It must have been some days after we all became a gang at the beginning of Junior College that I recall Maria telling us how to pronounce her name. It was not Maria as in von Trapp, but “Maaria,” and it was from the Quran. From her, I heard about the Dawoodi Bohra Muslims, and their Syedna for the first time. She was the first person who I knew who had relations in Pakistan.
Her elder sisters had been to Karachi. They had a fashionable male cousin there who spouted T S Eliot, smoked cigars, whose car had leather interiors and smelt of after shave and tobacco. And though we learnt in our school lessons that Muslims fasted during Ramzan, she was also the first person I personally knew who fasted.
Not that I did not know any Muslims before Maria. In Delhi, a few years before we moved to Mumbai, the Alvis were our neighbours. I used to walk to school and back with their daughter, Shaheen, whose tall, gangly good looks I worshipped. She was a couple of years senior. She had a tiny little brown dog called, what else but Tiny, and I was often at her place to play with it. And at eid we wished them happy eid. But we did not socialise much as families. Maybe our fathers did not get along at work. I don’t know if the Alvis fasted.
So when Maria announced one day that she was fasting, and that she would do this for a month until eid, we — two Hindus, a Sri Lankan Buddhist, a Goan Christian — were a little taken aback. Are you sure? You won’t eat anything? What, not even water? Can’t swallow saliva? Do you mind if we eat? St Xavier’s College was surrounded by street food stalls and other places to eat. Temptation lay at every step. Would we too have to give it all up for a month?
Maria said she didn’t care if we ate, even in front of her. She wouldn’t be tempted was her confident reply. If “awesome!!” had been in the teen vocabulary then, we might have said it. She had been fasting since she was five, for a few days at first, and then the whole month since she was 13.
She explained the concept of eating before dawn and breaking the fast at sunset. So feeling slightly guilty and after asking her a zillion times if it was okay, we went ahead and hogged canteen samosas or the masala peanuts from the channa wala outside. But our bhelpuri-paanipuri outings took a hit. We decided to defer these by a month.
Every year until we finished our undergraduate studies five years later, Maria’s month of roza brought some excitement in our otherwise routine lives. She would say: “By the way guys, I will be fasting from next week.” And we would look at her with amazement and then go and stuff ourselves with bhelpuris a day or two before the ramzan month began from a stall on Marine Lines that had sprung up all of a sudden. We called the stall owner “young entrepreneur,” chuffed about being able to use the word. We had just learnt about entrepreneurship in our economics class.
The first time Maria invited us home for eid lunch was when we were in class 12, when we knew each other better. Much later in life, through the four years I lived in Pakistan, I had eid lunches every year at the Jillanis,’ eid dinner at Qaiser & Munchi’s, and after-eid dinners at Kishwar’s. They all knew I was vegetarian, and there would be a dal and a couple of sabzis, just for me.
But three decades earlier, my first eid lunch had been a huge culture shock. And it was not the food. It was the plate on which lunch was served. There was only one plate! A massive steel one. We sat on sheets spread out on the carpet. Maria, her parents, her elder sisters Khadija and Rasheeda, their eldest sibling, brother Najmi, Sudha and I. Maria’s mother wore a pastel coloured riddah (burka), she and her sisters wore impeccably tailored shalwar kameez, heads covered with dupattas as we sat down to the meal, and her father and brother wore white pyjama kurtas, and the traditional gold thread embroidered Bohri cap.
The thaal was placed in the middle, on a stand, which in turn stood on a square piece of cloth. The main dishes were in the centre, and you spooned out portions to your part of the plate.
I was sixteen, and nothing in my existence thus far had prepared me for this. At my conservative Tamil Brahmin home, touching another person’s plate or food, especially if both you and the other had begun eating, was a no-no. Eating out of the same plate was beyond the pale. As I sat there with Maria’s family, I felt paralysed. Thankfully, there was no time to think.
A namakdani (a small container for salt) was being passed around. That’s the Bohri meal opener. Everyone has to take a pinch of salt first and taste it before moving on to the food. As is the Bohri custom, we had the sheer khorma first, sewaiyyan-dates-and milk pudding. Even before we sat down to our meal, we had dug into another sweet — kharak, or dry dates soaked overnight in rose water and stuffed with ground almond, khoya and sugar.
Done with the sheer khorma, which was served in individual dessert bowls, we moved to the main meal. Hesitant to ask if there were any vegetarian dishes, I recall eating a rice dish tentatively, hoping it had no meat. I was fearful my portion would bump into someone else’s, especially as everyone else except Sudha was helping themselves to the meat dishes.
Much later, I learnt the rice was dal chawal palido, the signature Bohri dish. There were rotis too, and there was a sabzi, though I cannot remember what it was — aloo beans perhaps. Through the meal, I looked to Sudha for cues. She had an upbringing identical to mine. What she ate, I ate, and vice versa.
Read also: Eid away from home
I left Maria’s home that afternoon shocked and awed by the experience. Without realising it, I had had my first proper lesson in cultural relativism. Back at home, my mother asked about the food. I raved about the sweets, and left out the common plate.
Sudha and I were invited for eid lunch at Maria’s every year after that. In all honesty, I cannot say I got used to the thal, nor did I turn into a meat eater, but I came away each time with the feeling that our friendship had grown stronger. The three of us remain friends to this day.