The street leading up to Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah, bathed in the faint orange glow of naked light bulbs, had all the trappings of a sleepy village fair. Shops lined either side of the street. Pictures of Mecca, gilded within garish golden coloured frames, were on sale along with the glossy posters of the dreamy Alpine villages of Switzerland. An old man tried to convince an interested devotee to buy one of his waterproof watches lying at the bottom of a red, water-filled tub.
The perfume seller tempted me with the sweet scent of his exotic collection of Itar – perfumes extracted from flower petals, but I walked on. My purpose was to pay respects to the Dargah – the enshrined tomb – of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, the much loved Sufi Saint of the Chishti order who lived in Delhi during the 13th and the 14th century.
Beggars – legless, handless, eyeless – squatting on either side had narrowed the path further. The women among them were modestly wrapped in light blue or black burqas, while the men flaunted their muddy white skullcaps.
A crowd had gathered in front of a huge stall manned by pleasant looking fat figures. I pushed my way into the swarm of sweating men smelling of garlic cloves and raw goat meat, only to see hundreds of skull caps on display: some woven in golden threads, some shining with the glitter of black velvet, some made of variously coloured fabrics, some standing out in their red woolen individuality, and many were simply the common-place white-netted varieties.
It was so humid that even fish could have swum in the air. Sweating profusely as I made my way up the street, I was alarmed to see a sudden wave of people crashing out from a building ahead. It was the world headquarters of Tablighi Jamaat – a conservative Islamic organization with a worldwide following, which has resolved to bring spiritual awakening to Muslims with the slogan 'Aye Musalmano! Musalman bano' (O Muslims! Be Muslims).
The crowd that came out of the Tablighi complex consisted of men. Greetings of As-Salaam-Alaikum were tossed around. Hugs were shared. Shoulders were kissed. Smiles were exchanged. Some continually moved their fingers through their thick, long, flowing, red-hennaed beards.
From this gathering of Tablighi Jamatis, a gracious old man with a snow white beard, dressed in a salwar-kameeze of soft looking muslin cloth, so delicate I feared it would tear off merely on touch, moved toward a group of beggars and patiently distributed one rupee coins to each of them. A slight smile playing on his lips, the kind man betrayed no suggestion of acting out a charity.
Soon after, I resumed my way towards the Dargah, walking past a butchery with delicious pink flesh of goats hanging from its roof, past smoky restaurants serving curries of buffalo feet and cow brains, past one-room travel agencies selling discounted tours to another great Sufi shrine of Hazrat Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti in Rajasthan, before being distracted by a video stall just outside the entrance to the unlit mausoleum of Mirza Ghalib – legendary Urdu poet who lived during the twilight of the Mughal empire.
The CD player was screening a musical recital of children singing Islamic songs to the disco tunes of the Hindi pop star Himesh Reshammiya. I smiled, shook my head, and ignored the further enticements: stalls selling rose petals, shops cluttered with colorful ladies' slippers, carts weighed down by lockets that had holy verses locked inside them.
As the entrance to the Mazaar approached, the brick path gave way to marble tiles and the yells from the shops clamored for the visitors' shoes, which were barred inside the shrine.
A defunct metal detector was the last barrier.
Graves, small and big, painted in green, were dotted across the marble floor under an open sky. Exhausted ladies and smirking children were sitting on a platform. An ill-looking woman, who appeared to be with no one, was repeatedly chanting 'Ae Mere Aaka' (O My Lord).
Beyond lay the shrine of Amir Khusro – a 14th century Persian poet of Indo-Turkish ancestry, considered to be the founder of Hindustani classical music.
It is a tradition that visitors must first pay Ziyarat (obeisance) to him before surrendering themselves to the refuge of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. Khusro, having great affection for Nizamuddin, had left this world in great grief six months after the Hazrat's death. His last wish was to be buried near the final resting place of his beloved master.
Not feeling up to jostling with crowds again, I decided to skip the poet's tomb and made my way down the stairs into a central courtyard that faced the front of Nizamuddin's Mazaar. It had rained earlier in the evening and the floor was wet and slippery. Women beggars were gossiping and sitting off to the sides. I accidentally stepped over one of them who murmured that I should be more guarded for Allah's sake.
There was the shrine, with devotees of all faiths waiting in a queue to enter the grave chamber. Tall bearded men in white salwar-kameezes discussed and argued, nodding to each other. Some ran their fingers constantly through the beads of necklaces draped in their palms.
A board, hanging by the side of the entrance, proclaimed 'Ladies are not allowed inside.' Consequently, they were sitting around the walls of the outer chamber, reciting prayers, murmuring verses, and struggling to peek inside for a look at the grave. But it was the scene in the courtyard that captivated my senses. Being a Thursday, it was a night for the weekly Qawwali, devotional music of the Sufi mystics, said to be created by the poet Khusro.
At least a hundred men and women were sitting around a team of Qawwals, the singers, who were more than ten in number.
Beetle-nut juice coloured the black teeth of the Chief Singer a bright red. His assistants looked more like street goons than Sufi mystics. A fat-cheeked child, not more than four years of age, sat by the Chief Singer's side. On the opposite side was a group of pretty girls. One of them had dark skin, sharp lips, a long shapely nose, and a shrewd smile. Beside them sat a pair of western tourists, their white skin and embarrassed faces making them stand out from the rest of us.
