The British Council paid me 2000 rupees for this story, for the Faith issue of womenswriting.com. But never did find the link to the story while they had the rights to it. Now, that the rights have come back to me, here it is, a story for today, Ashura.
Today is Ashura. The 10th day of Muharram. Today we are all fasting, Maaji my grandmother, Mummy, Daddy, me, my younger sister, Farida and even my toddler brother, Ali. Today’s fast is different from the fasting during Ramzan, because we did not wake up in the night to have breakfast before sunrise.
I am already hungry, and so are Farida and Ali, and it is not even 10 am. We must stay without food and water until sunset. But Mummy has packed a small tiffin and a water bottle for Ali, if he starts to create too much of a fuss in the mosque. I know she also has some toffees for us, in her purse, which she promises to give us after magrib, if we are good.
We leave for the mosque with Maaji and Mummy, before noon. We have missed school today. Daddy too has missed work. All the shops in the mohallah are closed. Today is a big day for all of us, Maaji says.
Maaji gave me a fright last week. She said I would have to miss prize-giving day at school, because it was Ashura day. I burst out crying. Mummy told me that it was not our Ashura day, but the Ashura day of the Shia Muslims in the Imambara. We are Bohris, and we have a different calendar from them. She scowled at Maaji, who was laughing. Maaji likes to make me cry now and then.
At the mosque I saw Rajesh Khanna Uncle and Jeetendra Uncle. They are our downstairs neighbors in Bootwala Chawl, where we stay with Maaji, in a tiny handkerchief sized home. Their names are not really Rajesh Khanna Uncle and Jeetendra Uncle, but everyone in the mohallah calls them that because they are as dashing and well dressed as film stars. Today, they are not smiling as usual, but look grim and solemn, like everyone else. They are also not wearing their colorful bell-bottoms and printed shirts but white kurta pyjamas and gilt-edged caps. They look very different, not at all like the Uncles who pinch my cheeks and make me laugh.
Mummy keeps us close to her, and pushes her way through the crowd to her usual place in the mosque. Tara Maasi and Zainab Maasi are sitting beside her, as always, but their smiles are puffed up with tears. Mummy reminds us that we are not to move from her side. Usually, we play with our friends around the prayer-mats spread by our mothers. But today, we all sit quietly, as if we were at school.
The women too, are not gossiping as they do, or even bickering about their bit of space for their prayer-mats. They are listening to the Imamsaheb reciting the Wayaz, the story of the 10th day of Muharram. He is telling a story full of brave warriors, honor, courage and justice. But he keeps interrupting his story to cry, or to explain a moral. His voice cracks over the mike. The men fill the pauses with marsiyas, which are mournful songs, and the tears roll down everyone’s cheeks. The other children are crying, their faces swollen with hunger, thirst and the fright of seeing their parents cry. I squeeze my face tight, trying to get the tears to roll. But they won’t. Looking at my face today, no one will believe that my cousins call me “cry-baby.”
Ali has gone to sleep, his head in Mummy’s lap, his finger in his mouth. Farida is sucking the edge of her duppatta. I wonder if that is allowed during a fast, because the edge of a duppatta is quite tasty when sucked. Mummy is looking at something that I cannot see, the tears falling on her face, like rain outside a window, silently, her hand beating against her chest rhythmically. So, I put my duppatta into my mouth. I don’t feel hungry for some time.
Kulsum Maasi, my Arabic teacher, is leading the women to sing marsiyas. The voices rise higher and higher, some women swirl round and round until they fall to the floor in a heap. I feel giddy. The faces of all the grown-ups around me seem strange and different; though they are people I see everyday. We start crowding towards the railing, to see the men downstairs doing maatam.
Some men beat themselves with chains, until others pull the chains out of their hands, and push them out of the circle. The air is thick with the smell of rose water and blood. The noise of crying, mourning and chest-beating fills the huge dome of the mosque. I look anxiously for Daddy, hoping that he is not going to beat himself with the chains. He is just outside the centre, crying, beating his chest with his hands, but I feel relieved that he shows no signs of taking up the chains. I am glad when the crying subsides. Mummy’s face glows after she has cried so much, her swollen eyes look very pretty.
We sit down for the community meal. Mummy says we can talk to our friends now if we wish, but we are tired. It is only when we dip into the khichda, delicious broken wheat and meat, flavored with lime and mint, and hot ghee that we smile. Farida and I have both managed to keep the fast until the end, and we are proud. And hungry.
The next day, is prize-giving day at school. Today is the Ashura of the Muslims who live in the Imambara. Mummy says we must come back from school as soon as possible, before the crowds jam the streets. They have huge processions, with big green, white and gold flags, which are called taziyas that they take out while the men do maatam on the streets. They also have a make-believe horse, decked up in green, white and gold, which I normally love to watch. But today, I want to stay in school for as long as we can. I know that this year too, I will win many prizes, and I’d like to stay back and show them to my friends.
I go to a convent school, and our scholarship prizes are lovely, glossy children’s books, which come from England, especially for us. I love these books, even though I do not know what glens, vales or rolling fields are, no one I know has a dog, and I’ve never eaten a cucumber sandwich. But my friends and I often pretend to be detectives like the children in the books, and we also have our own secret gang.
Maaji hates it when I read these books. She thinks I should be reading the Koran instead, or learning the namaz, but I never do the homework that Kulsum Maasi gives me. Maaji often threatens to send me to the madrasa, and that’s the only threat that makes me put in a bit of work for Kulsum Maasi. I wish she would explain what all the prayers are about. If I knew what the Arabic meant, I may like to pray, because I often talk to God in English.
Despite Mummy’s hurry, we come back from prize-giving day late. The taziya procession has already begun. We climb up the steps of the soda shop. I can see Maaji, with Farida and Ali in her lap, at our window across the street, and also Tara Maasi and Zainab Maasi and all the neighbors, at their windows. But it will be hours before we can cross the street to go home. I look at my books a little, but Mummy raps me on the back. Suddenly the lights go off in the mohallah, and I cannot see the books anymore. The noise of the mourners sounds louder in the dark. I put the books to my nose, and smell their newness.
When we reach home, I don’t even change out of my school uniform. I snuggle into my favorite corner, behind the cupboard, and start reading by candlelight. My grandmother tears her eyes away from the Imambara to scold me. “One day, you will go mad, reading all these books.” Farida giggles. I ignore Maaji and keep reading. She does not like me, and I do not like her.
I know that our Ashura is over yesterday. Today, Rajesh Khanna Uncle and Jeetendra Uncle were wearing their bell-bottoms again, and even smoking near the bus stop, when I went to school. And Daddy has gone back to work. Maaji too tuned her radio today morning after ten days of silence. So I can surely read my new books.
The children in my books have a smiling grandmother, with twinkling blue eyes, who makes buttered scones for tea. My grandmother is fat and dark, and wears old, musty clothes, and she has a sour smell about her. I slip away into the English countryside, far away from Maaji and her Imambara.