Beyond Biryani – Humbling moments in Ramadan

Ramadan in India (Source: Arabian Gazette)

Ramadan in India (Source: Arabian Gazette)

This blog first appeared as my article in Arabian Gazette on July 16, 2015. Click here for the original version

Blessed are the people fasting in Dubai, and a special blessing is for the ones who spend Ramadan with family. It’s as if even the watch observes the holy month, the hours and minutes synchronized to reach the phase of dusk quicker than on regular months.

The Ramadan in the year 2011 was my first in India, without parents, and without a lot other things that otherwise made Ramadan “complete” in my regular Dubai life. The watch was not just going to adhere to a new time zone, it would cover a different experience from dawn to dusk – one that I would miss later.

While I was going to experience first of many things in India, my first Iftar at a mosque in Pune (a city where I received my undergraduate studies and a lot more), provides an endearing reflection on the holy month. Walking through unkempt bushes and an expansive area turned into a landfill for trash, I reached a building that could be passed on as a decrepit villa maintained with middle-class earnings. I was ushered to the floor above – I never wondered if Biryani tasted better on higher altitudes.

For starters, the mosque was a blatant contradiction to my idea of a prayer place I had grown accustomed to – big, spacious, endowed with cushioning carpet, even state-of-the-art and an endless flow of delicious food for Iftar. I compared mosques in Dubai and ranked them on where you got the best Biryani.

With no more than 6-7 large plates shared by men engrossed in supplication, the volunteers at the mosque hustled in and out of the room to fill the plates with snacks and fruits. The plate displayed an exciting array of colours, but colours don’t bring taste after all. I darted my eyes on other plates around, wondering if mine went biryani-less because I didn’t make it on time. Where was the real stuff?! There wasn’t any – looked like everyone was united before God, just before breaking the fast, even in the content of their plates.

As the call for breaking the fast went off, the men first ensured that the dates were equally divided amongst all and then tucked into their plates. The food received their reverence as they carefully peeled the fruits and ate it down to the seeds. The few fried snacks (pakoras) dotted the plate like rare stars in the solar system, spotted by all but touched only to be distributed equally. The plate was cleared of any edible residue – from stray fruit pieces to tiny bits of the crust of snacks that barely carry any flavour.

In stark contrast to my “regular” Iftar in Dubai, the whole eating session spanned barely for 5 minutes. No second servings, no passing around of the extra meat, drinks reserved to just water in a canister rather than a portfolio of water, juice, laban and Rooh Afza in sealed packaging as collectables for home.

Failing to satiate my gastronomical calling, i.e. Biryani, made me realise that the “real stuff” lay not in that which wasn’t in front of me, rather in what was happening around me at the moment. It was in the sharing of what was available and not in the hoarding of what was not. In less than 5 minutes, the men around the plate had fulfilled some of the prophetic traditions – eating from what’s near and ensuring that the neighbour has eaten as much as they did. While many of us in Dubai blatantly go against the spirit of Islam by wasting food, that mosque with few facilities managed food supply efficiently.

It’s worth taking a step back and evaluating how mosques work in India. Most, if not all, depend on philanthropic handouts and donations (through Sadaqah and Zakat) from the public to sponsor activities such as Iftar meals. It wouldn’t be difficult to guess that mosques have their challenges prioritising areas of expense and sponsoring meals only if the donations stream in at a healthy rate.

The holy month of Ramadan spans a mere 30 days, but its wisdom is timeless. There’s much to learn from it and its blessings are open to all. I for once want to learn the simplicity of a fruit amidst the sophistication of Biryani.