Ashoora Eve At Kasar Bagh – A Distributing Ritual
Back in India, it takes me almost two days to calm down and begin eating normally, after my highly emotional, haunting and turbulent visit with the Rohingya refugees rotting at the squalor camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Since I have been away almost all active nights of Muharram, I am eager to pay my respects to the Shuhada (a), so I head to Mumbai’s Pala Ghali, where there are Ashoora eve programs I can partake in.
The Khoja mosque, very warm and steamy, is almost packed just before magreeb; I am drenched in sweat by the end of magreeb salaat. A lecture majlis ends, and another begins; this tribute will continue throughout the night. I leave to meet up with my Indian guru Aliakber Ratansi, who is on duty serving water and hamburgers arranged by his Anjuman. Pala Ghali is shrouded in black stalls lining the entire street, each booth offering a variety of tabarruk sponsored by separate anjumans to the mourners. There are hamburgers, fiery pulao and haleem in disposable containers, super sweet milk sherbet, water in plastic cups…
It has rained earlier, so the streets are wet, slippery and filthy. Aliakber Ratansi is busy dispensing water at his stall, with yet another majlis streaming from a loud TV nearby. The reciter is cautioning his audience about Imam Ali’s (a) advice on applying intellect in life, including the mourning process for his beloved. Paradoxically, the streets are littered with plastic water cups, food containers, snack wrappings and casually discarded leftover pulao and haleem; I cringe at the mess and tread cautiously. The overwhelming diehard mourners, who are barefoot, are undeterred however, and walk about nonchalantly.
Since I am hungry, I wolf down a hamburger and some pulao, using my fingers – no cutlery here – and piping hot chai to wash down all the grease. The pulao is fiery, so I give up midway. The tempo of people, allams and taazias pick up, and Pala Ghali is a struggle to navigate after 9 PM. Aliakber and I battle to walk the short distance to Kasar Bagh, to witness the cumulation of all juloos marches of greater Mumbai.
Whoa, the sight at Kasar Bagh is surreal. The lane leading to the place is a sea of black and even the police, who have a proper security bandobast in place, seem to struggle, blowing their whistles and flailing their arms, as if that will get the uncaring crowds to listen up or disperse. There are, I reckon, over 100,000 people in the vicinity where I am, all jostling for very little space. We make it inside after a struggle. It’s not so bad here, people sitting, eating, smoking, chatting… I observe many Bohris with their traditional kofia, some Sunni wearing color and a sprinkling of Hindus as well.
If the vista outside is weird, the inside of Kasar Bagh becomes utterly bizarre once the juloos begin trickling in. With shouts of Labaik Ya Hussein, the crowds throng in, armed with an armada of allams and taazias, some colorful and tall, others draped in black, but imposing nevertheless. I try and keep track, but lose count after reaching the 200-odd mark. Then comes the impossibly tall, imposing, majestic and dignified allam of Kamar-e-Bani Hashem, Abbas, the Ghaazi of Zainab, and the crowds go wild; my heart contracts in pain and pride.
The reciter, a popular zaakir arrives, people make way. He eventually sits next to me, snacks on a quick soggy sandwich, gulps coffee and lights up a cancer stick. He puffs away like there is no tomorrow, sullying the already tainted blood and sweat filled air I am forced to breathe. A fine leadership example for our impressionable teenagers to emulate, no? He enters the hall to shouts of Labaik Ya Hussein and begins his lecture, stirring up the crowds with an inspirational devotion to the single most core personality that unites the Shia world – Imam Hussein (a) and his supreme sacrifice in Karbala. Labaik Ya Hussein roars 10,000 voices in unison, shaking the very grounds of Kasar Bagh. Such is the stirred-up emotion that my eyes tear, and I, too, am caught up in a frenzied raising of my fist in tribute to our great Imam (a). The lecture on atrocities towards the Ahlebeyt (a) riles up pent-up passion; the crowds want no more talking. Drumbeats thump and cymbal clangs and the gyrating begins.
Round and round the allams and taazias go, picking up in a frenzy. I think it is impossible that more people can enter the hall, but they do and join the circling of the allams. I am unsure why the crowds’ circle, but they do, accompanied by the deafening thump of the drums. A terrified zuljana horse, his eyes large, rolling in fear, draped in bloodied clothes, is ushered in and joins in the rotation; people touch him and then kiss their fingers reverently. Hundreds of oud urns bellow clouds of pleasant smelling smoke that shroud the circling crowds. At some point of this ritual, the atmosphere of mourning dissipates, and it feels like a festival of sorts, not unlike the circling of the dragon in some Far East country. Over the roar of ruckus, I ask Aliakber Ratansi about the drums, since I feel like I am in a celebratory Hindu carnival of sorts and not in a somber tribute. He shrugs his shoulders and looks up to the heavens in apparent resignation. Hatele Iranians, he quips.
Kasar Bagh has a legal capacity to hold about 3,000 people; I am certain there are nearly 10,000 plus at some point. A miracle really, considering there are no severe injuries or stampede deaths in all these years. There was a stampede at a local train station just yesterday, killing 23 people, so I am very wary of the throngs that keep on pouring in. Youngsters mostly, wearing white (I wonder why?) enter, brandishing malicious chains and knives and disappear into the crowds. They return a short while later, drenched in blood, swooning, propped up by friends and volunteers. Recovering rather quickly after some water or sherbet, few get busy taking selfies of their bloodied torso with friends, and dispatching them onwards with amazing speed with nimble fingers on smartphones to the airwaves. I want to go in and take some photos of the gore but am scared silly of the crowds and flaying weapons, so stay put.
In the peripheral, some people do maatam in tune with the beating of the drums. An infant tries to imitate his father beating his chest, but lands on his diaper cushioned butt instead. Undeterred and resilient, he picks himself up and repeats the torment. Bless him. I tire at about 1 AM and take a very hard to find a taxi back to the Leela. Mumbaikars have finally tired and are off the otherwise choked streets so the pan-guzzling, continually stopping to spit taxi driver completes the trip in 1/3 of the usual time.
The visit to Kasar Bagh leaves me unsettled, empty, as if I have unfinished business; my heart still burns. Do these rituals fulfill the Imam’s (a) mission? Have I lost the opportunity to reflect, contemplate and develop a source of inspiration towards transformation and reformation in my daily life and behavior, taking lessons from the great mission of Imam Hussain (a)? It is only after I attend a more dignified and much more somber Shaam-e-Ghareeba event at Zeb Palace the next eve, offer my sympathy, sorrow and tears to the mazlooms (a) of Karbala that my heart senses some tranquility.
Note: I taunt, blame, condescend or judge not the events at Kasar Bagh; I am unqualified for that. I am merely relating, without malice, my experience that Ashoor eve. Any feeling of hurt is deeply regretted.
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