Non-Fiction / Lakshmi Krishnakumar

Tales from a Tesbih

Issue 3. January 15, 2022

The tesbih hangs from the broken lamp-holder on the wall. The red beads, 99 of them separated after 33 each by a shiny little ring. The syncretism of the religions around me made me count the beads of the tesbih each night with the same devotion with which I lit the lamp every evening. No, I counted the beads of the tesbih with an even greater devotion, because of its being chosen, and not enforced upon by my upbringing. The tesbih was brought from Nizammudin Dargah, from one of the little shops that lined the dark, kebab-sceneted alleyways that led to the shrine of the Sufi saint. I had learnt the words to be recited to, and after much research on the order of the words to be recited, I stuck on one that I liked, for no particular reason, apart from the fact that I found it led to a logical ascending of praise to the God. Very soon, with the curious behaviour of memory, the words held for me a meaning apart from just glory to the God. Each time I chanted the words, they opened for me additional worlds where love and devotion stood side by side. In a tradition of the syncretic cultures of a Sufi Islam that I tried to follow, love and devotion were not separate. Except that in my case with the tesbih, my devotion for God stood alongside the love I felt for a mortal, a human, a man.

          Alhamdulilah- Glory be to God
 

The absolute infinity of the world around, and His creation, while I remain a mere speck of dust in the grand scheme of things. The Glory being a light that, with all its fierceness, doesn’t blind me, but instead shows in the darkness of my own existence a warm honey-coloured glow and helps me to find the brightness within.

          It was the first time I was visiting him in the city that worked in and one which he called his home. This city had hitherto held only memories of misery in a university campus that I felt alienated from. From my fortnight’s stay there in the campus, all I could recollect as a saving grace was the morning that  he came to visit me, not as a lover, but as a former classmate. He took me on a bike-ride, the smell of his fresh sweat wafting in the cold monsoon air towards me. Later, I would learn that these same streets were the ones that he took with his ex-girlfriend, and that even while I sat on the pillion, he was nursing his healing heart.

          This time around, four years after that cold morning, I was visiting as his girlfriend. We were invited to have lunch at a friend’s house one Sunday afternoon. This is where we met the old lady. Perhaps our first lunch at a family residence as a couple. We had even got a box of sweets, and he remarked on the ride there that it was the first time that he was buying them something, a sign of the shift from hitherto ‘bachelor visits’ to the ‘couple visit’ of this time. The house was packed, with people from three generations. In the shadows, senile ladies walked and stood, looking at us, and staring at the TV. This particular old lady, in a nightgown of a flowery fabric, and a scarf on her head, slowly made her way through the clutter of the chairs towards him. Her scarf moved a bit to reveal her thinning hair. She held the tesbih in her right hand, and smiled at him, and asked him something. He replied, and then asked her about her health. She smiled, and holding his palms in her wrinkled ones, said “Good. Alhamdulilah!” and slowly made her way back into an inner room.

          I was sitting on a divan in his friend’s living room, watching this scene unravel. That morning, we had been to a river-side museum. He had used his press credentials to get me inside the ruins of a building made famous by a celebrity historian. We had spent the rest of the morning looking at books.

          I realised how slowly this city was becoming more familiar to me. I etched the street names on my memory, and awakened to the fact that for the first time since those agonising days at the university campus, I felt comfortable here, that I was slowly constructing a home for myself in this city.

          I sat by his side, the third day of our togetherness, and I realised that the first 33 beads would now bring to me this Sunday lunch and that old lady, and a long-drawn process where I taught myself to find a home in a new place.

          Subhanallah- Praise be to God

The vastness that surrounds my petty existence. The time, the space and the elements. The knowledge of there having been millennia of life before me, millennia of life after me, and yet, it is now that I have been chosen to live in the form that I now occupy. A mere fleeting moment, when I am vested with an agency to direct the course of this world.

          It was a movie about food- the protagonist is a truant young man, who wants to be a chef, and disobeying his father’s wishes, goes to his grandfather’s biriyani shop to learn cooking and the reasons for cooking. And because it was about food, and the characters were all Malabar Muslims, the movie was set in my hometown, Kozhikode. Among the songs in the movie, one especially stood out- Subhanallah- a song that followed an oft-quoted dialogue on ‘mohabbeth -filled suleimani’: the aging grandfather and the hipster grandson, sitting by the broken bridge on beach watching the sun set, talking about how you could taste love in lemon-tea.

