My wife began wearing the hijab in the fall of 2014. We had just returned to Canada from a pilgrimage to Khwaja Baba’s shrine in India. She had turned 45 that year. Most of her hair had finally gone grey.
“It will save you some money, but you will feel hot and stuffy, ” said her regular hairdresser, a stout Sikh widow, when Rani refused to have her hair dyed.
I suspect her true motives might have had something to do with the 2014 pilgrimage. Our very first visit to the Baba’s shrine in 2000 and the preceding decade— when our lives had crossed paths and gotten entangled like two kites flown by clumsy boys—might also hold some clues.
The Berlin Wall and the workers’ paradise had just fallen. An armchair revolutionary brought up on a diet of Soviet literature, I was enrolled in the English department of a British-era college in Bangladesh. Suddenly, free-market economy was all the rage. There was a demand for people fluent in English in the industries that were popping up all over the Indian subcontinent. I had a vague notion that I was destined for academia, even though my only teaching experience came from tutoring a few sons and daughters of the wealthy. That was how I came to know my soon-to-be wife. Then in her twenties, Rani’s straight black tresses used to fall below her knees. She had just broken up with the tall, handsome Urdu-speaking youth she had been seeing since senior high. It was a classic Bollywood movie relationship where the hero and the heroine would meet in a park with well-tended flower beds. An invisible orchestra would start playing, and the pair would start dancing while belting out a song about how they would overcome all obstacles—mostly disapproving parents—and get married soon.
In Rani and Shahrukh’s case, it was not only the parents but also the parting gift of the Partition the British had given us. Only two decades after British India had split into India and Pakistan, with its two parts physically separated by India in the middle, East Pakistan parted from West Pakistan following a civil war and became Bangladesh in 1971. Bangladesh would not grant citizenship to the Urdu-speaking Muslims who had opted to move to the then East Pakistan from Hindu majority India in 1947. Shahrukh’s family were one of a million or so of such non-Bengali Muslims who found themselves without a state because West Pakistan, now the only Pakistan, refused to take them. In the mid-nineties, the Pakistani government agreed to take the Urdu-wallahs back in small batches. Shahrukh’s family was among one of those. There began a long-distance relationship via snail mail. Soon, it became unsustainable. Already 25, Rani was on the verge of becoming a spinster.
It’s all a blur to me now. I must have proposed to her on a day I was feeling particularly ebullient because one of my short stories had just been accepted by an English language magazine. The Midnight’s Children mystique was still powerful enough for obscure editors all over the Indian subcontinent to be on the lookout for the next Salman Rushdie. Her well-connected family and their beautiful house on the gentle slopes of a wooded hill existed “above the hot struggles of the poor.” Instead of a Tom Buchannan, she ended up marrying someone with Gatsby’s shabby origins and Nick Carraway’s writerly pretensions.
After a year or so of living with Rani in her parent’s house, I was hired as a lecturer by the country’s leading institute of engineering and technology. Not long after, I got an American scholarship. My GRE scores qualified me to enroll as an M.A. student in a public university in Virginia. Rani finally got a visa and joined me in the native state of General Robert E. Lee in my second year. That year of bliss went by so fast that it left us breathless. In the summer of 2000, we were back in Bangladesh, clutching papers from a university in the deep south that had accepted me as an English Ph.D. student. It seemed as though the long line of visa seekers at the heavily fortified gates of the U.S. embassy hadn’t moved at all.
“I am giving you a visa not because you are going to write a dissertation about an obscure woman writer, but because you didn’t get your wife pregnant on American soil the first chance you got,” said the middle-aged officer with a sand-colored mustache. He stamped my papers with excessive force and mumbled something about “fucking anchor babies.”
What the officer didn’t know was that Rani had nearly died of an ectopic pregnancy the year before I got my scholarship. Besides, the basic student health insurance that I had would never have covered the costs of a childbirth in America.
A celebratory dinner was held at Rani’s ambassador uncle’s mansion. Many came to congratulate him on his final posting before retirement. The beaming ambassador, a handsome and exceptionally tall man for a Bengali, towered above the crowd and exchanged pleasantries. Rani managed to stand out even though the brightly lit rooms were filled with gorgeous women.
