Ra­madan forty years ago

Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka) - - POINT OF VIEW - By Asiff Hus­sein

The moon-long fast in the Is­lamic month of Ra­madan when Mus­lims have to ab­stain from food, drink and sex is no easy task for the worldly minded, but once one’s mind and body is at­tuned to it from one’s young days, it doesn’t prove to be so dif­fi­cult after all. It in­creases piety, in­cul­cates pa­tience, in­stills dis­ci­pline, stim­u­lates em­pa­thy with the poor and leads to good health – not a bad prospect after all.

Like most Mus­lim chil­dren we were taught to fast from our very young days, at about the age of seven or so. Our par­ents would wake us up in the wee hours be­fore dawn broke to par­take of a meal known as sa­har. I still won­der how they man­aged to get us up at that time; per­haps an alarm clock did the trick. In the olden days though, be­fore we were born, there were fa­keer men­di­cants with hur­ri­cane lanterns who would do the rounds in lo­cal towns, knock­ing on the doors and shout­ing a mumbo jumbo “Otto Bawa Otto” to wake up the faith­ful for the last meal be­fore the fast, a tra­di­tion still found in cer­tain parts of the Arab world where a wakeup call man known as Mis­ara­hati ap­pear­ing as if mys­te­ri­ously in the dead of night and shortly be­fore the break of dawn, and hold­ing a lamp,would sing and beat his lit­tle drum to wake up peo­ple, some­times even call­ing out their names; a Wee Wil­lie Winkie of sorts, only with the roles re­versed, for he woke up peo­ple, not en­sured that they were asleep.

BREAK­ING FAST

We would not have any­thing to eat or drink till dusk set in, when we would break our fast, usu­ally with dates and wa­ter in the tra­di­tion of our beloved Prophet, though after this we freely in­dulged in some well de­served del­i­ca­cies like samosas, tri­an­gu­lar pas­tries filled with minced beef and gu­lab jamoons, ball-shaped cakes soaked in sweet syrup, washed down with faluda, a re­fresh­ing drink made with milk and rose syrup. This last was al­most out of the world; nec­tar, elixir, am­brosia, all in one, so re­liev­ing to a parched tongue. My favourite were the gu­lab jamoons, an item of In­dian ori­gin we got from Bom­bay Sweet House in Colpetty. So much so that once when our Is­lam teacher at Ma­hanama Col­lege Sitty Miss in­quired what we had for our pre-dawn meal I blurted out ‘gu­lab jamoons’ with­out giv­ing it much thought. Quite taken aback she ad­vised me that we ought to take some­thing more sub­stan­tial. “You must take rice!” she told me mat­ter of factly. I wouldn’t ever for­get that piece of sagely coun­sel, or that shocked look on her face, per­haps imag­in­ing us spoilt brats greed­ily stuff­ing our lit­tle bel­lies with these gu­lab jamoons, slurp­ing and burp­ing till we could take no more.

Some of our fasts we broke at home and some we broke at fa­ther’s fam­ily home, a stately house down Al­wis Place in Colpetty which was named Dar­ling­ton, but which we called Umma House after our grand­mother. In the Ara­bi­cized Tamil spo­ken by lo­cal Mus­lims, one’s pa­ter­nal grand­mother is known as Vap­paumma (Fa­ther’s Mother), but we sim­ply called her Umma or ‘Mother’ be­cause our aunts did so, a sure way of bridg­ing the much talked about gen­er­a­tion gap.

The folk here had it as good as us or even bet­ter, given grandma’s culi­nary skills, in­clud­ing preparing that in­vig­o­rat­ing gruel known as kanji she used to make with rice, co­conut milk and gar­lic with a gen­er­ous quan­tity of beef bones and flesh thrown in for good mea­sure. This reg­i­men would go on for a month, or rather a moon of 29 or 30 days be­fore it would all end with the Ra­madan fes­ti­val the very next day.

FES­TI­VAL DAY

On that day we would re­sort to Umma House clad in our fin­ery, new clothes mother had sewn for us, and in­stinc­tively clus­ter round a large ta­ble that groaned with good­ies of all de­scrip­tions. Lib­er­ally spread out on the ta­ble that day were a va­ri­ety of sweet­meats grandma had her­self pre­pared, so nu­mer­ous that I am not even able to re­call what they were ex­cept that they in­cluded sanja, a firm jelly made of sea­weed cut into square or di­a­mond shapes and coloured red or green, sooji, a soft yel­low confection made of semolina, mar­garine and sugar and am­barella dosi, a juicy brown­ish fruit pre­serve made by boil­ing hog­plum in sugar syrup.

