Eleven Days in India

by Humera Afridi

“The pity of partition was not that instead of one country there were now two—independent India and independent Pakistan—but the fact that “human beings in both countries were slaves, slaves of bigotry… slaves of religious passions, slaves of animal instincts and barbarity.” —Ayesha Jalal, The Pity of Partition. Manto's Life, Times, and Work across the India-Pakistan Divide.

Unnamed-6On a recent—I feel the urge to insert ‘historic'—trip to India—any trip to India, after all, is momentous for a person born in Pakistan, it may well be her last, given the vagaries of the visa-granting authorities—I spent the greater part of my 11 days communing with those who'd passed into the after-life. I sat cross-legged outside marble screen walls whispering supplications at the tombs of Sufi saints in Delhi, while the ancient, beautiful city crumbled all around me. Within the murmuring walls and environs of the shrines, encapsulated in the passionate verses of the qawwals singing in the courtyards, the spirit of the past was palpable and boundaries between realms of time diaphanous.

Poet, mystic, and daughter of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jehan, Jahanara Begum, whose tomb lies across the courtyard from Hazrat Nizamuddin Awliya's own tomb, whispered past me one evening. Dressed in a long muslin gown fragrant with perfumed ittar, she stepped directly into the sanctum sanctorum, unhindered and seemingly oblivious to the present-day ban against women entering the doors of the saint's shrine, to rest a garland of crimson roses, threaded with her own hands, on the blessed saint's tomb. Time collapsed, a myriad histories intersected. In the heightened atmosphere created by a feeling of belonging on this exilic land, fact and imagination co-mingled to manifest new truths.

Not just at the tombs, but also in the clogged lanes of Old Delhi—Shahjahanabad as it was known before the British Raj—with my feet sunk in the sodden ground of the monsoon-humid now, dodging the tyranny of oncoming scooters and rickshaws, I found myself seeking out the palimpsest-like layers of the city's past. The pungent aromas of the marketplace and the stabbing sight of a crippled dog rooted me in the present but I walked wraith-like into history. Unfinished, amorphous stories—familial and historical—propelled me on with urgency. Time is of the essence, they whispered, yearning to be resolved.

Unnamed-8[Click images to enlarge.]

The inspiration for my visit to India had been the Urs ceremony (death anniversary of a saint which in the Sufi tradition is celebrated as the union of the lover's spirit with the Beloved), back in February, of the acclaimed musician and mystic Hazrat Inayat Khan. I wished also to pay my respects at the tomb of Hazrat Nizamuddin Awliya, the great Chishti saint, whose dergah I'd last visited 17 years earlier for the first time. The tombs of these two Sufi masters,spanning six centuries between them, lie in close proximity in Nizamuddin West. I didn't receive a visa in time for the Urs, but, here I was six months later, stunned and thankful to have arrived.

I traded sleep for the song of night birds and views of the pre-dawn sky. I wanted to drink in the land, its vistas, its air, the streets in all their waking and sleeping moments; witness their every hue. I wanted to hear the sounds that were hidden in the din of day and feel the sensation of the city on my skin in the quiet of night. I sought in a handful of days a quality of being and of belonging that comes with a lifetime. I found myself wanting to reclaim an inheritance denied.

And I discovered to my astonishment that my spiritual pilgrimage to India was not a thing separate and unto itself as I Unnamed-7 had understood it to be. As I planned a visit to Ajmer to pay my respects at the tomb of thirteenth century saint, Hazrat Khwajah Ghareeb Nawaz Moinuddin Chisti—Benefactor of the Poor—my spiritual journey became inextricably entwined with my ancestral heritage. Learning of my imminent visit to Ajmer, my mother's cousin in Bombay immediately put me in touch with a family of khadims at the Dergah Sharif. Descendants of the noble saint Khwajah Moinuddin Chishti, the Mahraj family has served at his resting place for centuries. Their relationship with my maternal family goes back, I'm told, at least six generations. For someone like me, unmoored from a fixed heritage, who left Pakistan as a child, for the desert of the United Arab Emirates and then on to various cities in the United States, with a brief interlude in Saudi Arabia and and the UAE once again, before returning to the USA, there is something utterly exhilarating and novel about the continuity of a relationship that spans generations and which is rooted in ancestral soil. Unnamed-9

