By Sonya Rehman
I’ve always had a bit of a shaky relationship with faith. While I don’t come from a very conventional family, I do remember this one particular Qari saab who’d visit our house a few times a week to teach my brother and I the Quran. We would call him Maa Saab – he was a small, petite man, very fair and clean shaven with small features. He looked Parsi. Maa Saab was from Delhi, his family had moved to Lahore after partition. He was very different from other teachers, infact he was quite mild, well-mannered and soft-spoken. Also, he wasn’t a creep. My grandmother really liked him, and since she was from Pune, and like him, Shia, she thought he’d be the perfect teacher for her grandchildren.
Maa Saab always carried a little cloth pouch with him. Seated at our dining table as my brother and I would turn the pages of the Quran to the lesson of the day, he’d reach way down into his shalwar‘s pocket and pull out the colourful pouch, and while speaking about the day’s lesson, he’d open little silver boxes – filled with betel leaves, supari, sweet powder and other ingredients carefully stocked in little containers – and proceed to putting together his first paan of the day.
I was a stubborn, easily distracted, fidgety child. I had no focus. I’d sit and stare at the surah before me, at the Arabic script, trying to make sense of the language and its correct pronunciation. After inserting a slim green betel leaf missile into his mouth and chewing, slowly, carefully, Maa Saab would begin speaking. But I couldn’t hear Maa Saab, all I heard was his chewy chews as his perfect white teeth would slice into the soft paan, hearing the waves of red sludge – saliva and paan – toss and turn in his small, red mouth, like a cement churner.
As his chewing would reach its zenith, i.e., as it would achieve its perfect, slushy-slushiness, a digestible navala, bits of paan spittle would spray across my page as he’d maternally reprimand me for my lack of focus.
But back to faith: I only began praying seriously in my late teens and then in my early twenties. To this day, I can’t read Arabic, and at times, I take to reciting certain prayers with the help of bits of paper penned with prayers in Roman English, thanks to a family member, or a close friend. Even now, when I’m feeling particularly lost, I’ll stand on the janemaaz (prayer mat) with an old, fraying green Snoopy notebook which carries instructions of the day’s prayers for me to follow.
Growing up in Lahore, praying in public places always made me quite nervous. Why? I never thought I was a ‘good’ Muslim, after all, I couldn’t read Arabic, and I had never gotten around to completing the Quran. Facets of society didn’t help either: espousing religion while nursing double standards and a blatant, judgmental attitude only aided in wounding one further.
Years ago in college, I was once scoffed at for placing my hands a certain way during sajda (and that’s just one example). I had begun praying in the common room, along with other class fellows during break. At the time, I was mortified. I felt stupid and terrible. I would think of Maa Saab and get annoyed at myself for being such a distracted child, wishing I had listened to him during those lessons many years ago.
Given my weak grip on faith, religion, I found myself getting defensive about where I stood in terms of belief in my mid and late twenties. I often thought I was an agnostic. But that phase soon petered out, replacing the anxious, angry defensiveness with questions and a deepening curiosity about purpose.
Now in my early thirties, I’ve realized one needs to believe in something. I wouldn’t call it a crutch, I’d call it an anchor. Something to keep you grounded when the sea is rough. I’ve always marveled at loved ones who’ve made a U-turn back to a belief system – they’re such clear thinkers, more centered than ever before, and as a result, stronger. This afternoon I met one such friend who balances namaaz and meditation skillfully – religiously taking time out for both amidst his busy schedule.
“You look like you just woke up,” I’d said laughing, looking at his puffy, shiny face. Turns out, he’d been meditating for forty minutes before we met. No wonder he looked so relaxed and happy. On our drive back home I noticed a book in his car – a biography of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) by Lesley Hazleton. As I looked the book over, I couldn’t help but feel the importance for us mortals to have heroes that we can strive to become, who can, in turn, lead us to an anchor – be it religion, a way of life…something, anything which gives our routines, our days, some essence, some, beauty, and some, purpose.
Maa Saab passed away a few years ago. He was in his late eighties, or early nineties, I’m not sure.
I’ll always be in debt to him for having the patience to deal with a fidgety little child, who focused more on his paan than the path. I know better now.