The Chief started fiddling around with his harmonium. A middle-aged man behind him tried his hands on a tabla and a dholak. All of us were silent and expectant. Next to the plump child sat a boy in a white kurta, its neck embroidered with mango-shaped designs. His black skullcap was decorated with a string of white pearls.
After a few adjustments, last moment eye signals, and secret nods among the Qawwals, the Chief started singing. His voice was low pitched, his head jerked with the rhythm of his still undefined tune, and his eyes danced with the lusty logic of the lyrics.
Gradually, one at the time, the rest of the men picked up the Qawwali. Soon they were singing in chorus with the Chief's voice being the most prominent. Sweat shone on their foreheads, which were bobbing in unison. Their smiles and mock frowns, in league with the mood of the words, infected us with a sober momentum.
Naksha tera dilkash hai
Soorat teri pyaari hai
O mere Khwaza Nizamuddin
O mere Mehboob-e-Ilahi
[O my loving Lord
You looks have won my heart
Your look beautiful
O My Nizamuddin
O my loving Lord]
Short-lived bubbles of eager joy started surfacing inside my being. A sheet of communal delight had enveloped us all. The foreigners seemed at home. A thin unshaven boy with long hair stopped fiddling with his cell phone. But not all partook of the magic. Two men standing against a wall remained busy performing prayers. The singer with the black skullcap had yawned secretly like a thief. Even I was momentarily alarmed as I looked down at the two bags of books I had with me and noticed my copy of The Satanic Verses threatening to expose itself. Lest somebody be offended, I quickly topped it with my hardbound first edition of The Complete Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer.
Admirers kept coming over to place hundred, fifty, or ten-rupee notes against the harmonium of the Chief, who pretended not to notice the offerings.
A Pankha-walla was waving a fan of green cloth printed with an illustration of 786 – a sacred number for Muslims – over the heads of the listeners, some of them thanking him with coins.
The song ended. Re-adjustments were made. Another harmonium was brought in. The black-skullcap boy shifted to the forefront. He closed his eyes as his lower lips gently quivered. A beautiful sound, letting loose a pleasant sensation I had never felt before, emerged out of him. The longing in his voice seemed to drift out from the core of his soul. It was a hymn to Ali – the great Shiite leader who was killed while performing morning prayers in the present-day Iraqi city of Kufa about 1400 years ago.
Unfortunately, the Chief, decidedly inferior in comparison, joined the solo recital of the boy who graciously lowered his volume. But this unwelcome intrusion ceased to bother after a while.
Mein to naam japu Ali ka
Ali-Ali se mera vaasta
Ali-Ali mera maula
Mein to naam japu Ali Ka
Koi Aur Na…
[I will only recite the name of Ali
He is my world
Ali-Ali is my Allah
I will only recite the name of Ali
There is nobody else...]
The pretty girl swayed with her friends.
Meanwhile, my head started shaking on its own. My hands started clapping by themselves. My body started hobbling in circles.
Mein to naam japu Ali ka
Ali-Ali se mera vaasta
Ali-Ali mera maula…
My vision grew blurred. I saw people merging into each other – the edges of their bodies started disappearing. My heart started hollowing itself out. My organs became light and fluffy. My brain went damp and soft. I became empty and whole.
Beti ho Zaynab jaisi, beta ho Husayn sa
[Daughters should be like Zaynab, sons should be like Husayn]
There were shrieks of "Ali Ali" from the crowd.
Pal bhar mein sajda karke
Sar bhi katwa diya
[After a quick prayer
He got his head sliced off]
'Bahut khoob' (Well said), a man on my right murmured while shaking violently. I felt alone, yet I found myself present inside every one of the people there.
Suddenly, the Chief paused. I came back. This was disappointing. But he started again, haltingly, then a bit faster, and then he raised his voice, and sang with a greater flow, accompanied by a furious melody, and with a greater urgency. The quickening breath made his words almost incoherent.
Ali Maula, Ali Maula
Ali Maula Ali Maula
By now, the Chief seemed to exhibit all the familiar gestures of terrible madness. His expressions stretched out his face. He screamed out from his insides. His low-pitched voice turned piercingly high. His arms shook. His chin quivered. His eyes rolled. His entire body waved around in all directions. I thought he looked strangely at me. Somebody asked me if I was all right.
Oh, my eyes were rolling!
Ali Maula Ali Maula
Ali Maula Ali Maula
I dissolved into another existence. I became a part of the universe. I was the marble. I was the dust. I was the sky. I was the star. I was the raindrop.
Spent and tired, I lumbered towards the back of the shrine amidst a group of beggars who were waiting for the Biryani to be distributed. With eyes partially closed and back inclined against a wall, I saw the same Pankha-walla appearing and starting to fan me. To express gratitude, I took out a ten-rupee note but he refused, mumbled something, and moved on.
It was time to leave. The squashed sticky rice grains of the Biryani, spilled over from several mouths and paper plates, clung to my bare feet. I did not go to the tomb-chamber, postponing the formal consummation to some other night.