Next day, we boarded a British Airways flight from Dhaka to Delhi. We had only a forty-eight-hour window to visit Khwaja Baba’s shrine before returning to Delhi to catch our connecting flight to America. Most of those hours were spent in trains and buses traveling through the Rajasthani desert to reach Ajmer, the ancient city that houses the Baba’s shrine in northwestern India. After spending only a few hours at the shrine, we returned to Delhi.
With the blessings of the Baba, we went on to live in a southern campus town redolent of magnolias until 2006 before immigrating to Canada. Fast forward to the summer of 2014. We were in our forties, still childless, relatively poor, and naturalized citizens of Canada. A failed IVF treatment only a year behind us, we decided to go on another trip to India. Rani, who had just started a home-based boutique, wanted to contact suppliers and manufacturers in person. This time, however, we had not made a vow to visit the Baba. A strange turn of events led us back to him.
The smell of damp carpets greeted us at the Delhi international. The airport had grown in size. Large sculptures of Hindu gods and goddesses greeted the visitors in the terminals.
“Are you Muslim?” the intense young woman sitting behind a tall desk asked.
“We’re Canadian citizens,” my wife replied.
“I can see that!” The woman scowled at us and stamped our passports with unnecessary force.
Delhi had grown phenomenally since our last visit, as had the traffic jams. More everyday people wore saffron, the color of Hindu nationalism. So many things had happened since our last visit in 2000: the nine-eleven attacks, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Taj Hotel massacre, the Kargil skirmish. It took nearly three hours by autorickshaw to reach Purnima Shahi’s sister’s house in one of the newer suburbs of Delhi. Purnima, who lived in the same Canadian city as we did, had been my wife’s coworker for several years at a bank. She had entrusted Rani with a bubble-wrapped package to be delivered to her sister as soon as we arrived in Delhi. Apparently, this sister had connections in the fashion industry.
Purnima’s brother-in-law Akshay Kapoor, a recently retired three-star general, was the perfect host.
“What brings you to Delhi in the dog days of summer?” He looked at us intently across the small, carpeted and air-conditioned living room, his bushy grey eyebrows crinkled quizzically.
“We are going to visit Khwaja Baba’s dargah,” I said.
Mrs. Kapoor must have been at least ten years younger than Akshay and looked even younger in her off-white cotton print saree.
“It’s been many years since the last time we visited the dargah,” the hostess said to Rani.
“So, I hear you teach Hinduism in Canada,” our host said.
I had once told Purnima that I was going to teach R.K. Narayan’s abridged translation of the Ramayana to my Canadian students.
Right before dinner was served, Mrs. Kapoor took us to the family god-room.
“We had the sacred likeness custom made in West Bengal and shipped to us. The craftsmen are Muslims,” the General’s wife said in a hushed voice. She opened the doors of a wooden shrine to reveal a statue of Ganesh. Roughly three feet in height, the elephant-headed god was sitting in the lotus position. His small eyes twinkled with boyish mischief. The single short tusk beside the small mouth looked immensely capable of removing obstacles barring his worshippers from attaining Moksha. Hovering above his fat belly, the trunk twisted to the right as if probing something invisible. The big crown atop the large ears made his head look even bigger than it really was. He had two pairs of arms. The front right hand was held up with the palm open and facing outward, while the left one clutched something in it. His rear hands were raised above his shoulders and also held objects.
“He is beautiful,” I said.
Rani stood with her gaze averted.
On the one hand, the Kapoors were doing us a great honor by showing us their household god, whose slumber we must have interrupted. On the other, they probably thought that we were civilized enough not to insult or even injure their god as our iconoclastic ancestors had done in the past.
Fundamentalist Hindus, not unlike fundamentalist Christians and Muslims, can tolerate the Other only in non-threatening or subservient forms: a Muslim who taught “Hinduism” overseas, or a ghetto full of Muslim craftsmen besieged by a Hindu majority. The only Muslim ever to become the president of India used to read the Bhagavat Geeta along with the Koran. Legend has it that one of his ancestors had jumped into a river to retrieve the priceless image of a God that someone had accidentally dropped into the water. Before being handpicked to be the ceremonial president of the Republic, he had used his skills as a physicist to help make India’s equivalent of the Manhattan Project successful.