When I arrived in Bombay, desirous to learn of my maternal family's fabled history, of fortunes made and lost, of star-crossed romances and above all, to glean a fuller understanding of my unconventional great-grandmother, with her imperious command of the English language which she perfected at the Scottish school she attended in Mahim, and her love of cigarettes, a striking beauty with many an admirer, I anticipated this time to be a sojourn from my spiritual pilgrimage which had, after all, brought me to India. But, I needn't have worried. That aspect of my journey seamlessly merged with my family's own history.

My first stop, on the suggestion of my uncle, was the Dargah of Hazrat Makhdum Fakihi Al Mahimi and his blessed mother Hazrat Bibi Fatima Nakuda to whom he was devoted, important for the family's long association with the sacred space. The dargah of the notable scholar-saint, located in Mahim, possesses a serene beauty and contemplative atmosphere, and is embellished with beautiful architectural details. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that both men and women are allowed inside the shrine area, taking separate turns in a quiet, orderly fashion with men entering from one door and women from another. They are offered equal time inside to pray and lay chaddars or shawls and roses over the tomb. Strings of marigold, motia flowers and roses adorn the space and a fragrance of oudh essence emanates from the tomb. Unnamed-4

My great-grand uncle, I'm told by an aunt, revived the ritual of the Urs ceremony for this powerful saint of Arab origin to whom many miracles are attributed. Each year 8000 people join the procession to mark the occasion. As I sit on the marble floor, etched in floral designs set with colored stones, I gaze up at the chandeliers, dulled by age yet still carrying an-old world grandeur. They are strangely, intimately related to me—decades ago, they once sparkled and shone their elegant light in my grandmother's childhood home that is no more, a mansion on the seafront lined with coconut palms, adjacent to the current Mayor's residence. When the house was sold, following the Great Depression of 1929, the carpets and chandeliers came to reside in Hazrat Makhdum Fakihi's dargah in Mahim.

In Bombay, I recognize instantly the familiar vigor of the Arabian Sea, the waters turning tourmaline with the play of sunlight, the low expressive sky laden with clouds. The spill of billboards crowding the city is familiar as are the palm trees; the febrile excitement of a port city and the comforting mayhem of traffic and the mass of humanity steering its collective destiny—I know these keenly from my childhood in Karachi. All my life, when asked about my origins, I've iterated: my father's from the tribal areas of Northwestern Pakistan, my mother's family is originally from Bombay. And here I was now in that faraway, forsaken, “original” land of my mother's birth: my mother's land… mother-land?

I learn that alongside their spiritual proclivities my maternal family, mercantile traders and bankers on both sides, contributed to shaping the city of Bombay. My great-great grandfather, Sir Ismail Gul Mohammad, an ambitious, self-made, self-educated man became one of the founding members of the Imperial Bank of India, which today exists as the State Bank of India. For his financial and banking services to the city, he was knighted by Queen Victoria in England, the first member of the Kutchi Memon Community to receive the honor. But before Bombay, before they took the names of Gaya and Seth and Gul Mohammed, Laddha and Abdul Hamid, both sides of my mother's family were Bhattias—Hindu traders from Rajisthan's City of Gold, Jaisalmer, which stands on a ridge of yellow sandstone. As traders, my ancestors were connected with Central Asia as well as with nearby Multan, rich in Hindu and Sufi lore. It was in Multan when the great Baghdadi saint, Shaykh Abdul Qadir Gillani, passed through that my family were drawn to his magnetic presence and teachings, and following the tug of the heart, converted to Islam, thereafter moving to Kutch, and coming to be known as Kutchi Memons.

