The surrounds of Delhi, 25th August 2009
I work for Delhi. The truth is, I neither work in it, nor do I live in it. I only do so when I am juristically out of it and in competitive company, because there; that expression matters. Truth doesn’t.
I live in a sub urban city called Mehrauli which has precisely two motor-able access points, with hearsay about a possible third. And I work in a still sub urban village called Ayanagar which also has the same precision as regards motor-able access. Destined for satellites; I’ve recently arrived at an apt answer for the usual query of long lost acquaintances. What am I up to, is work; not far away from Delhi. Nothing but the truth.
So what comprises a typical day? Power cuts, scarcity of water, pedestrian traffic jams, followed by vehicular traffic jams, roller coaster rides in patches, bumping cars in the rest, dust, occasional relief, power cuts, technical snags, unrealistic deadlines, presentations, meetings! more power cuts, traffic snarls, parking hunts, low voltages…..this attempt is really futile. There is nothing typical about a working day in the capital. And its surrounds. Perhaps the reason why spending a holy fasting month there can take some decision taking. For a middle-eastern born, not having a mosque in the vicinity of your dwelling or working or recreation or leisure or essentially any place….…is unheard of. Yet, I was made known with this reality well in advance so as to mellow down the surprise, when I was to actually encounter it.
Mehrauli is dotted with miniature mosques in specific zones while Ayanagar has precisely one. Further, 12 Kms of patchy arterial roadway separates the two satellites. It is imperative at this point to provide some basic background information in order to make sense of what’s coming next. We Muslims; we pray five times a day. The male species necessarily in a mosque, and at appointed times. In the fasting month, nothing takes priority over this. Should be so all through the year, but sadly it isn’t. It would’ve been all so easy, going back to Hyderabad, to actually live ‘in’ a city and spend the month at leisure, leaving the material world behind. But, thankfully, Rumi does not hold influence over me; not the Sufi kind anyway. Moreover, providence left a vehicle at my disposal, which means so much in a city like Delhi. And its surrounds.
Following a time efficient; economic schedule was of paramount importance because….well, don’t mind the reasons…it was just very important. All planning being done, the only unpredictable part of the schedule remained that of the afternoon prayer. Coincidence with lunch-time was convenient for a person who, gladly, wouldn’t have any such obligations for a month; but, not so convenient for a person who is indispensible to his office. Driving back to Mehrauli on Fridays for this one prayer was already a regular practice, but to do that on a daily basis seemed a bit avoidable in the presence of a mosque in Ayanagar; which brings us to the very subject of this narration.
Another ‘imperation’ needs to interrupt here; that of my discovery of the mosque a year before the occasion of this narration. The ‘unheard of’ fact about the absence of a mosque in a whole village was related to me on my first Friday in Delhi. And its surrounds. Those were pedestrian winters, and venturing out in the Ayanagar wild to search for a mosque crossed only the mind; not the office boundary. However, a carpenter from the workshop below seemed to disagree with my colleagues, two of them happening to be residents of Ayanagar themselves, and one Friday made me hop on to his Atlas bicycle, pedaling me away to the discovery. Taking the Bund road, a high road forming the rear motor-able access to Ayanagar, to reach the rear entrance of the village we got off it and turned into a vast open field encircled in a stone boundary; for no particular purpose except to, perhaps, mark a property. Cutting cross country through the field, the other end of its boundary led us into a settlement with cemented pathways and low roofed houses, both literally hugging the topography of the land. At the end of a steep pathway we came to a dead end facing another low stone boundary with wild undeveloped land beyond and a narrow mud road turning right. This was the end of the Ayanagar world; or so it seemed, when the queerest occurrence came to pass. The carpenter bent down to pick up his bicycle, and moving forward with it on his shoulder climbed the boundary running along the left and jumped over, without a single trace of oddity. I mean, its not often that people jump boundary walls with bicycles on their shoulders to go to mosques ...is it?; but in pure innocence I followed suite observing that the boundary wall was frequently jumped over with the help of stepping stones. On the other side, we were immediately greeted by a small temple, the sorts I remember reading in Pearl S. Buck’s classic The Good Earth, wherein the hero frequented a temple of a similar setting on way to his agriculture fields. The carpenter and his cycle didn’t wait for my reminiscence though and walked on. Actually, trekked on…
Following such winding paths, a glimpse of the white dome suddenly caught my eye amidst the wild growth....so we were going to a mosque after all! And that too, one which I wonder if can ever be any simpler and honest.
Return to present. The very first fast spent at office, I slipped out at lunch time determined to trace the cycle path taken a year back in my car to the extent possible and trek the rest up to the mosque. If not efficient time wise at least it would be easier on the fuel, rather than driving all the way up to Mehrauli daily and back. Things were as I remembered to the end of the Bund road, till I got off it and parked the vehicle at the gate of the boundary wall encircling the open field. There wasn’t a new tree on the field; it was as plain as ever. On reaching across the field I observed it had been divided into further boundaries, and I had to jump over two of them on my way to the entrance of the settlement. Which seemed to have more cemented paths than I remember, with most of them having vehicles parked outside the houses, making me wonder how in the world were they able to drive there! That mystery is still unsolved, but the spot of the queer occurrence was as I had left it; with the temple, except that the trekking path was lush green and wilder than before. I attributed this to the monsoon which never really came to Delhi. And its surrounds.
