I’m scanning the headline in today’s Hindustan Times: 43 die as Kalka Mail jumps track. Colonel held for teen’s killing in Chennai. 1,500 trapped at Rohtang Pass. 2 youths held in carjacking case. Assam rebels hit… Enough. You disgusting horrible bloody violent unfair mad bad world, leave me alone.
In Lahore, where do you go to when you wish to be alone?
But do you care to be alone? Keeping oneself busy is the thing to do: busy at work, busy at the multiplex, busy at the mall. We are growing incapable of spending time with our own self. But yesterday evening, I saw an incredible sight.
I spotted a turbaned Sikh man in the Indian Coffee House, Connaught Place. With its weak coffee, soggy sandwiches, oily cutlets, watery curry, creaky sofas, slow-moving ceiling fans, uniformed stewards, inexpensive menu, long-lost glory and die-hard regulars, the café in Delhi’s colonial-era commercial district is unique. It pulls in people of different ages and pursuits: artists and activists, tourists and traders, intellectuals and gossipers, families and friends, lovers and loners. The turbaned man was alone but he was sitting in the section reserved for ‘Ladies & Families’.
A man and a woman were sitting behind him. The cashier was standing in the front. Frequently, the stewards were walking past his table. The man’s cell phone was lying on the table. He was having mutton cutlet and cold coffee. Lost in thoughts, he seemed to have found his Shangri-la, a happy land hidden from the outside world.
Such a place is almost impossible to discover, especially in big cities like Lahore, Delhi, Karachi and Bombay. In Delhi, if you try hard, you can find sweet solitariness under a banyan tree in Buddha Jayanti Garden, or in a corner seat in Regal cinema, or – in the case of that turbaned man – in the family section of the Indian Coffee House. In my case, it is in a Sufi shrine.
It’s in the chaotic Sadar Bazaar. But enter the green-coloured gate and you step into calmness. Amidst hundreds of tombs, clustered on a rolling landscape, lays a mosque, a madrassah and the shrine of Hazrat Khwaja Baqi Billah. Founder of the Naqshbandia silsila in the sub-continent, Hazrat Billah was born in 16th century Kabul. After wandering through cities like Samarkand, Balkh, Lahore and Multan, he settled in Delhi to spread the deen. Here he died; here he was buried, which made this burial ground a favorite among Delhi’s Muslims.
The dargah’s hushed ambiance is in sync with the pulse of the Naqshbandia silsila, which is marked for its silent remembrance of Allah. The Khwaja shunned publicity and was very selective about initiating disciples. That is why there is no celebratory chaos of Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah here. No picnicking crowd flock to this shrine as they to Khwaja Bakhtiar Kaki’s in Mehrauli. Here there are no qawwals, no khadims, no beggars; only trees, tombs, the dry leaves, the occasional pilgrims, and the crows perched on headstones. Connaught Place is just ten minutes away by auto rickshaw but you would refuse to believe it.
The stairs lead to a madrassah. In its large hall, you might find almost a hundred children reciting the Quranic verses; each boy rocking to his own rhythm. Thanks to images beamed on BBC and CNN, some of us – especially Indian Hindus – unconsciously tag such children with would-be Islamic terrorists. That’s rubbish. Step inside; the boys would smile.
Back in the courtyard, I always spend some minutes chatting with Salamatullah, the dargah’s caretaker. He has long white beard, a frail physique and sunken cheeks. His children are all married, his wife is dead and he himself lives alone in this dargah-mosque-graveyard complex. Known as Peer Sahib, he could be curt in the beginning. But if you continue to show unfailing courtesy, he would open up and tell you all that you need to know about Hazrat Billah. “Aap lived in a mosque miles away in Ferozeshah Kotla,” Peer Saheb once told me. According to him, Hazrat Billah one day visited this graveyard in Sadar Bazaar and somehow got his kaftan stained with the dust of the burial ground. It prompted him to declare that this place would be his final destination.
According to a legend, Khwaja Billah had willed his funeral prayers to be led by a man who had never sinned, never missed a prayer, and never skipped a night vigil. When he died at 40, such a person was impossible to find. It was then that a veiled person appeared from nowhere and declared that the Khwaja had asked him to lead the prayers. It was later discovered that the veiled person was Khwaja himself.
Having always stressed on the concept of fanaa, the annihilation of the self, the Khwaja had wanted no dome to be built on his grave. So, in his dargah, you sit under an open sky. They say that even if it is the sunniest day in peak summer, the barefooted pilgrims feel no heat and is at peace with himself. It’s true.
Mayank Austen Soofi lives in a library. He has one website (The Delhi Walla) and four blogs. The website address: thedelhiwalla.com. The blogs: Pakistan Paindabad, Ruined By Reading, Reading Arundhati Roy and Mayank Austen Soofi Photos.