A pilgrim's path



All religions believe in pilgrimages. For Jews and Christians it is Jerusalem, the birthplace of both faiths. They also have lesser places of pilgrimage like Lourdes in France where it is claimed the sick are miraculously healed. Hindus have their Kumbh Melas where they go in millions to bathe in the holy Ganga. The Sikhs have their five ‘Takhts’ (thrones) with the recent addition of Hemkunt Sahib in Uttarkhand.

By far the most spectacular of all pilgrimages is the Haj to Mecca and Madina. It is obligatory for all Muslims, who can afford it. Millions of Muslims from all parts of the world gather there to offer prayers. Those who can’t make it for Haj go on a lesser pilgrimage called Umra. From the pictures I have seen (no non-Muslims are allowed in Mecca or Madina), they make an impressive sight with thousands upon thousands of people similarly attired going through their genuflections with military precision.

I have just finished reading a moving account of an Indian Haji who travelled to Arabia and back by a steamship in 1929. Amir Ahmed Alawi (1811-1952) was a scholar and journalist. He kept a daily diary of his experiences during the journey first published in Urdu under the title ‘Safar-e-Sa’adat’ (propitious journey). It has now been translated into English as ‘Journey to the Holy Land: A pilgrim’s Diary’ by Mushirul Hasan, till recently vice-chancellor of Jamia Milliah Islamia and his media adviser Rakshanda Jalal.
The diary makes most pleasant and informative reading as Alawi had an eye for trivial details and relates what he had to undergo during the sea journey in Arabia, which was then under British domination. He took many bundles of paan leaves to last during his pilgrimage. He writes of the dirty conditions on the steamship and its bullying British officers. All his narrative is peppered with apt couplets in Urdu and Persian. He was horrified to see Muslim girls dressed like Europeans and in lavishly designed burqas embroidered to attract attention. “When heresy enters the Kaaba, what will be left of Mussalmans?” he asks.

You will enjoy reading the ‘Pilgrim’s Diary’ because it is beautifully written and translated and gives you a flavour of the times.

Why write?

I often ask myself why do I go on writing. Of course, it provides me my daal, chawal and Scotch whisky. I could earn as much, if not more, running a dhaba on a national highway. However, writing also boosts my ego, which selling tandori chickens and parathas would not. Some people read what I write and send me their opinions. It assures me that what I write has some impact, however minimal. Since some of what I write also gets published in regional languages, chaiwalaas at railway stations, ticket checkers on the trains, policemen on patrol and the butchers in Khan Market make it a point to tell me that they have read some of the stuff I churn out. I feel mighty pleased with myself.

Do any of them change their views after reading what I have written? I am not sure. I believe I was able to persuade some educated sections of my community not to listen to Bhindranwale or consider demanding a separate state. I also write a lot against religious bigotry. I don’t think any bigot agrees with me, because many dismissed me as an agnostic, mischief-maker trying to undermine the basis of Indian culture.

I get inspiration from Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Ekela Chalo’ (walk alone) when others abandon you. I continue to tread the lonely path. I found further solace in a couple of lines of Urdu poetry by my young friend Prem Mohan Kalra when he came to drop his bi-weekly carton of ‘Dahi-bhalla’.

Kya poochtey ho haal
merey karobaar kaa
Ayeeney bechtaa ho andhon
ke shahr main
You ask me about my business and what I have in mind; I sell mirrors in the city of the blind.
Of youthful death
In company with pilot,
Scindhia and Sanjay Gandhi
YSR was youthful and
bubbly even at sixty
When the weather for him turned suddenly misty
Thickening into a dark,
dark storm
And leaving behind neither foot nor finger, nor ear
nor arm.

Promises fulfiled, full of
promise yet
Or not so promising, but to
the dear ones so dear,
Death may or may not be
too bad a bet
But oh the thought of a
youthful death to bear
Too sad for far and near!

(Courtesy: Kuldip Salil, Delhi)

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