Amina Gul Mohammed, nee Gaya, my great-grand mother of the blazing green eyes and fine blonde hair who possessed a witty sense of humor was the mystical pole of the family. It was she, I understand, who reignited the Qadriyyah Sufi tradition in the clan, nurturing a devoted and spiritually powerful relationship with Pir Ibrahim Saifuddin Gillani from Baghdad and his descendants. The family made pilgrimages to Baghdad to the shrine of Shaykh Abdul Qadir Gillani. Esoteric and mystical practices—some of which would most likely bemuse observers of orthodox Islam—were ritualized and incorporated into family tradition, kept alive, passed down, and to this day continue to be observed in certain segments of the family.

As I navigated my way in the streets of Delhi, Agra, Jaipur and Bombay, and fell into impromptu conversations with strangers with whom the inevitable exchange of heartbreaking origin and partition stories was shared, and as I supplicated at the tombs of saints, where the lingua franca of rose petals and old-world adab reigns even amid abject poverty and, especially, as I listened to my uncle's tales of my grandmother and her mother, I began to see myself and the world through an altered lens. Unnamed-2 (1)

Sufi mystic Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, son of Murshid Hazrat Inayat Khan, often quoted a saying in his lifetime—The pull of the future is stronger than the push of the past. While that may be true, I find that I have been, nonetheless, ineluctably drawn to the past. Buried in the past, I sense, are the keys to unlocking latent potentialities. Where there has been rupture and violence, silencing and exile, the future remains ever elusive. Until we know our past, uncover its secrets, expose festering wounds of loss and heartbreak and shame to sunlight, we can't be wholly free of the trauma that becomes a generational burden, transmitted down the ages. Surely, learning our stories, honoring moments of courage, enables one to walk stronger towards the future, with a sense of authenticity and dignity?

On August 14, the white dome of the Taj Mahal rises out of the early morning mist to greet me, a beautiful floating pearl. The monument of love is an architectural example of perfect harmony, rendering ironic this day—Pakistan's Independence Day— on which I happen to visit. On gaining independence from the British, the two nations have, sadly, gone on to define themselves in opposition to each other. I marvel at the Taj's sheer beauty, at the scope of love that enabled its creation. Shah Jehan's adoration of his wife Mumtaz Mehal strikes me as mythological; unreal. The Mughals are not stingy, I think, neither in love or war. I'm reminded of the spirit of my great grandmother. Her love was a fire, refusing to be subdued by convention. Unnamed-11

In the rare moments when I turn on the television in India, I experience a slight frisson of disquiet. To be a person of Pakistani origin ‘at large' at a time when tensions are high is surreal. A TV commentator exclaims about Pakistan, “Going to that country was like going to hell!” And on India's Independence Day Prime Minister Modhi makes a pointed reference to Pakistan's ‘glorification' of terrorism. The curfew in Kashmir approaches its 40thday. There is an uproar about cows in India having been hit by pellet guns. It is with relief and pride that we can all unanimously celebrate Sindhu's success at the Olympics.

I visit the Cutchi Memon Kabristan where my great-great grandparents and other relatives are buried in a lush garden, in the environs of a dergah with a beautiful ancient dome. I think of Pakistan, its provincialism and the forces of homogenization on the one hand, and the scourge of communalism and Wahabism, on the other, that have steadily destroyed the inclusive spirit of the culture. I think of the violence committed with impunity against women. And I know that I could never travel with such ease, freedom and equanimity as a woman alone in Pakistan as I have just done in India. I will not be buried in that soil. Perhaps, the sea will be my final resting place,
the element that lives most vividly in me, passed down from my ancestors, traders who lived in and traversed port cities.

