Given how frequently young mothers in my South Asian Muslim family used their dupattas to tie their toddlers’ ankles to a sofa leg while they offered Salat, I’m sure that image must have been my first memory of seeing grown ups standing straight and sitting, bowing and lying prostrate while mumbling under their breath. On the other hand, Saum, or the act of fasting, never had any visual giveaways. As kids, we were all too busy stuffing ourselves with food to care whether our parents were eating or not.
One of my first memories of Ramadan goes back to around the age of seven. It was May 1986, and we had recently moved back from the Gulf to our native hometown, Kanpur, in the northern plains of India. The blazing summer was made worse by long power cuts. There was scant respite even during the hours power was provided. The voltage levels were so low you could barely make out the difference between the sound of an old ceiling fan and a squeaky door.
It was summer vacation, and I was home in the afternoon playing with my younger brother in the backyard. As I came back into the house, I saw my parents lying covered with towels under the squeaking fan. Both of them seemed to be asleep. I touched my mother, and realized that the towel was damp. At my young age, the situation presented itself with an absurdity that naturally attaches itself to everything grown-ups do.
Calling out to her, I shook my mother awake, wanting to know why she lay there covered in the towel’s dampness. Patience in waiting for answers was still a long distance and many lessons away.
While my mother’s reasons for covering herself may have been one of my first lessons in science, that day I realized there was something that stopped her from cooling herself by drinking water. I learned that the staleness of my mother’s breath was because she hadn’t eaten anything all day. That if people don’t eat or drink, an unknown concept to me at that age, they don’t have as much energy to do everything they normally do. Still, the reason why my mother had to abstain from food and drink remained somewhat elusive to me.
A few years later, I began fasting during Ramadan for the first time. Where I’m from, it is a customary practice to throw a big Iftar and invite everyone when a child in the family begins to observe Ramadan. Having a tendency to avoid unnecessary rituals in matters of religion, my parents didn’t throw a big party for me. For my parents, religion was (and is) a way of life that was personal, and did not warrant celebration and show. Around that time, I recall feeling some pangs – perhaps of jealousy or envy – when I went to the celebratory Iftars held for cousins who were also my age.
Many Ramadans have gone by since then, with each year bringing a different set of unique experiences. During college, Ramadan meant alarms going off throughout the halls of residence at my alma mater at the pre-dawn hour as everyone woke up bleary eyed for Suhoor, surviving classroom lectures before gathering back in the mess for Iftar, and then heading to the adjacent mosque for Taraweeh prayers. After college and as I built my professional career, Ramadan was spent on the road and in corporate boardrooms, with fasts broken while driving back from meetings or requesting hotel room service for an unusually early breakfast. Amid all these experiences, Ramadan meant spending time with friends around the intimate comfort of a dining table, with strangers in the open bonhomie of a community meal, and with fellow human beings who brought with them the diverse beauty of their personal interpretations of faith.
My experiences of Ramadan have been many and varied, and in hindsight, each has given me the perspectives and insights I most needed at that particular point in my life. The number of life questions has steadily increased every year, but my patience in finding answers has also deepened over time. More than answers, experiences and perspectives Ramadan has given me, it has continued to keep a wanton soul safe from drying up and scaling in the adverse weather that inevitably takes over the remaining year. Like the damp piece of cloth my parents used on a Ramadan afternoon many years ago.
*Asif Khan is a freelance writer and photographer based in Delhi, India. He writes frequently on music and popular culture, and most of his photographic work revolves around the same subjects.
During the month of Ramadan, Asif will be running the blog OneLunarMonth as a platform for people of diverse religious, cultural, and georgraphical backgrounds to share their unique perspectives on Ramadan.