Artwork: Irshad Mulani
Produced by: Young Editors
What Ramadan Really Means
Ali brings his cycle to a halt and leans it against a broken brick wall of Biryani Mahal, a small city hotel where he works. Ali is a tall yet skinny fourteen-year-old boy, who lives in the big colourful city of Hyderabad.
He shakes his long unruly hair from over his charcoal black eyes and wipes his hands with a dirty cloth as he prepares for the day ahead. Biryani Mahal is known for its spicy, hot, and delicious Biryani (An Indian dish made with highly seasoned rice and meat or vegetables).
Ali does every odd job at the restaurant including cleaning the cracked plastic tables, serving steaming masala chai, making perfectly round rotis, and cutting vegetables for the curries and rice.
When Kareem chacha, the head chef, takes a break, Ali steps in, wiping beads of sweat from his forehead, as he mixes the sizzling diced bell peppers in the iron kadhai.
Ali’s morning today began at 4 am. He cycled through the dark, foggy, quiet streets when everyone was fast asleep. He rode slowly breathing in the mist, his worn out hands playfully letting go of the handle, as he glided past an old, barking dog.
Ali has a lot to do today. The dough needs to be prepared, and the vegetables need to be cut before Kareem chacha arrives. It’s the second day of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, where strict fasting is observed from dawn to sunset.
The city is abuzz with activity and preparations are in full swing. Festivals are peak business time for restaurants like Bryani Mahal, and Ali has agreed to work longer for some extra money; he is saving up for something special.
Ali is an orphan and the only survivor of the rampaging house fire that had killed the rest of his family.
He came to Hyderabad, which looked like a promising city also known for its amazing biryani. He lives in one of the many shanties that cramp together to make the Bholakpur basti, adjoining the Badi Masjid area of Hyderabad.
Ali often dreams about Eid at his village. The local marble mosque, the colorful, bright kites flying in the clear sky, the noisy cockfights, the big melas, the golden, caramelized jalebis and most of all ammi (mother) and abba (father). He misses them all, especially ammi who made the most satisfying Sheer Khurma with roasted cashews on Eid. Memories flood back bringing tears to Ali’s eyes. But, Biryani Mahal is his life now.
“Two cut chais on table 14!” yells Ramu Kaka, bringing Ali back to reality. He recollects himself and brings his ever generous smile back on his face.
When the cool evening arrives, it is time to get on his rusty bicycle and distribute the freshly made rotis to smaller shops and homes. He travels through the inner city, swerving through the Hyderabadi bazaars crowded with loud shopkeepers, bargaining women, poor children, lost cows sitting in the middle of the tiny path and affectionate street dogs.
The tires of his cycle go over rotting vegetables as he nods and waves to Sharma ji, the mango seller. Ali pedals as fast as he can. The rotis need to reach before they go cold and before iftaar, the hour people break their fast. Everyone loves Ali in this part of the city. Children from their houses and small restaurant owners come out to get the hot rotis as soon as they hear his bicycle’s shrill bell ring. They are all glad to see the cheerful boy in rags bringing their evening meal.
After completing his deliveries, he stops sharply in front of an old woman who sits on the footpath, rocking and humming a song to herself. The woman doesn’t notice him. She sits on a torn tapestry, delicately decorated fabric that had yet not lost its glory even after the colors had faded. She sat embroidering, pushing the needle in and out of a soft cloth while squinting her eyes. In and out of the cloth, the needle bobbed in gentle rhythmic movement as Ali watched her in silence.
He yells out, ‘arre! Nazneen ammi!’ and extends his hand to give her a packet of food. Nazneen ammi is partly deaf and at times doesn’t even hear Ali yelling. She looks up slowly pausing for a moment, accepts the packet and gives him a half-hearted smile that forms rings around her tired eyes and creases near her chapped lips.
Ali brings Naznin ammi her evening meal every day. He pays for the meals with his meager salary. He has this strange connection with Nazneen ammi and considers her as a family, though little words are exchanged between them.
Satisfied, he gets back on his cycle and bursts into his song, singing loudly and out of tune, leaving the old woman chuckling. He is the sunshine in their lives.
A month passed by and then the day everyone was waiting for arrived. The new moon promised to show itself from amidst the clouds, filling hearts with joy and announcing the arrival of Eid.
“Here you go Ali,” Ramsingh Ji the hotel owner said in his typical gruff voice, handing Ali his salary, plus, the additional income he had made by working longer hours. Ali took the money carefully, rolled the notes and tied it with a loose string. It didn’t take him too long to reach the tiny little shop that sold second-hand everything.
He looked around the shelves desperately. He finally saw it, second shelf, sixth in the row, next to the broken alarm clock and cigarette lighter. The metal framed glasses! He wanted to get these glasses for Nazneen Ammi ever since he set his eyes upon them.
Her poor eyes could not carry the minute detailing she did for her living. After months of saving up, now, he had enough money. Round lenses with a tiny crack on the right side, perfectly curved, in the end, to fit around Nazneen ammi’s ears. She would love it, Ali decided, and it would be a wonderful gift for Eid.
Ali reached Nazneens Ammi’s place with the precious secret in his left pocket. ‘Arre Nazneen Ammi!’ he yelled. She looked up as he took out the glasses from his pocket and gently gave it to her, ‘Eid Mubarak!’ Ali said. Nazneen Ammi didn’t say anything, she took the glasses, felt it, cleaned the lenses with the edge of her tapestry and wore it. It didn’t fit her correctly and probably had the wrong number, but, Nazneen ammi’s eyes grew bigger as if she could see the world in a whole new light.
Ali was bursting with pride. All his months of hard work was worth it, he thought, as he saw her smile. ‘Shukriya beta’ she said finally. He started to say something when suddenly bright lights got nearer; sounds became louder, and all went black.
When Ali woke up, he found himself in the local government hospital with a peculiar smell and on a creaky metal bed.
He looked around frantic and confused. Then Ali saw the familiar faces of Ramu kaka, Kareem chacha, and Nazneen ammi peering down at him and smiling empathically. A car had run into him just as he had alighted on his cycle. Nazneen Ammi, with the help of Sharmaji (the mango seller), had immediately taken him to the hospital and called Biryani Mahal.
Everybody came rushing to the hospital hearing the news of the accident. Ramsingh Ji, the owner of Biryan Mahal, paid the hospital fee. Just as they were recounting how the incident occurred, Nazneen Ammi took out a bowl and put a spoon full of something in Ali’s mouth. Ali willingly accepted it. It was warm, milky, Sheer Khurma! In his torn clothes, and in spite of the cuts and bruises, he felt on top of the world.
Everyone there was his family, and they all cared for him. He looked around with gratitude and smiled. Nazneen ammi and everyone else started laughing, relieved at seeing the familiar cheerful face. ‘Eid Mubarak!’ Nazneen Ammi said.
Though it was Nazneen ammi who got the new glasses, it was Ali, who saw much clearer what Ramadan really meant.
Note: This story is inspired by a documentary on Egypt that depicted the life of a young boy who works as a bread delivery boy in Cairo.