          We were at the same beach that song was shot in. It was monsoon, and his eyes were the same colour as the murky waters of the ocean during the monsoon. We were meeting for the first time after four years. The sudden cloudburst had drenched us from above, while the waves and the spray of water from the ocean washed us as we made our way back to the beach on the wave-breakers. We sat on the same bridge from the movie and looked at the ocean and the clouds raining over the ocean in the distance as we tried to dry ourselves.

          He had said he wanted to eat the biriyani that my hometown is famous for. We were meeting for the first time after a few years, and when I lay my eyes on him at the bus stand, I saw how his dark arm hair lay against his fair skin. Over lunch, I noticed how he bit his tongue when he smiled. In all the stereotypical handsomeness that he was known for, he exuded a comfort at being where he was. I was suddenly conscious of the people looking at me; all my teenage insecurities slowly rose within me, this same insecurity that led me to take by surprise when he told me a couple of months later that he liked me and would want to see if we had a future together. Never known for taking sensible decisions, I agreed, and that’s when my teenage-self asked me again, are you sure you deserve this?

          I told myself I did.

          Later, when we were sitting on the bridge, watching the rain over the ocean, I caught a fragment of a conversation that I quickly pushed into the recesses of my memory. If I hadn’t, maybe I would have seen how we were not going to a good fit, how the belief of being loved is not the only reason to love someone.

          Praise be to God for sending a shower that day, ignorant though we were then about the future that we were to share.

          Allahu Akbar-God is Great

I sought for a guide in my religion and in others, in temples and in churches and finally found it where there was the smell of roses, sweat and tears, where qawallis and the shrieks of the possessed mingled in the evening sky, and where I wasn’t even allowed to touch the tomb of the saint to whom the shrine was dedicated. I found God in a religion that was increasingly being drawn away from my way of living, but to whose cause I was determined to stand true. Because God doesn’t require a label, nor does God require the petty offerings that we have to give masked within the narrow confines of a practice.

          We climbed the wrong hill accidentally. We realised that as soon as we reached the top. The Moula Ali Dargah was on the other hill. Instead of ascending down immediately, we sat on the rocky slopes of the hill and looked at the sun setting over the city. He told me this was where he wanted to ask me. I wished it had been that way, but in any case, the story would have been the same, the both of us together, watching the sky spill out its fantastic colours in the sky.

          At the base of the hill, was a stone house, painted white. A goat stood tethered to a little post, fattening itself on some leaves, in time for the Bakrid sacrifice. He had wiped the dust off his forehead and knocked on the house. A shy young girl answered, and he asked for some water, which she brought in a steel tumbler. I sat on a concrete stoop and watched him take pictures of the goat. In that moment of stillness, it dawned on me how I was being manoeuvred. I felt loved, cared for, but in terms laid down by someone else. He told me that he was doing the steering solely because he knew the place better, but I was already suffocated. Cooking in his kitchen, I started to wonder if this was the future. This city I was trying to make my home, these daily meals which were experiments now, but drudgery in a few weeks, and then would the resentment begin or would I resort to trying to love him in parts, like Saleem Sinai’s mother tried  with his father?

          We slowly made our way down this hill and up the one that led to the Moula Ali Dargah. On the walls were written, Allahu Akbar.

          Indeed, He is.

          I sit on the cool marble verandah encircling the tomb of Amir Khusrao. There is a very small crowd, giving me relative peace. I touch the threads tied on the lattice, and wonder about the prayers behind each of them. It has been a few months since we had last spoken, and I knew we would never speak again. I had come to the Nizammudin Dargah by myself, and suddenly it dawned on me, the entirety of my time was like watching a person on a smartphone screen, while the video was cut off at your end: I saw his world, his friends, his city; he never saw mine, except for the duration of a biriyani-lunch.

          All around me, women mutter prayers and hold well-thumbed texts in their hands. I offer a final word of gratitude and make my way to the various kabab stalls outside the dargah. As I look for my slippers, I spot a man selling prayer hats and mats. On a nail beside his table hangs a bunch of red tesbihs.

 

 

 

Lakshmi Krishnakumar teaches sociology to undergraduate students. She is trained in sociology and anthropology, and writes about medicine and society, literature and culture. She blogs at http://theirrelevantdragonfly.blogspot.com/ and https://tumbiswings.medium.com/.