The lun­cheon that fol­lowed in the af­ter­noon that day com­prised of an ex­ceed­ingly rich and de­lec­ta­ble rice dish known as buriyani of grandma’s own mak­ing, ably as­sisted by her faith­ful ac­com­plice, an el­derly Mus­lim woman from Slave Is­land we called Nona Sac­chi. What went into it was of course no se­cret. The rice, usu­ally the long­grained bas­mathi, was cooked in a very large alu­minium ves­sel in the kitchen along with ghee or clar­i­fied but­ter, per­fumed with rose wa­ter and coloured yel­low, vary­ing from grain to grain, from a deep yel­low, al­most or­ange to a lighter yel­low. It was spiced with var­i­ous condi­ments and em­bel­lished with chunks of beef or mut­ton. The meal was served on a plat­ter upon a large rec­tan­gu­lar ta­ble in the inner hall with its usual ac­com­pa­ni­ments of chicken curry, mixed pea, cashewnut and liver curry, mint sam­bol and slices of pineap­ple.

In keep­ing with lo­cal Mus­lim cus­tom, the males who ate first. The mas­ter of the house, uncle Nazir, would be seated with his kith and kin, side­kicks and stooges around the long ta­ble as if in a sump­tu­ous ban­quet the likes of which we saw only in our As­terix comics when the Gauls feasted after the re­turn of their hero, only that it was with­out the wild boar. We kids were given a place in the ta­ble at the very first serv­ing as uncle Nazir loved hav­ing us around. The wom­en­folk would have their meals after the men had par­taken of theirs. It was the law of the lion here.

The aro­matic rice and meat meal we would in­dulge in to our fill, and as if that were not enough, would be served at the end of it, a cup of vat­ta­lap­pam, a soft brown pud­ding stud­ded with lit­tle pores that oozed with sweet syrup which grand­mother had pre­pared ear­lier in the day by steam­ing in ce­ramic or alu­minium bowls a mix­ture of co­conut milk, beaten eggs, palm sugar and car­damoms. Later in the day, be­fore we took leave to re­turn home, some of our el­ders, grandma and uncle Nazir par­tic­u­larly, would force into our hands notes of money which they called pe­runaal salli (fes­ti­val money) to do with it as we wished.

The rice, usu­ally the long-grained bas­mathi, was cooked in a very large alu­minium ves­sel in the kitchen along with ghee or clar­i­fied but­ter, per­fumed with rose wa­ter and coloured yel­low

WHAT WE MISSED

The fact how­ever is that liv­ing in a largely non-mus­lim trop­i­cal isle, we kids missed out on much of the revelry and mer­ri­ment that char­ac­ter­izes the Ra­madan fes­ti­val and even the moon-long evenings and nights after break­ing the fast seen in Is­lamic coun­tries, par­tic­u­larly in the Arab world where it is con­sid­ered the most joy­ful of months with happy fam­i­lies pic­nick­ing in green ar­eas like parks and zoos when break­ing their fast, a cus­tom that has only re­cently emerged in our coun­try when whole fam­i­lies would re­sort to scenic spots like the Galle Face Green and more re­cently the lawn in front of the Town Hall to break their fast pic­nic style, but one which we never saw in our young days.

As part of the fes­tiv­i­ties in these coun­tries which un­like ours has evolved over time, get­ting mer­rier and mer­rier as peo­ple par­took of the cheer of the good sea­son, one finds the streets and shops gaily dec­o­rated with brightly lit lights of­ten in the form of cres­cent and star, lu­cent lanterns of white and myr­iad colours and even golden and sil­ver tin­sel dec­o­ra­tions, again of star and cres­cent which is widely con­sid­ered the sym­bol of Is­lam ever since the days of the Ot­toman Turks.

And when it all crescen­dos in the day of the fes­ti­val, lit­tle chil­dren would be gifted with beau­ti­fully dec­o­rated gift bags of toys and candy or money to spend time at amuse­ment parks, while to­wards the evening and night, peo­ple in fes­tive mood would gather to en­joy com­mu­nal meals with cook­ies for the lit­tle ones filled with nuts and coated with sugar, mu­si­cal plays and even fire­works, all of which dwarf the Christ­mas cel­e­bra­tions of the West. But all this we in our lit­tle coun­try missed.

The Prophet of Is­lam, de­spite his ab­stemious life­style, was no killjoy and al­ways had the hap­pi­ness of peo­ple and es­pe­cially of chil­dren in mind, so much so that one day when an over-zeal­ous com­pan­ion found some lit­tle girls singing in the Prophet’s house and cried out: “Mu­si­cal in­stru­ments of Satan in the house of the Mes­sen­ger of God!”, the Prophet re­buked him “Leave them alone, Abu Bakr, ev­ery na­tion has a fes­ti­val, and this is our fes­ti­val”. This was some­body from whom even Oliver Cromwell and his round­heads - who in their pu­ri­tan­i­cal fer­vour banned Christ­mas cel­e­bra­tions in Eng­land - could have learnt from, at least for the sake of the chil­dren.

The writer pic­tured with his un­cles and aunts

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