V. Ramaswamy (Translator)
The mosque is the house of Allah. It lies at the very heart of the lives of the Muslim community. The prosperity, spread and identity of all the Muslims in the world centre around this house. In this court of the Lord of the Universe, it is all their hopes and anxieties, their wants and fulfilments, joys and pains that revolve around the mosque’s minarets.
The currents of eternity flow powerfully. The more time goes by, the more weeds sprout in the garden of religion. So many people descend to the sphere of religion in order to clear those weeds. But the weeds don’t die. It’s as if their seeds are to be found in every pore of society. There is still one sphere in the world now in which one can easily pass off darkness as light and light as darkness. And that is religion. The light of religion is not exactly clear light, it’s an incomplete and hazy light. Can that light show the way? Besides, has anyone ever received complete light? And yet, why does the earth itself carry on with half daylight and half night? Why is another side of the moon in perpetual darkness?
Religion exists. The light of religion exists. The mosque exists. The imam and the devout too exist. The azaan still sounds today, calling the faithful to prayer five times a day. That melodious vocal strain comes wafting from far away. In reverence, the womenfolk in Muslim neighbourhoods then cover their heads with their scarves.
It was the time for the Fajr prayer now. A time in between darkness and light. Concluding the prayer, the Imam saheb turned his head to the left side and recited the salam. Kalu Miya, one of the musalli, that is those who came to the mosque regularly to offer prayers, turned his head leftwards too to recite the salam, and he observed that Haji saheb, the mutawalli of the mosque, was sitting right next to him. As soon as the prayer ended, their eyes met. Kalu Miya smiled furtively and signalled that he had something very urgent to discuss. Haji saheb nodded his head in acknowledgement. They always had something to discuss. In fact, their discussions were so important that they could get by without completing the remaining sunnat and nafl parts of the prayers at some times of the day. Because their discussions were religious discussions. Discussions about the mosque. Discussions about the errors and omissions of the Imam saheb.
They emerged from the mosque. They headed directly to Dilu’s tea-shop. There was a separate place for them there. Although Dilu bhai kept clay bhanrs for everyone, he had reserved china cups for the murubbis or patrons. The respect that they got from this shop seemed to them to be no less than a symbol of the Almighty’s magnificence. They talked as they sipped tea. Speaking very slowly and in a low voice, Kalu Miya said, ‘We can’t have this moulvi sayeb. Change the fellow. As it is, he’s paid a hundred-rupees more.’
Gulping down a mouthful of tea with a slurp, Haji saheb said, ‘Let me think about it a bit Kalu; where will I find another moulvi sayeb out of the blue? After all, he has only one fault to speak of, that’s roaming around the neighbourhood at dawn. And that too has apparently been advised by the doctor. He has diabetes, my dear, diabetes. It’s a terrible disease.’
Kalu Miya was astonished to hear that. He said quite emphatically, ‘Are you making light of his habit of roaming the neighbourhood at dawn? I say, you’re knowledgeable, so how can you tramp through the neighbourhood? Don’t our mothers and sisters feel ashamed when they see him that early in the morning? Besides I’ve also heard something else; will it be appropriate to speak about that?’
Kalu Miya wanted to generate some curiosity about the matter. A forbidden curiosity. Haji saheb stirred now. He turned his head towards both sides and had a look. And then with great enthusiasm, he leaned forward to hear. As soon as Kalu Miya whispered something, he seemed to jump up, ‘What are you saying, Kalu? I couldn’t understand it at all. He recites well and teaches well! We belong to the same silsila, I’ve seen him standing up to recite the Nobi’s praises. To think that he was actually so crooked … Tauba, tauba!’
There’s not a single mosque in the Muslim neighbourhoods of West Bengal around which, differences, disagreements and ugly jealousies haven’t arisen among the neighbourhood’s Muslims themselves. Everyone wanted to enter jannatul firdaus, the Garden of Paradise, straightaway, bearing a tray of great piety. The craving for paradise is difficult to control; and so, who would take up the responsibility of the mosque was a moot question. In which group’s hands would the power to induct or expel an imam lie? A subtle contest is always on.
All these things prevailed in the village of Sadnahati as well.
This is an excerpt from the Bengali novel, Talashnama (2021), by Ismail Darbesh. Translated by V. Ramaswamy.