On my last night in Delhi, as I utter my farewell at the tombs, I linger a little longer at Jahanara Begum's. It is Sunday night and a larger group of women than usual is squatting inside the enclosure, leaning against the marble filigree walls. I place a garland of roses on the princess's uniquely designed open grave. Her tombstone includes these notable lines in Persian (as translated in Delhi by Heart by Raza Rumi):

Let naught but green grasses cover my grave,

For mortals poor, it's a grave-cover brave. Unnamed-3 (1)

On the other side of the perforated wall, the qawwals have begun the sama, elevating the vibration of the space, lifting the spirits of devotees and pilgrims, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, agnostics alike, with their evocative lyrics and music. It is the universal spirit of inclusiveness at Sufi shrines that draws thousands, creating a space where differences diminish and a spirit of unity predominates. Music plays a key role in the creation of this harmonious and oftentimes ecstatic ambiance. Steps away from where I stand lies the tomb of eminent poet and musician Amir Khusrau, a beloved disciple of Hazrat Nizamuddin Awliya, and creator of the South Asian qawaali tradition.

“The Chishti Tariqa was absolutely devoted to sama (listening to music). It was their primary practice,” states Pir Zia Inayat-Khan, grandson of Murshid Hazrat Inayat Khan and lineage holder of the Inayati Tariqa. “A major saint of that lineage, Khwajah Qutbuddin Maudud Chishti, qaddas allahu sirrahu, said that there are discoveries in sama that are not to be found in a hundred years of ibadat, or conventional worship…. And Imam Ghazali said there's a truth, haqq, hidden in this world. And it's hidden in this world the same way that fire is hidden in stone. And how do you bring out fire from stone? Well, when you strike a flint to steel then a spark flies. So he said that singing and instrumental music together are like flint and steel that spark that flame that then enflames the heart.”

A woman laces her fingers through the marble perforations of the wall. She is sitting cross-legged, her back to Jahanara Begum, facing out towards the shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin Awliya. Her hair is loose, uncovered. Slowly, she swings her head, this way-that way, hair fanning every which way behind her. She is quiet, lost in a trance-like journey. Another woman sways, rocking side to side and back and forth.

“Sit down,” says a voice from the dark. And so I do, leaning against the entrance wall which has, for some strange reason, rubber wires tied across the open doorway as if to bar entry. “Begum Jahanara is powerful. She relieves all pressures. Just sit and see. But you have to come back again and again.” The woman speaking has her eyes closed. She is about my age, in her forties. Occasionally she lets out a long slow whistle, then resumes a quiet stance.

There is something primal about the intense silence and the moving bodies of the women, even as on the other side of the wall, the music plays out its devotional lyrics of longing, spelling out states of union and separation. Notions of public and private, madness and sanity collapse, as does time. Everywhere there is the fragrance of rose petals and incense. I find peace here, a stillness, amid all the bodies, old, young, crippled, whole. I'm turned inside out, emptied and renewed by the ritual of devotion. An inexplicable, atavisitic impulse. I feel at home in this feeling, this sphere of inner experience, as I'm lifted higher, by the qawwal's music stirring within me. Unnamed-12

I recall passing Lord Krishna's birth place on my drive to Agra, listening to the bells of the first aarti at a roadside temple, on my way to Ajmer and feeling a joy for the chance to set foot on this ancestral land and roam free for those few days. I understand that the legacy my ancestors left for me is not material—the riches of this world vanished like so much sand sifted through fingers—but is certainly more treasured. Breathing the air they breathed, walking the grounds of their former homes, learning the stories of how they lived and conducted themselves in prosperity and adversity, in the face of life's tests and trials—this is the truer inheritance, informing my own way of being in the world. I recognize now why the sea has always been a powerful draw for me. I marvel at how my interest in Sufism was predetermined, a blossoming awake of some vital part of me of which I had but the barest inkling.

It can happen, sometimes, in the swift span of a breath, by merely setting foot on a particular soil or breathing a certain air, that we inherit a pivotal knowledge, of lifetimes passed down. May we, in the near future, cross borders freely and enter the land of our ancestors, to understand the wantonness, wealth, poverty and love that sings in our bones, so that we can
surrender, healing, to the tug of the future.