“Not even water?”
“No, not even water,” I replied to the stranger at the office who woke me up from a nap at the pantry on my first day at work to ask if I was alright. I was fasting, I said, and that I dozed off because of fatigue. The surprise on his face when I said that a fasting Muslim does not even take water from dawn to dusk seemed quite familiar though.
Ramadan comes second in line for a conversation-maker next to my hijab. Being a ‘modern but conventional’ Muslim, who interacts with a non-Muslim majority world as a part of the profession, has always given me opportunities to clear genuine doubts about the Islamic practices as well as to bust preconceptions for those who never had a chance to discuss their hearsay knowledge about it all with a practicing Muslim.
When I decline coffee offered at meetings and conferences, invitation for lunches and evening tea by colleagues, or excuse myself from gossiping groups, the conversation inevitably turns to “Why do you starve yourself? What does your God get from you being famished?”
To those who are genuinely curious, I reply – that God doesn’t benefit from me starving any more than a coach benefitting from his athletic student slogging away for building stamina. And that for us, fasting is building of mental and spiritual stamina to remain uncorrupt in a world of temptations, by saying no to water, food and sex – the three strongest hankerings of humans. That if we can overpower thirst, hunger and lust and thus prove to ourselves that we are not the slave of even our elementary animal instincts, that then we are a slave of none.
To those who ask with a smirk of disdain, I reply – I’m fasting, and it is not for those who fast to unleash a verbal onslaught purposelessly. Because I am taught that if I cannot control my words and my sentiments, controlling my hunger and thirst is pointless.
But some days I’ll be sipping cold coffee at noon at office, on a quest for some news story and people who know that I’m a fasting Muslim wonder why I’m eating and drinking during some days of Ramadan. As a woman I never let go of this chance to break the taboo around menstruation alongside refuting the claims of Islam being ‘inherently misogynistic’. I explain to them that I’m not supposed to fast during menstruation. I get to tell them that we are excused from the ritual because our bodies and minds are weak and drained during menstruation and that we are supposed to take care of ourselves, and that it is a responsibility greater than the obligatory worship. It gives them a lesson to not judge others on subjective perception as well, just like how s/he learns that a hijabi woman eating during fasting hours could not be a pointer to her religiosity.
Eventually, I get to demonstrate that rationality and religiosity is not mutually exclusive; that being a decently educated, outgoing, jeans and tee wearing girl, and being a fasting, five-times-a-day praying, head to toe covered hijabi can seamlessly fit into one person. That ridiculing a religious person of being medieval doesn’t stand a ground anymore.
Though such statements and conversations normally end up in delivering a perplexing idea to their hearsay knowledge of Islam, sometimes it fruits into beautiful tales of camaraderie, similar to how my senior colleague Sudha Nambudiri, a staunch Krishna devotee, decided to observe fast with me from dawn to dusk, purely out of compassion for me. Amidst a couple of namesake Muslims, it was a Nambudiri chechi who made my lonely Ramadan a little less lonely, with a grand vegetarian iftar cooked by her and brought to office every day without fail, making sure that I eat a wholesome meal apart from the regular hotel junk. ‘Jihadi mom’ they called her jokingly. Little did they know that ‘Jihad’ literally meant ‘strive or struggle’ in Arabic, and true to the name, she really was a mom-like figure who struggled to keep me company and strived to ensure that I was fed properly, and that I don’t doze off in the pantry exhausted once more.