Daily Times: Sunday, February 25, 2007

Lahore Lahore Aye: Give me that old time religion

By A Hamid

Some of the customs and practices associated with Ramazan, the month of fasting, are a part of our religious and social traditions, which the city of Lahore has preserved. I remember when I was a child, one week before the arrival of the holy month, people would have their houses painted and white-washed. Mosques were cleaned and decorated and in the bazaar, confectioners and sweetmeat sellers would have extra seating placed in front of their shops to accommodate the increased flow of customers. Colourful canopies would be strung over the seating area. Kettle drums would be pulled out from storage and placed in the courtyard of mosques to be sounded at sehri, the hour when the fast began, and iftari, which marked its end. Groups of naat-khwans would go about neighbourhoods singing the praises of the Holy Prophet (peace by upon him).

The words of these tributary poems were carefully rehearsed and the correct pronunciation of unfamiliar words practised. Contrary to today’s custom, these tributes were never sung by aping popular movie songs. The tunes were composed with great care and devotion and they never failed to move the listeners. I was a member of my neighbourhood group of naat singers, which was headed by Master Rafiq Janbaz, who sang the tributary verses with such emotion that it brought tears to the listeners’ eyes. We would rehearse what we were to sing until midnight sometimes. As soon as the Ramazan moon was sighted, we would put on clean- freshly-washed clothes and, joined by our friends, make our way to the mosque every evening to offer traveeh, the special prayers that are only offered during Ramazan.

Master Rafiq Janbaz ran Bazm-e-Ghulamaan-e-Mustafa, or the Circle of the Prophet’s Servants, from his shop. We would sing the naats in chorus, as we walked through the streets of our neighbourhood. In the evening, we would clean three or four lanterns, check their wicks and pour oil into their repositories for use in the morning. All the boys wore green silk caps. We also had a green flag that one of us carried as we sang our way through the streets to awaken the faithful and regale them with inspirational stories. So excited I felt to have been made part of the team of naat-khwans that during Ramazan I always found it hard to sleep at night. At about two in the morning, I would leave my bed, dress hurriedly and go to Master Rafiq Janbaz’s shop, where I would sit on its protruding wooden platform, waiting for my other friends to turn up. Before long they would appear, followed by Master Rafiq Janbaz and a couple of older naat-khwans. We would form ourselves into a group, single file, and begin our trek. It was always my effort to walk ahead of the party carrying our green flag with the crescent and the star of Islam. The lanterns were lit and Master Rafiq would begin by saying ‘Bismillah’ and then burst into song with the opening line of the naat chosen the night before. We would sing with one voice after him. Slowly we would thread our way through the still dark streets of our neighbourhood and four or five adjacent ones.

Every ten steps or so, we would stop to sing a line together and then walk on. I was ten, maybe eleven, and I remember the winters of those days as being extremely cold. In my memory, Ramazan remains associated with those cold winters. I would have a warm Kashmiri shawl wrapped around my shoulders and I would be wearing in my feet what were called Calcutta chappels. After we were finished with our rounds, we would come back to our street in which we could already smell the mouth-watering aroma of parathas being prepared in every household. Shops selling fresh vegetables and milk and yogurt were by now open and Kaka Umdoo’s tandoor would be burning bright baking fresh kulchas, an aroma that is indescribable. I would rush home, eat my sehri quickly and run back on to our local mosque, which was warm because the entrance was covered with a thick woolen curtain to keep out the cold. The overhead electric lights in the mosque would be on and incense sticks would be smoking away.

We would perform our ablutions with cold water and come back to occupy our place on the covered mosque floor. Some people would have rosaries that they would run through their fingers. The man who intoned azan, the call to prayer, was a young, handsome Kashmiri who had become my friend. He had allowed me to beat the naubat or the kettle drum at the end of sehri, so I would eagerly wait for that moment, which was the high point of my morning. The moment the maulvi sahib would look at his watch and indicate that sehri had ended and the fast had begun, I would jump up and run to the ice cold floor of the mosque where I would pick up the two thin willow sticks lying next to the kettle drum and start beating it enthusiastically. A few minutes later, my older friend would come and take the sticks from my hands to complete the task.

By that time, the naubat could be heard being sounded from other mosques in the neighbourhoods as well. There were no sirens in the city in those days, nor did mosques have loudspeakers. Those who sounded the call to prayer had high and wonderful voices that could be heard all over the neighbourhood. After offering our prayers, we boys would not go home but make a beeline for the local park, where we would pluck flowers and make a bouquet. Sometimes, the gardener would catch us in the act and march us to the head gardener, who would tell him, “Don’t say anything to these boys; they are making these bouquets to place in the mosque.” In school, we would tell our Hindu friends proudly that we were fasting. At iftar time, we would come to the mosque, where every household would send gifts of delicious food and sweetmeats as feeding others at the end of the fast was considered an act of piety that earned the donor great merit in the eyes of God. On the 27th night of Ramazan, the streets of the neighbourhood would be decorated with buntings and pennants and the mosque swept and dusted with great devotion. All night long, people would sit there reciting the Quran.

I remember a blind man who would help carry sacks of grain and other provisions from the bazaar to the purchasers’ homes. And though he could not see, he never made a mistake and always got to the right door. He would be fed and rewarded. He knew everyone’s name. He would also sometimes join our party and stand outside a house and shout, “Get up Babu Abdus Salam, it is time to begin the day. Time to eat sehri.” On the last day of Ramazan, naat-khwans would sing poignant farewells to the holy month. When they would sing in unison, “So long, sweet dear Ramazan, so long,” tears would well up in the listeners’ eyes.

But that was all in another world and another time. Today there is much ritual but the spirit has died. The empty shell of the body remains, the soul is gone.

A Hamid, the distinguished Urdu novelist and short story writer, writes a column every week based on his memories of old Lahore. Translated from the Urdu by Khalid Hasan

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