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Long journey to the dargah Sharif

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Long train journeys are for dreaming. A six-hour journey that began at dawn in Delhi, with mist and the sun an orange ball, landscape turning from green to dry amber as we approached the dry deserts of Rajisthan, I wondered at the madness of the day.


Here we were, spending 12 hours on a train to Ajmer and back to Delhi at midnight to visit a shrine or dargah Sharif in Rajisthan of the Sufi Saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti. 


It’s strange how the mind works, how desperate human beings are to find some meaning in chaos, and how a single dislodged nugget can trigger events.


When I was planning this trip to India I saw a photo of a famous Bollywood actress, Priyanka Chopra dressed in salvaar kameez, a fetching dupatta disingenuously framing her gorgeous sensual face visiting the dargah (shrine) in Ajmer, Rajasthan. There was a blurr in the background of gold filigreed walls, arches, strewn rose petals on marble floors.


A few days later my mother casually mentioned that she went as a child with her mother on a pilgrimage to this Ajmer Sharif, a shrine (built and embellished by successive mogul emperors) of the most famous Sufi Saint Chishti order in India, which was founded by a Persian, Kwaja Moinuddin Chishti in the 13th century.


My mother told me that after independence when my grandmother left India for Pakistan for a brief spell, her funds in India were frozen by banks due to strained relations between the two countries. I was taken aback. I asked my mother how my grandmother, pianist, historian, a critical thinker, a very liberal Muslim who eschewed ritual and religious dogma and looked to the Qur’an as a guide would have faith in a saint, a shrine of all things. I said, under my breath, not quite daring to criticise my darling late grandmother to my mother, “Surprising for someone who said repeatedly that one’s relationship is directly with one God to turn to a saint.”


Well, my mother said, “Your grandmother’s assets were returned to her within days.”


“That’s weird,” I said. “Probably a coincidence.”


Not “weird” my mother replied sharply, “Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti was a saint, known also as Garib Nawaz, ‘benefactor of the poor,’ whose rigid regime of self discipline, tolerance for all faiths, generosity to those in need, especially food and wealth, independence of rulers and the State, made him closer to God. We don’t PRAY to saints—Muslims believe in one God. We ask saints to pray for us. No one walks away empty handed from the darga,” she said.


That’s when I submitted to contradiction.


Two days later, I came across a song composed by the Oscar winning composer AR Rahman, called Kun Faya Kun from the Bollywood film Rock Star starring Ranbir Kapoor who, finding himself homeless, goes, hollow eyed, haunted (he acts well) to the dargah and finds food, a roof over his head, music and solace.


I didn’t expect the tears but the centuries old strains of the Qawwali-Sufi devotional music sung by Oscar winning music composer AR Rahman, the visuals and ancient music evoking a kind of mad tandem of genius, centuries of faith, of exquisite workmanship. It was to AR Rahman’s music the dargah’s massive silver gate opened into a mosque in a courtyard (constructed by the third Mugul Emperor Akbar in the 16th C), which opened into another white mosque (built by 5th Mogul Emperor Shah Jehan in the 17th century) many arched, and a Persian inscription running the full length of the building. There were glimpses of silver railing, a marble dome and screen surrounding the rose covered tomb of the saint.


That triggered another memory. On one of our visits back to India from Tobago to see our grandmother (her name was Shahnur Jehan Begum) she would be infuriated if I called her a generic “grandmother” in Bangalore. She had a woman staying with her. Our grandmother obviously doted on this woman simply known as Cherrie, a shapely divorcee who dressed in a series of cling film type dresses, perpectually had a long cigarette between her shapely deep rose stained lips, and spoke with a husky, worldly voice.


Cherrie was a “Sufi” our grandmother told us. We had no idea what it meant except it was strange. We accepted Cherrie because our grandmother loved her and because she, Cherrie, always carried about her an air of expectancy, of excitement, unpredictability. One night she woke my sister and I and decided we were going to picnic at the illuminated Vidhana Soudha (the seat of the state legislature of Karnataka) gardens where she drank wine, and we hot milk with a dash of brandy from thermoses (in case we caught a cold), and Burrimummy sipped on brandy.


It is a spectacular rectangular building with 40 feet granite columns flanked by domes, crowned by a 60 foot dome, the largest legislative building in India which shone like burnished gold.


She pointed out sounds of whispering trees, the patterns of leaves on marble, the smell of jasmine, mingling with freshly rained grass, the symmetry of the building, moon shine. She made us feel and see everything. We went to Cherrie, to intimate concerts and poetry readings, of Rumi in people’s homes where Cherrie sat taking deep drags of her cigarette, leaning luxuriously on the shoulder of a much younger man which apparently didn’t scandalise either my grandmother or the set of the arty world she moved in.


In Trinidad, two years ago, I saw a line by Rumi posted on Facebook which evoked a memory of Cherrie, “The wound is where the light enters.” I dug out old photos and saw after reading up on the Sufis and Rumi that actually she wasn’t a hardened rebel in India, but a wounded woman seeking her way.


Next week. The epiphany in Ajmer Shareef


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