Over a mostly vegetarian dinner, the General regaled us with stories about his exploits during the 1971 war when as a young lieutenant he had saved Bengali Muslims from their Urdu-speaking oppressors. I brought up Khushwant Singh, the author of Train to Pakistan and a longtime resident of Delhi who had just passed away.
“That liberal hack died the way he had lived. A drunkard and a ladies’ man,” Akshay said.
It was almost midnight when the Kapoors gave us a ride to our hotel.
Next morning, they picked us up and gave us a brief tour of the ancient Muslim-era monuments of Old Delhi.
“We Hindus protect the places sacred to minorities,” said the General. Ever since the saffron brigade demolished the 16th century Babri Mosque in 1992, many Muslim shrines had been vandalized. The Hindu nationalists had co-opted the intolerance built into the very fabric of western monotheisms and turned it against them with great success, even though Hindus had always been tolerant, even respectful, of alien faiths. Most Hindus still believed that Ram, Allah, Jesus, and Wahe Guru were but the different names of the same being, and most Muslims ignored the hate spread by fundamentalist preachers and lived in relative peace with their Hindu neighbors. At least, that was what I wanted to believe.
Our hosts finally dropped us off at the bus station.
“The new highway is better than anything you have seen in Canada,” Mrs. Kapoor said.
It was already late afternoon when we finally boarded a bus bound for Jaipur.
Although the trip was supposed to last six hours, we ended up spending the whole night inside the air-conditioned bus. One of the tall steel poles holding up the high voltage electricity cables had fallen across the world-class highway. The minutes and hours went by without any sign of the repair team. The driver turned the cabin lights off. Soon, most of the passengers were asleep. The bus loomed over the motionless line of smaller vehicles. A gibbous moon hung low over the desert and cast a sickly yellow light.
I must have fallen asleep and started dreaming. I was back in that hospital in a small southern city in the U.S. Rani had been rushed to the hospital as soon as she felt a fiery pain in her abdomen. The gentlemanly doctor had just carried out a pelvic exam.
“Sir, pul-leese go in there and turn on the faw-aw-cet.” the doctor said.
Rani needed to pee for an urgent test but couldn’t. I knelt on the linoleum floor and held her hands. Water gushed out of the sink faucet.
I woke up with the reddish beam of the early morning sun on my face. The bus was finally moving.
It was already 2:00 pm when we climbed onto a local bus in downtown Jaipur. This time there were no bleating goats belonging to our fellow passengers. The hot desert air blew in through the open windows and scattered Rani’s hair over her eyes. Men wearing colorful Rajasthani turbans and women wearing choli that left their midriffs bare sat or stood all around us. There were even three young white women backpacking their way, most likely to Pushkar. The bus stopped at small desert settlements frequently. The scenery unfolding on both sides of the one-lane highway was grey scrubland. A dead camel lay spreadeagled among the thorn bushes behind us. In front of us perched a crumbling Hindu temple atop a stony mountain that was a part of the Aravalli range which seemed to follow us, sometimes coming very close to the highway, but most of the time a craggy bluish-gray rampart in the distance. My stomach growled loudly. We hadn’t eaten anything since Delhi except Quaker oatmeal bars. Besides hunger, I felt anxious about the large amount of Canadian dollars that Rani carried in her purse.
Abdur Rahman Sarkar, a family doctor in his late seventies, had given us the money. He was one of the oldest Bengali Muslim residents of our city in western Canada. A clean-shaven cadaverous man with a neatly combed thatch of fine white hair, he spoke in a barely audible voice during the Sufi mehfils at his house. Rani and I had started attending these prayer meetings after the failed IVF treatment. Sheikh Ghanoushi, a rotund Iraqi refugee, would sing the praises of the Prophet and the 11th century Sufi Abdel Kadir Gilani of Baghdad in a fine tenor. We would clap our hands and join him when the refrain came around. Dr. Sarkar would speak of the need to hold fast to the tariqas established by the Sufi masters.
“Why are Muslims so vulnerable to abuse and insult all over the world?” he would ask rhetorically. “How did Muslims conquer India? The blessings of the Sufi masters made them victorious,” the good doctor would add.