That wild vegetation had hid the trail leading off the main path towards the mosque, and I ended up walking up to another Pearl S. Buck temple at the end of the path. Returning back towards the mosque which was, I had earlier thought, the main access to it from the village. I found it to be impeccably the same with just one stark difference. There was not a soul in sight. And that was perhaps the best occasion to observe a masterpiece which was, perhaps again, an outcome of such innocence as nature alone can bestow upon the human minds; otherwise so susceptible to influence and self exaltation.
A barbed wire low fence for a boundary. Transparent yet by most means protective. A small structure in one corner of a large area. Oriented. A visible high plinth for the structure. Elevated. Spotless white in every corner and detail. Unpretentious. Domed; Symbolic. Absence of doors to the domed structure. Inviting. Uninhibited. Democratic. An unfinished Minar, the only element eluding perfection. And undoubtedly the most important of the elements, since here is an opportunity to display the actual purpose of a Minar; to guide the believers, to encourage them to pray, to show them the presence of the community, to call out the Azan from the top of it into the open fields, to render that final touch to the hierarchy of proportion which flows from the space into the form in the most coherent manner. A perfect blend of form and function. Well, these were my musings a year back when I couldn’t help walking front looking back towards the mosque as I was leaving it with a hungry carpenter. Presently, I was baffled on finding it empty at the time of prayer.
I stopped short in my tracks, re-evaluating my watch, memory, the surroundings and those years I spent in school obtaining religious education! Two beings at that moment were sighted, brethren by appearance but walking away from the mosque in the direction from which I was alighting. I, of course, pretended to be on usual course hiding my internal bafflement, though observing them keenly to identify the same in them. Which I didn't. They passed by me, and in my usual pride I didn't bother looking back to see where they were going. Because, if i was educated well, I can swear that it was time for prayer and they should have been on the way to perform the very same. But, God knew best ahead. And indeed knows.
Timidity is a source of undying hope. So is desperation. The very reasons which took me to the gate of the boundary in any case, and made me peep in, in a nervous manner as if I were in the wrong place at wrong time. Which I wasn’t. The place was just plain empty! though it wasn’t deserted. For sure it wasn’t, for the grass was trimmed, the ablution pedestals were not dusty, the gate of the mosque was only latched and there was a huge tent of a temporary kind right in front of the mosque structure, which could only be for providing shade to the congregation during mid day prayers. It was such a matter of irony that a place such as this found itself without worshippers, when a visit to more important mosques; full of people; is never short of disappointment in some way or the other. Either it is the surrounds, the mannerisms, the unfounded rituals or just the plain lack of respect and ignorance. All the peeping though had no effect on the emptiness of the place and hence I started back in the direction of the two strangers, retracing my steps in haste hoping to catch sight of them. As expected, it was too late.
I, anyway, continued in their tracks; beyond the Pearl temple and was suddenly interrupted by what seemed to be a major thoroughfare in the process of construction. Neither the beginning nor the end could be seen; ideal opportunity for me to do a Tom Hanks at the end of Cast Away…standing in the middle and seeing in either direction not knowing where to go or what to do next. Enchanted world it is that I live in I am aware, but how can one shy away when drama presents itself in real life?
It must be hard to believe, but I was in some condition of urgency; one, because the time for prayer was running out and time is an essence of Muslim prayer; and two, I could almost hear beckoning from the other end of the village; the end which proudly, and not without reason, calls itself Windmill Place.
I returned to the gate, unlatched, entered and went straight for ablution suggesting that the emptiness of the place was the odd thing out, not me. Midway through the ablution, the Imam of the Mosque entered through the gate followed by a little girl! I might have been dumbfounded that instant, though I am not sure and remember only seeing him in a haze since I was obviously not wearing my glasses while rinsing. Somehow the word ‘awkward’ seemed to be unknown to the whole environment there; the couple, odd as they were along with the situation there, walked off to the other end of the campus across the Mosque frontage and closed the door behind them in a small room which I had earlier mistaken to be a toilet. No inquiry, no inquisitiveness, neither ignorance; but a silent acknowledgement. It was God’s house and all those who believe are welcome. Anytime. Of course, these are reflections; but I was reassured then. The Imam never came out while I was present there; while I unlatched the Mosque court wicket, passed through the three rows and entered the domed interior; hiding itself from external view with full length curtains over each of the three arches, examined the interior in all detail and found everything to be in perfect order including the spotless floor surface; made to look larger than it was due to the flooding of light through each of the full length windows, themselves without a speck of dust, on the rest of the three walls enclosing the domed structure and the presence of all the Mosque essentials, picked a rolled up mattress from one corner and spread it on the floor, prayed in isolation, felt stuffy and switched on the fan to find electricity also to be in order, completed the prayer in no hurry, made the interiors as I had found them and stepped outside into the court again. The door of the little room remained closed. Remained unworried, remained confident, remained trusted and devoted to the belief that God’s house is in the protection of God Himself. And is for all His creations to seek Him at appointed times and other.
Taking all my time in putting on my footwear, sitting on the steps of the court I wondered what this whole experience was meant to be for. A thousand perceptions could originate and find their different meanings, but for all that effort why was such a person as me, met with a happening of this sort; which after the passing of quite a time still doesn’t explain providence enough to give the mind some peace, and thoughts some rest.
I haven’t re-visited the site since. Perhaps preserving the memory of perfection, as it is narrated here, will enable replication and will augment reassurance; than to give pursuit to further truth.Ramzan 2009