The Gods of an Army Brat

The little girl was getting impatient. “Ammi, when will we go home?”

Her mother said, “Beta, ammi ko Allah Allah padh lene do, phir.” (Child, let mother finish her prayers, then.)

I overheard this conversation in the zenana section of Haji Ali.

The place was teeming with children, many of them babies. They were probably the result of a mannat, and now their mothers had come to say thanks and get their little ones blessed.

I am always sceptical about visiting places of pilgrimage. There’s not only the matter of logistics but also of religious etiquette. Then there is the din and the clamour, not to forget touts. But this cynicism is usually taken care of as soon as I reach the sanctum sanctorum.

My first memories of worship are from a temple in Manipur. Every afternoon, I used to go to the mandir at my father’s post. The pandit ji had assigned me the duty of starting the evening aarti; that’s where I got my first harmonium lessons too. I was younger and smaller in size, so I used to press the keys while someone else pumped the bellows. I also remember collecting agarbatti boxes to cut out images of devidevatas. I’m sure that’s where my fascination with mythology began.

Also read: God, Religion and Chicken Curry: Questions From My 8-Year-Old During Lockdown

I also used to be a regular at the Sunday Mass. We used to live in a predominantly Christian village, and I used to be in awe of the church kids’ clothes. I have forever associated Christianity with prosperity.

Last but definitely not least was the unit gurdwara. Since my father was from the Sikh Regiment, the gurdwara was a big part of growing up. The sense of peace and well-being I got there is still unmatched.

Ironically, as a Muslim, I was discouraged from going to the masjid. Islam doesn’t forbid women from praying in mosques, not explicitly, but it is an unwritten rule, at least in the subcontinent. And while it is common practice to visit a dargah or a mazar, many look down upon it as blasphemous. The attacks on Sufi shrines in Pakistan are an upshot of that. It’s tragic.

Sacrilege or not, as a teenager, I had resolved never to ask for anything in my prayers. So I am theoretically safe in a dargah. Whatever conversations I have, I have with myself. I bow my head to Gods of all faiths, in my mind I call them Allah (including the tricolour). “Hey Bhagavan” is reserved for involuntary reactions.

The purpose of my soul is to better itself. Any culture/religion that allows me to do so is welcome. Har Ki Pauri or Ajmer Sharif, Rumtek or Karni Mata’s — my plan is to secure a nice spot and watch, just watch. Instead of seeking answers from other sources, it is better to sort your own head first. Holy places make it easier. God is the ultimate therapist.

Also read: I Am a Muslim. Here’s Why I Wear My Religion on My Sleeve

But not all spiritual experiences are equal. I was in Nathula once, at Baba Harbhajan’s, when I felt such a surge of clarity, that feeling is vivid almost 30 years later. At another time, at Pathar Chapuri, I couldn’t stop giggling — I was hysterical.

Quite the opposite happened at Golden Temple, where I couldn’t stop crying.

For no rhyme or reason, I had tears rolling down my face; I still do not know why. I was normal one moment, a tourist attraction the next. At Pathar Chapuri, I didn’t have a name for what was happening to me. Today, I know it as Jerusalem Syndrome. As much as we like to think we are too clever by half, the soul is a reminder we are just as fallible as the next person.

Coming back to Haji Ali, I willed myself to relax. I said my usual prayers, then let my mind wander. I had decided to spend a few minutes inside but soon lost track of time. Not carrying a watch or a cell phone helped, as did being unaccompanied.

While on my way out, on the causeway, I heard a familiar voice, “Ammi, when will we reach home?”

“Ohho, kitna bolti ho tum!” replied her ammi. (Ohho, you talk so much!) “Look over there, Shah Rukh Khan!”

Sahana Ahmed is the India Country Chair – World Peace for G100 Club. Combat Skirts, her debut novel, was published by Juggernaut Books.

The featured image is an illustration by Pariplab Chakraborty. To view more such illustrations, click here.