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The little girl was getting impatient. “Ammi, hum ghar kab jayenge?"
Her mother said, "Beta, ammi ko Allah Allah padh lene do, phir."
I overheard this conversation as I was sitting in the zenana section of the Haji Ali dargah. Almost all the ladies I saw there were with their children, many of them infants. They had probably prayed for babies at the dargah and now that their mannat had been granted, they had brought their little ones to be blessed by the saint.
I'm always sceptical about visiting places of pilgrimage. There's not only the matter of logistics but also religious etiquette. Then there are the touts, the din, the clamour... But this cynicism is usually taken care of as soon as I set foot in the inner sanctum.
My first memories of worshipping are from a temple in Manipur. Every afternoon, I used to go to the battalion mandir in the post under my father's command; the panditji there had assigned me the duty of starting the evening aarti. That's where I got my first harmonium lessons too. I wasn't big enough, so I used to just press the keys and someone else used to pump the bellows. I also remember collecting images of Devi-Devtas from agarbatti boxes. I'm sure my fascination with Hindu mythology has its roots there.
I also used to be a regular at the Sunday Mass. The village we used to live in was predominantly Christian. I used to be in awe of the pretty clothes the other kids used to wear to church and I have forever since associated Christianity with prosperity.
Last but not least was the unit gurudwara. Since my father was from the Sikh Regiment, the gurudwara was a big part of growing up. The sense of peace and well-being I got there is still cherished.
Ironically, as a Muslim, I was discouraged from going to the masjid. Islam doesn't forbid women from praying in mosques but it is an unwritten rule, at least in the subcontinent. And while it is common practice to visit a dargah or a mazaar, many look down upon it as blasphemous. The recent attacks on Sufi shrines in Pakistan are an upshot of that. It's tragic.
Well, blasphemy 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. For me all Gods are Allah, I bow my head to Gods of all faiths, and in my mind, I address them all as Allah. (“Hey Bhagwan!” is reserved for shocks and surprises.)
So, without resorting to Theosophy, I shall simply say that my soul's purpose is to better--and thus--actualise itself. Any religion or culture that allows me to do so is welcome. What nomenclature is given to my faith is secondary. Whether it is Har Ki Pauri or Ajmer Sharif, Rumtek or Karni Mata's, my plan is to secure a nice spot where I can sit and observe, just observe. Instead of seeking solace from external sources, it is better to sort your head. We are conditioned to respond better to the positivity around us in holy places.
However, not all spiritual experiences are equal. Three instances come to mind. One was in Nathula, at Baba Harbhajan's shrine. I had felt such a surge of clarity, that feeling is vivid even twenty-two years later. The second memory is from Pathar Chapri where, for no rhyme or reason, I laughed and laughed and talked nonsense. I was out of control. The same happened at the Golden Temple; I couldn’t stop crying. I was okay one moment and a tourist attraction the next. At Pathar Chapri, I didn't have a name for what was happening to me, today I know it's a common enough condition called Jerusalem Syndrome. However much we like to think of ourselves as sane and sensible, the soul/ spirit is a reminder you are just as human as the next person. It is the democratisation of the divine.
Coming back to Haji Ali, I willed myself to relax. I said my usual prayers, then just sat back and let my mind wander. I had decided to spend ten minutes there but soon I lost track of time. As I was leaving, I realised I had managed to banish all music from my head. Believe me, for me, it's a big deal.
On the causeway on my way out, I heard a familiar voice. "Ammi, ghar kab pahunchenge?"
"Ohho, kitna bolti ho tum! Woh dekho udhar, Shah Rukh Khan!"