This morning, I headed out of my home with Udai to meet a prospective music teacher for both of us. It was a lovely relaxed morning. Out on the streets, there were few cars, but many shared autos full of people wearing white skullcaps, just out from the Eid namaaz.
Gurgaon has not been a city that most associate with a Muslim culture. There is no tangible Islamic presence among the white collar migrants living in high-walled bungalows and gated condominiums. Outside of those gates, though, live an unestimated but significant number of Muslim immigrants from West Bengal. Often, they are loosely referred to as Bangladeshis as well, though most appear to have Indian voter IDs.
This is a community integral to Gurgaon. Househelp, drivers, sweepers and cleaners come from this hardworking bunch, who are diminutive in size and mild in their mannerisms. Their Islamic practices, to me, appear very different from the ones my Muslim friends in Lucknow followed, for instance. Roza, or the Ramzan fast, is not something they keep. And in previous years, I do not remember the Eid after Ramzan being a big deal for them. It’s the other Eid that they seem to be more excited about.
Slowly, though, things seem to be changing. I had the chance to interact with a local mosque earlier in the year (during the Jalti Jhopdi project), a mosque that largely caters to this immigrant population. The volunteers at the mosque said that they understood that regular namaaz attendance was not a priority for these people, earning a living took a lot out of them and turning up for work every singly day was far more vital for survival. The bonding of language seemed to be stronger than the bonding of religion; they were happier to work for Hindu Bengali families. Even my two sentences of Bangla thrills them! Yet, in the absence of any other form of support, the masjid is beginning to assume the role of community organizer.
We used the services of the masjid to distribute aid to a burnt down jhuugi in the Jalti Jhopdi initiative. The mosque also lent the contractor money so that their huts could be speedily reconstructed. The children in these hutments have no access to education at all. Government schools often don’t take them in; private education is unaffordable for most. The masjid is soon looking to fill that gap as well.
Which is great. That is what community organizations, religious ones included ought to do. And yet, we live in the crazy paranoid times that makes us look at this with suspicion. Understandably so. Growing evidence points to the fact that the “neighbouring nation” is where the volatile content in the form of morphed images of atrocities against Muslims originated from; the content that has sent shock waves among north-eastern Indians and triggered the crazy exodus we are reading about everyday.
In India, terror and Islam and the ISI are all intertwined in our consciousness. And the innocent white skullcaps of Eid revellers become symbols of danger, spark worry and fear. I fight hard to not fall prey to stereotypes. But as I watch my nation torn apart, I feel helpless and angry as well. It takes much strength to not let the anger and frustration destroy your faith in humankind. Do we have that sort of strength?
Way back in SPA when I was an undergrad architecture student, I remember clearly marking out the Hagia Sophia (or the Aya Sofya as the locals here call it) as an architectural building I had to visit within this lifetime. It featured among more obvious ones like the Parthenon and Stonehenge, which I haven’t got to yet! What impressed me even then was its history. It’s been a church and a mosque and way back in 1935, Mustafa Kemal Attaturk (yes him, the guy who established Turkey as a republic) ensured it became a museum, in the spirit of bequeathing a monument with such a tremendous history to the public at large.
We spent an entire morning here today, mesmerized. A massive structure that has seen fires, additions, demolitions, modifications, excavations and restorations from 360 AD till the present, the Aya Sofya is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture. It has one of the most massive domes in the world and was the largest cathedral in the world for some 1000 years!
I will not bore you with facts. Here are some images that might give some idea of what it felt like being in here. The dark inside of the museum contrasted hugely with the bright summer sunlight out there in Sultanahmet Square. But it was the inside that blinded you with its beauty, its perfect proportions and intricate details.