Religious bigotry can sometimes even unknowingly colour our sense of community and we end up alienating people
In 2006, I was invited for lunch by a close relative, Yawar, at his spacious bungalow in Karachi’s posh DHA area. When I arrived, I found him sitting with a dozen or so serious-looking gentlemen in his drawing room. After getting up to greet me, Yawar quietly apologised, saying that since he was the chairman of the area’s residents committee, he could not decline a request by other members for an urgent meeting.
In fact, out of politeness and also to keep me occupied, he asked me to attend the meeting too.
The matter being discussed had to do with some members demanding that the monthly committee meetings be held at a fixed venue instead of at their homes as this inconvenienced the families of the members.
Various options were being aired in this regard. The Golf Club, the Creek Club, the Karachi Gymkhana and so on, until one Zahoor sahib suggested that the committee start holding its meetings at the area’s mosque every third Friday of the month, after the jumma namaz (Friday prayer) was over.
Instantly a consensus was reached. Well, almost. Because three men remained conspicuously silent. Finally, one of them, Munawwar sahib, a man who owned a chain of utility stores across the country, spoke, “Friends, how do you plan to get Henry sahib and Anosh sahib into the mosque?”
Both Henry and Anosh, who were members of the committee, were non-Muslims. While Henry sahib was a Christian, Anosh sahib was a Parsi. That’s why both the men had kept quiet, too.
An awkward silence descended upon the room. My relative suddenly turned towards me and asked, “Nadeem, what do you think? Would it be possible?”
Taken aback, I just shrugged my shoulders: “I’m not very good at these things, but since these two gentlemen are residents of the area and …”
Zahoor sahib cut me off: “We can ask Imam sahib!”
Now, apparently, this “Imam sahib” was not the Imam of the mosque but an aged person who was treated as a religious scholar by the residents. He and his wife delivered religious lectures to the men and women of the area every three months or so.
“Friends, why are you complicating matters for Anosh sahib and Henry sahib? Why create an issue? We can meet somewhere else, unless we are looking to get some extra blessings from the Almighty by having our committee meetings at a mosque,” Munawwar said.
This did not go down well with Zahoor. “Munawwar, you hardly come to the mosque. Maybe our meetings will be able to make you come and pray there more often…”
There was laughter all round. But none from Anosh or Henry.
“If I may,” I politely interrupted, “why not ask Henry sahib and Anosh sahib?”
Munawar agreed: “Absolutely! They contribute to the funds of the committee as much as any one of us. And they have a vote too.”
Unfortunately, this suggestion seemed to have made Henry sahib and Anosh sahib even more uncomfortable.
“No, no, you do what you think is right …” Anosh sahib said, evasively.
Then Henry sahib spoke: “You can have the meetings there (at the mosque) and can update us…”
“Thank you,” said Zahoor, “so we all agree on this then?” Some quietly nodded their heads, and some softly said “yes.”
But in came Munawwar again: “In that case, I suggest, the monthly maintenance bills of Anosh sahib and Henry sahib be slightly less than ours.”
“And why so?” asked one Danish sahib. “Because, if we use the mosque for our meetings, the maulvi (priest) will rightly ask us to contribute to the mosque’s electricity bill. That would be added to our individual maintenance fee. Why should these two men pay additional charges if they are not even there?” said Munawwar.
“The mosque will charge us?” asked Danish, surprised. “But we already pay for its upkeep.”
“We can ask Imam sahib,” said Munawwar, sarcastically. I tried my best not to smile but no one else in the room treated Munawwar’s comment as a sarcastic jab. Instead, they now began to discuss the topic of a mosque charging a fee from its funders. They shared relevant quotes from the holy book and quotes from Imam sahib’s speeches, until Danish announced, “We already pay for the mosque! For its electricity, water, gas…”
“It has a gas connection too?” someone asked.
“Maulvi sahib and his family have to eat too, brother. So they cook in the rooms where they live, connected to the mosque,” Zahoor sahib replied.
So it was agreed. They would meet at the mosque (and Anosh and Henry would have to pay as much maintenance fee as everyone else).
Years later, in 2017, I was driving through another posh locality of Karachi — Bath Island — when I saw Munawwar walking briskly on a street. I stopped my car to say hello. “Munawwar sahib, do you recognise me?”
“Yes, yes. I do. How are you?” he replied.
“What are you doing here in Bath Island?” I asked.
“I now live here,” he said.
“Where are you walking to so hastily? Let me give you a lift.” I offered.
“No, no, it’s quite alright,” he said. “I’m just going to that mosque over there.”
“Munawwar I grew up in this area. Friday prayers ended an hour ago in that mosque”, I said to him.
He laughed: “No, little brother. I am going there to attend a meeting of our residents’ committee.”
“Really?” I smiled widely, thinking he was joking. “Even in this area?”
“Boss, this area or that, what does it matter? People are the same everywhere,” he smiled back.
“How did the mosque meetings at DHA go?” I asked.
“Didn’t Yawar tell you?” he asked.
This is what happened: Munawwar sold his house in DHA. Since he had continued to insist on including Anosh and Henry in the meetings, some members of the committee started to suspect he was from a heretical sect, although he wasn’t. Munawwar was just a right-thinking liberal hearted man. Even though these members were admonished by others for saying such spiteful things, Munawwar left the area with his family.
“What about here? Are there no Anosh or Henry sahibs here”, I asked. “I’m sure there are,” he replied. “But I have learned to ignore them. I’m sure you can understand.”
Saying this, he bid me farewell, and walked away.
(Writer: Nadeem Paracha; Courtesy: The Pioneer)