29 November 2010

Hanging out with Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya

It was a Thursday night so I could have gone to the movies or to a nice restaurant, but instead I spent the evening with Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, the fourteenth-century Sufi saint. Every Thursday there is a performance of qawwali music in front of the dargah [shrine]. The musicians sit facing the dargah because technically they're not playing for the spectators but for the saint himself.

Hazrat Nizamuddin was the head of the Chishti order of Sufis in India and was a friend of the great poet Amir Khusrau, whose tomb is nearby in the same complex. Although in the West Islam has an aura of being against music (and against fun in general), Sufis have long embraced musical performance as part of their worship. It plays a role in zikr, the meditative remembrance of God. In South Asia, the act of remembering God often turns into a rollicking good time.

15 November 2010

No, no, no. Islamic divorce in India gets stranger

In some interpretations of Sunni law—some 90% of Muslims worldwide are Sunnis rather than Shiites—it is permissible for a man to divorce his wife by saying "talaaq" (divorce) three times. There are various rules about how far apart the talaaqs have to be or how many witnesses there need to be, and there is considerable debate about whether triple talaaq has an sanction in the foundational texts of Islam. The practice is formally banned in a lot of majority Sunni countries, and is unrecognised by (secular) Indian courts, but every once in a while a case comes up that is equal measures tragic and hilarious.

A Visit to Aligarh

One approach to knowing a country is through its major cities. For me, for example, most of France is just padding on a map of Paris. I've just never spent enough time outside the capital to know how non-Parisians live. Some people argue that you have to visit the most out of the way hamlets to know a country, but I believe that a completely urban experience is legitimate—unless I were to pass myself off as an expert on the French countryside, which I am not. Country living too involves some trompe d'oeil. Some years ago I stayed in a lovely village with a mossy graveyard and thirteenth-century church in Oxfordshire in England. I soon learned that despite the rural atmosphere, the majority of the inhabitants in fact worked in London. It's expensive to maintain a medieval cottage, after all.

But even as a committed urbanite (who occasionally needs to get out of the city), I admit there's something remarkable about small towns. Tourists often make moral judgments about the small town landscape but it seems to me that the inhabitants of the periphery are not somehow guardians of a nation's culture but rather that a lot of metropolitan distractions are stripped away. It's easier to experience a place when you're not battling with people trying to sell you things or being nearly run over every time you cross the street. In some ways small towns are like cities that are more relaxed, more manageable, but there is however a different orientation. A small town has a centre, and people from nearby areas are drawn to it. Its centripetal force is even stronger than in a big, spread-out city precisely because it is compact.

07 November 2010

Tis the season (of Diwali)

Diwali has a nice tagline; it's the "Festival of Lights." In Hinduism, it commemorates the return of Lord Rama to his kingdom after fourteen years of exile and an epic battle with the demon Ravana. But just as Christmas as celebrated today has a tenuous connection with a guy born in a shed in ancient Palestine who may or may not have been God incarnate, Diwali, which fell on 5 November this year, is about eating good food, spending time with family and, of course, blowing stuff up.