Naazneen Diwan

You’re the only girl in the muhallah that rides a bicycle and you do it with joy and intense pleasure. Your papa taught you to ride when you were five years old, taking laps around the apartment complex. Later he taught you how to change a flat tire and repair a broken chain. By age twelve you could build a bicycle yourself with a handful of tools, a frame, two wheels and a handlebar. You are your papa’s only child, a daughter, the only pair of hands that could embrace the lineage of permanently greasy finger nails. Your ami grew tired of scrubbing your salwars to no avail, re-braiding your unruly hair, and attempting to make you presentable. You, you grew restless whenever you weren’t riding.

Today is a day like any other day. You wake at 5 a.m. and can’t wait to greet the brisk air and the empty streets. Before the daily errands, before delivering the parcels to the post office, getting milk for the day’s chai, before going to the sabziwala for okra, potatoes, and green mirchis, you take a ride to witness the rare stillness. You visit Victoria terminus, no taxis lining the station’s entrance, no rickshaw drivers rushing to usher arrivals to their hotels. It’s a pink silhouette in this light, the perfectly shaped stone stacks an architectural feat amidst the cracking Bombay foundations. Immense, ornate. Triumphant. Every detail exuding grandness. Every detail measured and intact. Delicate circular windows tucked under rosy cobbled arches, verandas that stretch from one ear of her calculated smile to the other, two seated lions with luxurious manes and mouths agape, domes and peaks with spires piercing the soft flesh of sky, and in the very center a woman cut out of white marble declaring benevolence and superiority at once. Precise and symmetrical, you can’t help but see what others found so endearing in this building and its builders. But you like mess. You like frenzy and chaos and unpredictability. This relic is too pretty. You hear your papa’s words, tinged with mock gratitude, “Us Indians would still be riding elephants if it weren’t for British trains.” You bring your eyes back towards the horizon, towards where you live, where the earth meets the sky.

And where the sky meets the sea. You coast along Shahid Bhagat Singh Road towards the docks. The Gateway of India. A doorway big enough for a fleet disguised as two British royals with polished bones for crowns and scopes for eyes. Why did they need a gateway, you think, why the formalities when they never thought twice about ceremonious invitations? When they landed. When they dropped anchors on every shoreline. When they imprisoned your people in their own Lal Qilas (Red Forts) built to house rebellion. Homes turned hostage. You wonder how they turned your hands against you. Took the long sinew-flinging fishermen’s arcs and the powdery touch of red sandstone and forced them to carve a welcome and an allegiance into their own chests. You jump over the barrier and run to the very center of the archway. You run your fingers along the latticework, poke them through the Islamic floral cutouts and stand back to watch the sun slits invite the sea into the cavernous space. Just like Jama Masjid, you think. Their hands found a way to build a lasting image of something bigger than the British. And bigger than you. Grace.

You ride along the stretch of Marine Drive towards Haji Ali. Lovers flock here when the sun tones down its harsh judgments, sleepily tucked into the covers of the sea or setting into a sky now reigned by distant suns who can’t be bothered to throw light on illicit kisses. Taxi drivers pulled to the side of the road, chewing the first paan of the day, gathering the sweet, bright red juice in the pockets of their cheeks. Neither the road nor teeth can be scrubbed free of the stains. You peer at drivers flipping through copies of the Mumbai Mirror past the new action thriller that unites megastar Amitabachan onscreen with his son, the many questions the Sexpert fields about maintaining an erection, and a leopard on the prowl, yet again, on the Powai campus.

You pick up speed toward your final and most favorite spot on your morning pilgrimage: Haji Ali. The green chiffon orni you tied at your hip flies loose and gets churned into the spin of your gears. Oh shit, you think. Ami is going to murder you! This is the third orni this week. You pry out a shredded end, tear at the cloth with your teeth and wrap the remainder twice around your waist with a secure knot. You watch as Haji Ali soaks in the glow of sea and sky and blossoms warm sienna. The sun pays respect, positioning its praise behind the call of the minaret, now a lighthouse for travelers drenched by storm-risen waves. You lay down your bicycle at the beginning of the footpath, almost entirely bare of the constant current of seekers. You unroll your salwar legs, brush the city dirt off your kurti and take the long walk towards the dargah. The fragile thread of land lined with a few vendors spreading their wares, juice Kakas setting up displays of chikkees and mangoes, and beggars hoping to stir ir-Rahim. You think of especially windy days when white foam readily swallows any trace of this path, sand gathered from ocean bottoms built to connect the profane to the sacred. Like a vein returning again and again to its Source to be purified, exchanging depletion for oxygen. The longing is deep in this city for Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs alike, to escape duniya, even for a few hours, and step into the middle of the Sea into the arms of the Beloved. You stop in front of your favorite juice stall and ask for juice the color of the sky. The juice Kaka takes a massive blade slicing a watermelon in half, opening its fuchsia belly. Coral chunks of cantaloupe crushed into the blend, pressed through a sieve. Coolness floods your insides, carves out an inlet from your throat to your stomach. At the entrance to Dargah Sharif you buy a basket of gulab petals from the caretaker sheikh, smooth your orni over your hair, and rub a hand over the silky, marbled doorway. And immediately you’re surrounded, you’re overcome. Every window is an invitation for the believer to call upon, to be, to live one of the virtuous ninety-nine names of Allah. Colored glass shards sewn together spell: Al-‘Ali … Ash-Shafi … Al-Qadir … Al-Akhir …You stand fixed in front of Al-Rashid, one on an illuminated path. And you look down at your hands and see them glowing green. There is no separation, you think. Allah is my guide and I am my own. I am all these selves patched together, messy but whole.

Naazneen Diwan is current lead instructor for the Baldwin House Urban Writing Residency hosted by Twelve Literary Arts in Cleveland, Ohio. She is founder of Kalaashakti healing arts and meditation workshops with Muslim women.
Originally published:
March 25, 2019


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