Muslims across the world are adjusting to the changed rules of observation of the holy month, in this time of the COVID-19 crisis. To maintain social distancing and prevent community spread of the virus, all religious places across the globe are shut down. Despite the holy month of Ramzan, where offering prayers as a community in a mosque is important, people have been asked to remain home and pray. From Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia to small neighbourhood mosques, all Islamic holy sites are closed. Social gathering, sharing food and helping the poor are some of the key aspects of this month, and all have taken a backseat this year.
“The lockdown is a necessary step, for the safety of everyone, for the community, and we have to accept it,” says Kolkata-based Manzilat Fatima who runs the popular city eatery, Manzilat's. “But it has also given rise to heart-breaking situations.”
She points to the fact that apart from offering prayers, it is customary to help the poor during this holy month. Families who can afford it, invariably send a plate of food to the nearby mosque. And for someone who traces her lineage to Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Awadh (Lucknow) and Begum Hazrat Mahal, helping the needy during the holy month is very important. “Ramzan is one of the pillars of Islam, it is the time for praying and fasting in the name of Allah. Fasting is how we are made to realise the hunger and thirst experienced by those less fortunate than us. Many poor people in the community wait for the holy month because they know they will get proper meals. The more privileged send food to the mosque for distribution among them. We do not know how these people are managing. This year, instead of food, we have offered money so that at least some of them can buy food.”
Iftekhar Ahsan, entrepreneur and founder of Calcutta Walks, believes crossing social barriers is one of the heartening aspects of Ramzan, that this is a good time to bridge the cultural gap between different communities. “One of my favourite things to do in this month is to call random people over who may have not had the opportunity to break fasts with a family. So every year, some people from the US consulate come over and we introduce the meaning of iftar to them. Once I had invited a rickhsaw-wala to iftar at our dastarkhwan. My family couldn't figure out how to deal with the situation since he was regularly employed by the women of the house for their trips. It was awkward intitially but turned out to be wonderful, forming a new friendhsip between him and us. Now he visits us regularly and we make sure he does not leave without a meal."
Although hardcore foodies have been visiting the area around Nakhoda mosque in Kolkata to explore the Ramzan food market, it is over the past few years that the crowd has begun to swell during this time and, interestingly, it consists of people from all faiths. According to Indrajit Lahiri, entrepreneur, food blogger and author, this increase in number of visitors is a good sign as it is an indication that people are dropping their inhibitions and appreciating the cuisine.
Sarbani Bandopadhyay, assistant professor at St Xavier’s College, Kolkata (who, in the past, even fasted during Ramzan over short periods ‘to develop a sense of solidarity and oneness’) recalled her visit to the food market along Mohammed Ali Road in Mumbai. “It was a very good feeling, mingling with the crowd that seemed happy. The vendors and the buyers, the people in the restaurants, those selling sweet dishes even offered us the delicacies in generous amount just to taste.” She regrets that people will be missing the opportunity this year.
“We lead the Ramzan food walks in this month," says Ahsan. "We take travellers through the crazy bustle of the food markets, and end the walk inside the courtyard of the Nakhoda mosque and the look on the faces of the travellers is priceless when the maghrib azaan goes off and all the crazy bustle settles into a quiet satiation of parched throats and starving bellies. That instant switch is beautiful to observe. But all that is absent this year.”
Forget walking through legendary food streets, even social gatherings are not possible this year. Mumbai-based Amir Rizvi is a communications designer who loves to break bread with his friends irrespective of their faith. During the holy month, many of his non-Muslim friends come to his house during iftar. And also host iftar at their homes for Rizvi and his family. “It is a mutual thing,” he says. “Since a lot of friends drop in at this time, we also get special food from outside. Sharing a Bohri thaal is common when friends arrive. We are missing all that.”
The feelings of loss and isolation were also echoed by Kolkata-based Sabir Ahamed, who works for a trust involved in inclusive development, and is also an organiser of the Know Your Neighbour project that helps people of different faiths and culture learn about each other through neighbourhood visits. “This is the time when working people like me would have dropped in at a friend's place or a relative's house after the evening prayers to break the fast with them. Similarly, we welcomed such passers-by at my house. Not only Muslims, but friends and neighbours of other faiths would also drop in. We keep our doors open for everyone. Every household would always keep some extra food for guests. But this year, it is not even possible to organise a proper sehri or iftar meal for the family at home.”
As part of the Know Your Neighbourhood (KYN) project, Ahamed and his team organise iftar parties where people of all faith are invited to join. “The response has been great. People of other faith not only enjoy the food but also appreciate the opportunity to learn about Islamic culture. There have been occasions when guests have pitched in to help the women of the household in preparing the food so that they are not overburdened.” Anwesha Sengupta, who teaches at Institute of Development Studies in Kolkata, and had attended one such iftar party organised by KYN, said, “To me initiatives like inter-community iftar during Ramzan is a fantastic idea. It can be instrumental in building trust.” In keeping with the COVID-19 containment rules, KYN has not been able to plan their iftar meet-ups this year.
With everyone fasting during day, the two meals before and after becomes important. But most families are not able to put together the familiar iftar menus this year. “I am from Jharkhand, now settled in Maharashtra,” says Rizvi. “So the food prepared at home includes specialities from both states. From chana to pakori or bhajiya to bhapori, meat-based dishes, sweet and sherbets, the list is endless. Although we have managed to procure things like dates and Rooh Afza, it has not been possible to put together a typical iftari meal this year.”
Limited availability of many food items, from fruits to meat, has affected the meal plans. A home chef of no mean repute, Fatima is also known for her usual haleem preparation. According to her, this one-dish meal has all the ingredients to provide the right nutrition during this period of fasting. Rice, dal, wheat or daliya, meat and a variety of spices go into making this dish.
“Can you imagine I have not made haleem yet? Because the right ingredients are not available at my local grocery store,” she exclaims. “Over the past three years, the haleem at Manzilat's has been the most popular dish, everyone orders it.”
However, she is trying to put together the ingredients and “may cook haleem towards the end of the holy month”. And if she manages it, there will be no lack of customers for sure.