Saturday, 15 January 2011

Chirag-e-Dilli - Still Illuminating?

A bit of wandering, a few conversations, and I may already be falling in love with Delhi!

Pardon me, that line was written in a high of emotion after my visit to Chirag Dilli. Later, as I visited the much better known Jama Masjid, I have downgraded this statement to something like 'I am still struggling to come to terms with Dilli and I cannot understand and reconcile its contrasts.’ However, let’s not let that take anything away from Chirag Dilli.

First to set the scene, imagine that Saturday night. I was party hopping until 3 am. And, let me confess at the cost of embarrassing myself, this was my first party hop in all of my 28 years. So the night was spent in a swirl of drinks with young, energetic, socialites discussing careers, aspirations, and regrets.

The next morning found me barely a km away from the last party, in the dargah (shrine) of a forgotten Sufi. At Chirag Dilli I met a middle-aged Muslim man from Jaunpur, UP. After an inspiring visit to the dargah of Moin-ud-din-Chishti in Ajmer as a young man, he left his home and his newly wedded wife and has been cleaning up Naseer-ud-din Chirag-e-Dilli's dargah ever since. In 25 years he has earned nothing except what pilgrims care to donate. Once a year he returns home to visit his wife and 3 children, all grown up and working now. But he never really left the dargah behind.

When I asked him if he missed his family he said, “Baba ko chhod nahin sakte, humko inse mohabbat hai.” (I can't leave Baba [Naseer-ud-din], I love him)
and in the same breath added, “Ghar bhi jaate hain, bachche hain, unse bhi mohabbat hai lekin Baba to Baba hain.” (I go home too, I have children and I love them but Baba is Baba.)

As I walked into the dargah, I was greeted by a smile and a general welcome.

“Mehmaan aaye hain,” ( A guest has arrived.)

An authoritative looking man dressed in traditional Muslim attire, who I later realized was the head priest of the shrine said,
“Mehmaan ko dargah aur mazar dikhaiye aur unki khidmat kijiye,” (Show the guest around the shrine and the tomb and take care of him.) The thought ran through my mind, that only two days ago, I was the guest of Hindus and Shiva at the Nili Chhatri temple. Yesterday I was feasting among the young and elite. Today, I was the guest of Muslims and a Sufi mystic who lived hundreds of years ago.

I was offered a chai. The gesture was touching enough in itself but when I realized one of the four people taking care of the dargah had given up his chai for me, I turned to jelly.
Locally known as Jeetu Baba, Mohd Ursan epitomises the contrasts of Delhi. Jeetu Baba lives on the premise of the dargah, under a roof surrounded by just two walls. He does not have a blanket warm enough for the winter but exudes enough warmth to offer his chai to a man almost his son's age. He showed me around the dargah, told me the stories associated with the place, and also pointed out the 700 year old wooden bed which Naseer-ud-din used to sit and pray on. We chatted for a long time. I heard his touching story and wondered at the variety of humanity, how the seemingly least important things can be so important to someone else, how the idea of devoting a life to someone's service can be life itself and how in a few hundred metres, a large metropolis changes colours like a chameleon. Before I left I gifted Jeetu Baba a blanket because I could not see him sleep another night in the freezing cold.

In the romantic utopia I live in, this post should have probably ended here but it can't. If it did, I would be unfair to reality. A few days later, on Muharram, I went back to Chirag Dilli. I had still not gotten over the last experience, was still light headed from it. Jeetu Baba had invited me for the Muharram procession. We were to start at Chirag Dilli and carry the Tazia to Karbala near the Safdarjung Airport, about 12 km and 4 hours away. I was excited, so much that I had excited the interest of a few friends who could not come but were as excited from far away.

When I reached the dargah, the friday namaz was on. Respectfully, I bowed down, one amongst a multitude. The dargah wore a completely different look. The empty courtyard was replaced by a huge congregation dressed in white, bowing down to the power of the almighty, the quiet was replaced by a nasal voice reciting the namaz. The crowd rose to its feet and fell to its knees guided by an unknown force. A few minutes later, after the prayer was over, I started looking for Jeetu Baba. When I could not find him, I looked around for another man I had met on my last visit. Finally, after I managed to locate him, he told me Jeetu Baba had to rush home because of a phone call. He did not know if anything unpleasant was afoot.

His second sentence was, “Did you get the blankets?”

I was astonished, “What blankets?”

“Jeetu Baba said you would bring 5-6 blankets and give them away.”

A lump grew in my throat, I did not know how to react. I just said ”No, I did not say anything like that.”

“Why would I lie?” the man responded in a disappointed and accusing tone.

I was again at a loss. While I was excited about the Muharram procession, I was also feeling a little lonely. In truth I had not wanted to venture here alone. I had to overcome myself and with half a heart was standing in this mosque courtyard hoping to get into the experience. And then this blanket business had struck. The gift I gave Jettu Baba was out of pure compassion and good heart. It was not even supposed to find its way on this blog, and here I was being tormented for more and implicitly accused of going back on a promise I never made. I had no clue what to do. His imploring would not stop. He started asking for money. The magic spell of that past Sunday had been broken. There was a feeling of disconnection, I could no longer associate this courtyard with my last visit. I wandered out hoping to get some respite outside the mosque and waited for the procession to start. The one bridge that had bound me to this place was now on shaky pillars. When I walked out, I half knew the procession was as good as over for me. After waiting for a few minutes, I traced my way back home.

Three weeks later, as I post this, I have still not processed things in full. My two experiences at Chirag Dilli are still separated in time and space. For the fear of some truth being revealed, I do not even want to process them. Half of me wants to go back and meet them again, to understand and talk. The other half is scared on two counts. What if my only discoveries are my lack of understanding and that they used me and abused the saint's name? Neither of these sounds exciting. But is there something else to find? I am undecided. The title was meant to be a statement after my first visit. It has changed into a question after the second.

For more on Chirag-e-Dilli, please read this Wikipedia entry.

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