Shaping Ramadan

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

The fridge is between pesto and grasshopper green; the dining table is oval. A cubist picture hangs on the wall. It changes meaning, depending on the time of the day and the way I fall into its shapes and clever shades. The fish in the painting’s octagon looks like a remote control car or a scarf sometimes, then it goes back to being a fish; the face is sometimes benign, sometimes not. On a good day, this dining room has the aura of sweet cream, parathay (fried bread) and chilled mangoes, otherwise, cabbage and beets. There is a door that opens to the foyer; I am the height of the doorknob.

S1-500x332My seat at the dining table faces the window. Here is where I practice “joining handwriting” (what “cursive” is called in Pakistan), glancing, from time to time at Sadequain’s Quranic calligraphy on the wall: a composition that has Arabic letters made to look like sailboats in which other letters nestle. It cools the room. As an adult there will be many reasons to recall this piece— its placid dignity, its nests of words from the holy book— in a world where my Muslim identity will know no nests, no dignity, where verses from the book will be twisted, desecrated by fellow-Muslims, where large populations of Muslims will be brutally punished by the enemy for the crimes of a few, or for no crime at all.

It is the month of Ramadan. I have many notebooks of summer homework to fill but the heat makes it hard to concentrate. I study the pattern of the tablecloth, the occasional lizard on the wall. The swinging door to the kitchen startles me every now and then as my brothers come running through it. They use motion to navigate the world, I, reverie. We balance each other’s energies and are most in harmony in the loquat or guava season, or in Ramadan when the family bonds over Iftaar, the meal at sundown, typically consisting of dates, lemonade or lemon barley squash, mango milkshake, pakoray (chickpea fritters), spicy fruit salad, samosay and other snacks. There is a certain aroma associated with the fasting season, owing to this traditional menu. It is the aroma of festivity and fatigue, chatter and silent meditation.

At age seven, I insist on keeping my first Ramadan fast. I’m old enough to practice a bit of self-discipline, not old enough to appreciate the full meaning of fasting (that slight detail having to do with spiritualty!). The day is immeasurably long. I stand by the window to watch the slow day wilt. I give my mother a (long and badly spelt) list of treats for iftaar. She cooks every single item and finds the misspelt list too amusing not to save for posterity. I add drawings to my menu: triangular samosay, coils of orange jalaibi, round parathay. It will be important for posterity to know the shapes and colors of Ramadan food, I imagine.