Dr. Sarkar had started organizing these mehfils in the hope that Muslims in our city, especially the youth, would become interested in Sufism. The Salafi-dominated mosques attracted the youth in large numbers. The preachers in these well-endowed mosques tried hard to sound like a cross between Malcolm X and bin Laden in one of his mellower moods.
One night after the mehfil, Rani came over to the formal dining room where we men were enjoying the food.
“Did you wish to speak to me, Uncle?” she asked. The doctor had already finished his frugal meal.
“Let’s go to the living room, my daughter.”
The lamb biriyani held my undivided attention.
That night Rani shared the gist of her conversation with Dr. Sarkar. He had found out that we were thinking about visiting India.
“He gave me this to distribute among the poor at Khwaja Baba’s shrine.” The thick bundle of dollar bills transfixed me.
“Shouldn’t we open an account and deposit the money?” I asked when we arrived at the bus terminal in the newer part of Ajmer. It was 7:00 pm and already dark.
“Foreign nationals can’t just walk in and open an account!”
“We could check into one of those new hotels. I’m sure they would allow us to use the manager’s safe.”
My objections soon overruled, a sputtering autorickshaw carried us toward the shrine located in old Ajmer. The broad avenues of new Ajmer gave way to the narrow alleys of the old city. Pedestrians, donkey carts, holy cows, and motor vehicles somehow managed to share the streets without colliding.
“Since you insist,” said Delwar Hussein Chishti, or Dello for short, one of the Baba’s many khadims.
He was referring to the money that Rani had just handed over to him. Even though our bus had been delayed, Dello’s numerous cousins and acquaintances, who usually hang out near the autorickshaw stand, had figured out who we were and tipped him off. Dello had met us at the Mughal era gate of the shrine complex and whisked us off to the ancient Allah Rakhkha Hotel.
After exchanging salam, Dello promised to return next morning. He had been looking after the spiritual needs of my wife’s family ever since the seventies. A very dark-complexioned man of medium height and build, it was hard to determine Dello’s age. The fleshy, squarish clean-shaven face and the high forehead were wrinkle free. A brown karakul always hid his head except the hennaed sideburns. I wondered why Dello didn’t have a lighter complexion. If he were indeed related to Khwaja Baba or at least to one of the Baba’s retainers who had accompanied the master in his epic journey from the heartlands of Islam in the 13th century CE to Northwestern India, would Dello not have a lighter skin? I had gotten it all wrong. The Baba’s name was Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, but Chishti was not his family name. It was the name of the tariqa he had helped to spread and establish in India.
After a dinner of goat sheesh kebab and piping hot naans, we lay down on the double bed that looked surprisingly new and could have been purchased from IKEA. Rani fell asleep immediately. I lay on my back, looking up at the arabesque ceiling and the motionless fan suspended from it precariously. The heavy curtains on the only window facing the marketplace were frequently lifted by the noisy air conditioner. Shapes created by the light sneaking in through the curtains moved menacingly on the opposite wall. Finally, I drifted off to a fitful sleep.
“Would you like some tea, sir?” Dello asked.
“I am fasting, Alhamdulillah.”
It was 10:00 am and already unbearably hot. We were sitting on the open verandah of one of the buildings that surrounded the Baba’s tomb. Dello was referring to the creamy chai that the chaiwallahs of the shrine served in disposable clay pots.
“Perhaps when we break our fasts together this evening, Inshallah,” the khadim said.
