motions. When I decided I had performed enough of them, I mentally thanked the space there, stood up, and treading softly, walked out.
As I reached the exit, I saw the same elderly maulana sahib. His eyes were scanning the exit from the prayer room, waiting and searching, I imagined, for me — the stranger who had entered the masjid for the first time.
When he saw me from a distance, he smiled.
I smiled back.
When I reached him, the elderly man, eyes shining behind thick old, metal-rimmed glasses, reached out and held both my hands in his hard-worked, leathery hands, and smiled at me. Then he said something in a language I had never heard before. A musical, singsong syntax of completely strange words — not a single familiar one.
I said, in Hindi, “Forgive me sir, I don’t understand. What language is this?”
“Oh, sorry,” he smiled. “I thought you were a student from Afghanistan, so I spoke to you in Pushto.” Chandigarh had a lot of students from Afghanistan.
“Oh no. I’m from here,” I said.
“What’s your name?” he asked me, and then he saw the red mouli, a thread that is tied on the right wrists of Hindu men during important prayers. He stopped in mid-sentence, his gaze stuck on the mouli.
“My name is Pavan,” I said. “I’m a Hindu. But I wanted to come and see what a masjid is like from the inside,” I told him. “My father has always taught us to respect all religions and their places of worship,” I said. “Temples, gurudwaras, churches, masjids…”
He kept staring at me, his mouth was slightly agape now.
I suddenly felt nervous. Had I, by entering it as a Hindu, desecrated the masjid? “I… I hope you don’t mind that I came here in spite of being a…” I said. “Is that not allowed?”
That was when the old man startled me a little more. He leapt out of his old wooden chair, all six and a half feet of him, and clasped me in a cordial hug. “No no beta! (son). Yeh masjid to Khuda Ka Ghar hai! (This masjid is the house of Allah). You are welcome. Everyone who comes here with a clean heart, is more than welcome! I am really happy that you came here,” he said. “Come as often as you like, whenever you want to. OK?”
“Thank you,” I said. “I just wanted to experience the atmosphere here.”
And he said — didn’t ask — didn’t have to ask. He said: “And you loved it.”
“Absolutely,” I agreed truthfully. “It is very peaceful!”
“Peaceful… yes” he sighed. “Do you know why you feel peaceful in an ibaadatgah (place of worship)?” And then that gnarled old — probably semi-literate — man but with wisdom greater than the mountains, pointed to the entrance to the mosque and said, “When anyone passes through here, all the negatives that cling to his soul are automatically left outside the door.”
I left, wondering why most people who exit from any place of worship — temple, church, mosque, any other — cannot manage to avoid those temporarily ejected negatives lurking for them outside.
So, even as Donald Trump roars anti-Muslim-immigration ideas in the fervent belief they are the only way to avoid many more ‘World Trade Centres’ and gun control activists rightfully call yet again for gun control, the fanatics across religions and communities are at daggers drawn, everywhere. Leaving the common people — innocent victims or scarred survivors of crazy attacks during which they watch their loved ones die — are shattered in mute disbelief.
Such fanaticism, fury, mayhem. We need to instill into our children the same kind of restraint, tolerance and respect that my Dad gave us.
Respect their respect.
This was a straight outpouring, one from the heart, cranked out in one sitting.Do share your views too. Thanks. And do connect with me on Twitter