I have spent twenty one summers in Delhi and at least half of them going to Jama Masjid in Ramzan, but none of them afforded me a chance to break the fast in the shadows of the grandest mosque there is, until now.
It started when I saw some pictures of a friend where he stood in front of a glittering Jama Masjid. There was a pull in it that I could not ignore. “Will you take me to Jama Masjid for iftar?” I instantly wrote to him. “Any day you say,” he replied. And so it was decided, we would meet in the courtyard of Jama Masjid for iftar on a Sunday. The sun is still up when we reach Jama Masjid but hundreds of people have already arrived and the large courtyard is dotted with colourful sheets that would serve as personal iftar spots for families. We walk to the far end of the courtyard tip toeing on the hot sandstone and quickly find a shaded corner to settle.
“Mosques all around the world have always hosted community iftars,” my friend Anas Khan, who has invited us for the iftar today, tells us when I ask him about the practice of community iftar in Jama Masjid. “This is for anyone who cannot arrange for their iftar. In Jama Masjid, for example, a large iftar is organised for daily wagers, travellers, and the unprivileged every evening,” he informs signalling towards the preparations in a corner. We see vats of sharbat being made, crates of fruit arriving and slabs of ice melting on the hot surface.
While Anas has arranged for most of the food for our iftar to come from his mother’s kitchen, we also want to get some stuff from our favourite shops. An iftar platter, I have learnt, is always a combination of home and outside food. My husband and I volunteer to go and get some samosas and kababs for the group. It is also an excuse to step out of the heat of the courtyard and be a part of the action in the market which could be our favourite place in the world.
Every inch of the street is taken when we reach Matia Mahal. There are people on bikes, in rickshaws, on scooters, and on foot. In another part of the city I would be afraid of such crowds but here I am not. I have walked these streets in the middle of the night as the only woman among hundreds of unknown men but have never been uncomfortable or felt unsafe. Today is no different. We squeeze in and soon become one with the crowd. On our walk to bhaijan’s, a popular kabab shop, we spot many familiar faces and smile at them. There are piles of sevai, containers of shahi tukda, skewers of kababs, and baskets of samosas, all ready to be eaten but no one is eating yet, not even outsiders like us who are not fasting.
In all the years I have spent coming to the old city I have witnessed mutual respect between communities here. Even when the world outside burns in the name of faith and religion, old Delhi remains peaceful. Neighbours stand up for each other and brotherhood is above the faith you follow. This extends to festivals too and Ramzan is no different. But with all that has been going on in the name of faith in the country I wonder how much longer can the invisible wall of the old city protect its people from incitement. I want to ask people around if they feel vulnerable, cornered, or let down by the current climate but am too ashamed to mention it even in front of those I know.
By the time we return with samosas (kababs were sold out!) the little space in the courtyard is also gone. Balancing our shoes in one hand and packets of food in another we walk awkwardly among hoards of people already seated with their food laid out. No one seems to mind us. Our iftar has been laid out too. There are dates, melons, watermelons, chana, pakodas, chips, papads, biryani and the most important of all rooh afza. As we settle on the large sheet, encircling the generous buffet, the mosque lights up. The magnificent domes turn golden and minarets sparkle. There is anticipation and excitement around and everyone seems to be waiting for the signal. The cracker, signalling the time for iftar, is sounded soon after.
“We can now eat!” announces Anas even as he serves us all glasses of rooh afza without drinking any himself. We follow the prescribed order —first the dates, then the fruit and only after that, water. While I have not fasted (the husband has) the first few bites of food taste special. The dates are sweeter, the melons juicier, and the water divine. I wonder if this is what blessings feel like.
Once the solemn moment of breaking of the fast is over there is excitement all over. Food and stories are shared amidst peals of laughter, dozens of selfies, and more rooh afza. I sit in a corner and try to take it all in — the energy, the joy, the brotherhood, the magnanimity, the love. All these years standing outside the walls of Jama Masjid, unsure of entering during the festival as a Hindu, I have wondered what brings people here from all over the world, today sitting inside I know it is love. And this love, I am certain, is much stronger than the hate being peddled in the country. It always has been.
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