As Dello and Rani thrashed out our itinerary, I sat musing on the scene in front of us. Even the courtyard was representative of the architectural palimpsest that was the Baba’s shrine. Parts of it were slabs of marble worn down by countless feet over the centuries. Others were plain blocks of sandstone. Over there was a large rectangle of cement and concrete polished to a dull red. Various Indian rulers—Muslims and Hindus alike—used to vie with each other to build fountains, rest houses, pavilions, bathhouses, and soup kitchens. They commissioned craftsmen to beautify the interior as well as the exterior of the Baba’s tomb with breathtaking artwork, the golden crown atop the dome being the most iconic. Even Queen Victoria funded a reservoir for the pilgrims. The veined marble plaque yellowed with age read in Urdu: “Hauz e Victoria, Kaisar e Hind.” The Empress of India, Victoria’s Pond. There was also the crazy quilt like cluster of buildings on the slopes of the rocky hills overlooking the shrine built over the centuries. The rabbit’s warren-like market inside the shrine compound sold fresh flowers, brocades and muslins, perfumes, incense, sweetmeats, and betel leaves. The brocades and muslins were draped over the Baba’s grave as offerings. The mound-like grave covered by the gorgeous fabrics created the illusion that the Baba was merely sleeping in his bed. Indeed, Sufi Muslims believe that their masters do not die like ordinary mortals who turn into dust in their graves and stay there until the Day of Resurrection. On the contrary, saints like the Baba live in graves that are portals to a higher plane.
It wasn’t hard to see why Salafi Muslims denounced such Sufi beliefs. The parallels between Hindu beliefs and Sufi ones are striking. Just as the Hindus treat the statue of the presiding deity in a temple or a household as a living being who must be fed, clothed, serenaded to sleep, and woken up in the morning to be pampered all over again, so do the Sufis treat the master’s grave as his bed and the mausoleum as his house.
“A wise decision,” said the beaming Dello.
We were going to spend only two nights in Ajmer. The anniversary of the Baba’s departure from the realm of maya was fast approaching. In the month of Ramadan to boot! Huge crowds would soon descend, making it impossible to get around. There was also the anniversary of the 2007 bomb blast at the shrine. Ever since, the shrine went into a twenty-four-hour lockdown once a year to protest the attack allegedly carried out by Hindu extremists, although similar attacks on Sufi shrines were common even in Muslim majority nations wherever puritanical brands of Islam had evolved into militant movements such as the Islamic State, the Boko Haram, and the Taliban.
Time being of the essence, we followed Dello through the crowd into the tomb. Walls decorated with geometric designs partitioned off the inner sanctum where the Baba rested. The light from scores of crystal chandeliers bounced off the tiled surfaces and blinded us. The marble mosaic gleamed and felt cold under my feet. A heavy pall of burning incense hung in the air. The wide-open double doors were secured to the walls with silver chains. I put my right foot over the threshold first. There lay the Baba in his magnificent bed. A rectangle made of marble and guarded by gold and silver rails contained the grave covered by brocades and muslins. Fresh marigolds and petals of rose were heaped on top of the mound. The crowd circumambulating the holy man’s resting place refused to yield even an inch. Somehow, we still managed to complete two laps. I exited the inner chamber while still facing the slumbering Baba.
Once we were in the outer chamber, Dello gave us rose petals mixed with dry sweetmeats in plastic bags tied with thin strips of brocade, presumably from the Baba’s grave. Suddenly, it occurred to me that Rani had not kissed the spot on the mound below which the Baba’s feet rested, although Dello had wrestled away several pilgrims to clear the spot for her. Nor had we offered coverings this time. Dello left us to our own devices. We stayed in the outer chamber for an hour or so more. Sitting on the floor, Rani read from a copy of the Koran, the Arabic verses transliterated into Bengali. Unlike the last time, she didn’t cry. When the call to the afternoon prayer sounded, we retired to our hotel room.
Ramadan breakfasts at the Baba’s were legendary. In addition to the food prepared in the shrine kitchens, supplicants brought fruit and sweetmeat. They would wait in pin drop silence for the exact moment the fast could be broken. As we also waited that day, the setting sun turned the sky as well as the buildings on the hills a marvelous pink. The cool breeze felt balmy after another blisteringly hot day. A few kites flown from the rooftops circled each other, waiting for a chance to pounce and cut the opponent’s string. As soon as the siren blared, we raised our glasses to the crowned dome and sipped watermelon juice. The chai served in the red clay pots tasted as good as it had more than a decade ago. After breakfast, Dello introduced us to the committee that ran the shrine.
“I must leave you now to attend a very important meeting,” he said.
