Two migrants, two religions, one city


Learning to live and let live

This week I met two migrants from the eastern state of Jharkhand; both have made Delhi beautiful in their own ways.

It was 5.25 am. The sky was still black. It was freezing. Holding the microphone close to his lips, he opened his mouth to recite the azaan, and… time stopped.

I was in Jamat Khana, a mosque built on one corner of the sufi shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah. I was watching Muhammed Iftikhar, a 21-year-old Quran teacher, call the faithful to perform fajr.

Iftikhar’s head was shielded from the cold by a white cap and a black-and-white kifayah. His eyes were closed, as a soft, lyrical sound emerged from him.

Allahu Akbar [God is great]

Lifting his palms to his ears, the bearded young man repeated the words.

Each morning, Muslims across the world wake up to a similar holy cry from their neighbourhood mosques. Most muezzins simply produce a perfunctory call; a few create magic through soulful lonely tunes. Iftikhar’s voice, as I later discovered, was unremarkable in conversation, but that moment it transcended to an extraordinarily tenderness.

Ash-hadu al La ilaha illallah [I bear witness that there is none worthy of being worshipped except God]

The sensations of these word-sounds appeared to crystallise in the cold air, the next moment they vanished, constantly being replenished.

Ash-hadu anna Muhammadar rasoolullah [I bear witness that Muhammad is the Apostle of God]

After concluding the call, Iftikhar sat down on the carpet. The mosque was commissioned by one of the sons of Sultan Allaudin Khilji in the 14th century. Its entrance opens to Hazrat Nizamuddin’s tomb.

“I live in this mosque and sleep in the hujra there,” Iftikhar said, pointing to a door adjacent to the wall that faces Mecca. “I teach the Holy Quran to children.”

Two elderly people entered for prayer. They were draped in thick quilts.

Iftikhar blushed as I congratulated him on the melodious style of his azaan. “I learned it from Maulana Siddiq, my ustad (master).”

Iftikhar’s father is a maulvi (priest) in Jamshedpur, an industrial town in Jharkhand. Eight years ago, his parents sent him for studies to a madrassah in Hapur, a town 60km from Delhi. After he memorised the Quran and became a hafiz, Iftikhar came to Delhi. “It is an honour to lead the call to prayer.”

Another man entered the mosque; he was wearing flannel trousers and a leather jacket.

“I have to do other things in life too,” Iftikhar said, “I want to marry. But first, I wish to return to Jamshedpur. Although I frequently talk to my parents on the phone, I miss them desperately, especially my three brothers and my only sister.”

Perhaps because it is cold, only a few people have gathered to pray in the mosque. Getting up to join them, Iftikhar said, “One day I will go back to my watan (country).”

I asked, “What will you do there?”

He thought for a moment, and then turning towards Mecca, his voice fading, as if he is talking to himself, he said, “I’ll start a karobaar (business).”

The same day I met another person from Jharkhand who left her watan to make a living in Delhi. A third generation Catholic Christian, Anima Dungdung lives in the servants’ quarter of a formidable-looking bungalow in Nizamuddin West. Ms Dungdung was making plans for Christmas. No, she was not baking a cake on Christmas eve. No, don’t doubt her skills. After working for 30 years in expat households, her apple pies are as light and buttery as the one they make in New England, but she said, “Christmas cake is a angrez thing. Back in my village near Ranchi, no one knows how to make a cake.”

Instead, Ms Dungdung’s husband, employed as a cook in the same bungalow, swears by her irsa roti, the traditional Christmassy dish of deep fried dumplings made of rice-flour. Her two children have a weakness for dubni roti, the equivalent of Christmas cake in Jharkhand.

But Ms Dungdung, who cooks delicious pasta and steaks, has never made dubni for her employers. “They never asked for it,” she said.

Delhi has a large population of Christians from places like Chhota Nagpur, a plateau which covers a large expanse of states like Jharkhand, Bihar, Orissa and Chhattisgarh. Many of these people work as domestic helps in the city’s posh localities. Christmas for people from this belt is not about carols, but bhajans (Hindu-style devotional songs); not cakes but irsa roti; not grape wines, but rice liquor; not midnight mass, but meesa puja.

In the meesa puja, the bhajans are sung in languages like Khariya, Sadhsi and Munda.

“Christmas is more exciting in the village,” Ms Dungdung said. “In Delhi, we return home after the midnight mass but there we dance till morning.”

The fervour reaches its climax during the Christmas day when the village’s young people gather together, collect food from each household and go to the riverside to have a picnic.

“In the village, we make music with dholak, nagadas and manda,” said Gilbert, Ms Dungdung’s 18-year-old son who is learning a computer programming language and is also an altar boy in the church. “But here we dance to Christmas songs played by decks and DJs.” Ms Dungdung added, “It’s not even half the fun.”

In Orissa, a state neighbouring Jharkhand, there have been attacks on Christians by Hindu fundamentalists in the past few years, but Ms Dungdung’s village has remained safe. “We never faced discrimination anywhere,” she said.

The exception being the servants’ quarter in Nizamuddin West where the Dungdungs live. Her Hindu neighbour, a domestic in the same bungalow, often objects, saying, “We eat anything and everything.” This has lead to squabbles that led Mr Kapur, the bungalow’s sahib, to scold them for fighting like “jhuggi people.”

On Christmas eve, at the Church of Our Lady of Help in Okhla, south Delhi, Ms Dungdung plans to “pray God to give me strength to forgive my neighbour.”

This prayer should be made compulsory for Indians and Pakistanis.

Mayank Austen Soofi lives in a library. He has one website and four blogs. The website address: The blogs: Pakistan Paindabad, Ruined By Reading, Reading Arundhati Roy and Mayank Austen Soofi Photos.