The new ‘improvements’ that are being carried out in dargahs take me back to the time when I was ignorant that dargahs were structures built around graves of Sufi saints. As a child, the one at Haji Ali, the brilliant white specimen of Indo-Islamic style structure that stood in the middle of Worli Bay, fascinated me, especially the fact that access to it was dependent on the tides. As I passed by in a BEST bus, on my few trips to town, I always looked wistfully at the dargah, as I ached to join those who walked on the causeway during the low tide, with the sea on both sides to reach its precincts. Most of the time I saw the causeway submerged. Though I expressed my desire to visit it, not only did my family show no enthusiasm in accompanying me, being staunch Hindus, they frowned upon my entreaty. So, Haji Ali remained on my list of must-visit places but not a priority. I frequented temples as a kid, specially a day before the exams to keep the Gods appeased. One day, as I stood before an idol, I just didn’t know what to say after the initial greeting and reverent namaste. I haven’t been to a temple since.
Four years ago, on a road trip to Mangalore, I visited my grandmother’s ancestral home in Ullal. My family and I walked on the not so clean sands of the Ullal beach and as we explored the place further, I saw it – The Ullal Dargah. I had seen a picture of the shrine in the tourist guide and there it stood, looking resplendent in moonlight. I had to visit it. My family sat put in the car, as I walked towards the dargah, not knowing what to expect and how to offer prayers. I approached two women who were washing their feet and hands vigorously at the taps installed outside, and asked them if there was something particular that I was supposed to do or not do and whether I had to cover my head, the way they do in some temples. They suggested that I wash up first and then one of them kindly accompanied me inside, led me to a spot behind a trellis and said, “Ab, yahaan se dua karo.” Through the trellis, I saw a tomb that was being fanned rhythmically. For a moment the unfamiliar surroundings made me uncomfortable. I felt like an intruder, an outsider. I wanted to flee. Years of being conditioned by my family’s not so secular views made me feel unwelcome, when I was clearly not. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, opened my palms to face the sky and stood silently. Something calm and peaceful descended on me. Standing there in the dargah was not just an act of defiance against my family, it was also an exorcism of the communal ghosts that stalked me. It was a moment that symbolised the breaking of my own mental and physical barriers, the exploration of a different culture, the befriending of those who I was told were not exactly our own. It was, without doubt, a rite of passage.
That day, while praying at the dargah, the thought of my gender did not even cross my mind. But today, the decision of the trustees of the Mahim and Haji Ali dargahs to ban women from entering the mazaar, has incited an inner rebellion against all those who propagate gender discrimination and subjugate women under some pretext or the other. I remember the time when I saw a neighbour sitting in a corner of her house because she was menstruating. A Tamil Brahmin, she was forbidden from touching anyone or praying at the altar. When I asked my religious and tradition-bound grandmother if I too had to abstain in a similar manner, on those days of the month, she rubbished the idea saying, “What Gods themselves have given cannot be pollutant.” She shocked me with her unexpected answer. Even among the Hindus, it is taboo for women to touch the Shivling as much as it is to recite the Gayatri Mantra, though many are the women who have broken the tabboos. Years ago, the then Shankaracharya, who apparently did not grant an audience to widows, had a long meeting with the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, a widow. But then, religious fanatics bend their own rules to suit their needs and meet their ends.
Now, it has suddenly been discovered that according to the Islamic Law of the Shariah, it is “un-Islamic” and “a sin” for women to visit dargahs. Does that mean that those women, who were earlier ‘allowed’ to do so, because of the ignorance about the law or its lack of implementation, have also sinned? What is the antidote to that? Will the trustees take the sins upon themselves? On such occasions, the forbidden ikhtelaat (mixing of sexes) has obviously taken place. How will that be undone?
If religions must exist, they should act as a binding factor and not a divisive force driving a wedge between men and women and reinforcing caste and class barriers. Fanaticism reinforces misconceptions and further widens the gulf between religions and people. This “improvement” is a step back into the Dark Ages. And I’m waiting patiently for the low tide. The Worli Bay beckons.