Next on our to-do list was distributing Uncle Sarkar’s money. We rendezvoused with one of Dello’s sons at the marble square built around a tree trunk always full of hundreds of chirping sparrows. The olive-skinned twenty-year-old acted as our bodyguard. It turned out to be far less romantic an experience than Dr. Sarkar had led us to expect. The homeless were no longer allowed to sleep in the Baba’s courtyard, pavilions and verandahs. The entrances were padlocked after 11:00 pm. The men and women we ended up handing the 100-rupee notes to didn’t look indigent, nor did any individual among them display the telltale signs of a Sufi in disguise. The Sufi might deign to reveal himself to the pure hearted and whisper a mantra into their ears. With that mantra, one could heal deadly diseases, repair flagging fortunes, even conquer a subcontinent. His left arm raised in a defensive posture, the youth led us through the crowd. I grabbed his right elbow with my left hand and handed out the rupees. Rani walked behind me, clutching the tail of my long baggy shirt. We ran out of rupees surprisingly fast.
Next morning, we went to the shrine for one last time. A crowd had gathered around the sparrow-occupied tree. A qawwal was singing a song in Urdu about how the Baba had once quenched the thirst of thousands merely by dipping his cup into a puddle that turned into a vast reservoir instantly. The singer pumped the bellows of the portable harmonium with renewed vigor as rupees fell on the chador spread on the flagstones in front of him.
After bidding a hurried farewell to the Baba, we took a rickshaw to the wholesale clothing market. Dello met us in the showroom of a store owned by a Hindu client of his.
“I hope you will find at least a few things to your liking,” said Dello.
The upper crust had gradually stopped visiting the Baba’s shrine over the past decade. Most of his devotees these days were working class. The quality of the wares displayed in the market had also undergone a corresponding decline. Educated and well-heeled Muslims undertook pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina. They shunned the Sufi shrines because of the taint of bidaa and shirk. While the former meant “unsanctioned innovation,” the latter meant “setting up rivals to Allah.” Making a toast with a glass full of watermelon juice to a dead fakir, for instance, before breaking the fast would be bidaa, because there was no precedent for it in the actions and words of the Prophet. Touching the spot under which the Baba’s feet rested with your forehead and kissing it would be shirk.
While Rani browsed, I asked the rickshaw driver to give me a quick tour. The thin, bearded talkative man in his thirties was a Muslim. He had seven children and worked as a cook in addition to driving autorickshaws. He was a passionate believer in various conspiracy theories. For example, vaccination was used by the Hindu government to keep the Muslim population in check. A large, wheeled cart drawn by a camel trundled in front of us. The poor animal’s sides heaved mightily. Slabs of marble in the cart’s bed weighed it down.
“So, you are a Canadian! You can have as many children as you like because the government pays for everything.”
No one was supposed to know that we were Canadians except Dello.
“How many kids do you have?”
A reddish black bull with a large sagging hump stood guard over a white cow chewing cud while sitting in the middle of the road.
“Maybe you have so many that you’ve lost count?”
He laughed at his own joke as he narrowly avoided the holy cattle.
“Mind your own business!”
“You are bey aulaad, aren’t you? What do you do with your money?”
“Stop it right now!”
“How many houses do you own?”
“Take me back this instance!”
On our way back to the market, he kept pressing me to sponsor him.
“I can cook Mughlai as well as South Indian. Any Canadian restaurant would be lucky to have me.”
As I leaped out of the rickshaw, I felt a sneaking sympathy for far-right Hindus who accused Indian Muslims of having too many children and being a burden to the state. Rani was in the basement, where it was cooler. She was sitting on a low stool in front of a pile of dresses. Dello stood next to it.
“You lied to me!” she said.
“What good would it do to throw money at ne’er-do-wells.”
“That’s not the point. You didn’t bother to ask for my permission.”
So, that’s why the rupees had run out so fast last night. Apparently, Dello had kept the lion’s share of the money and distributed it among the vast army of janitors, cooks, servers, and dhobis who looked after the Baba. It was all a part of his ploy to win the management committee elections.
I followed my wife as she exited the store in high dudgeon. The father of seven followed us and kept demanding my phone number. We climbed into another rickshaw. And that was how our last visit to the Baba’s shrine ended. After we returned to Canada, Rani stopped going to Dr. Sarkar’s mehfils and put on a hijab.