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23 Jul, 2013

Controversy’s Child: Why I Fast During Ramadan – By Punam Mohandas


My name is Punam, and I am not a Muslim. Paraphrasing Shahrukh’s Khan’s popular film dialogue: “My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist,” it’s that time of year again when I am impelled to give this somewhat long-winded introduction for myself.

But, I digress. We are in the holy month of Ramadan. And, from my name, it’s safe for you to assume that I’m a Hindu. So what am I doing blathering about what is clearly a Muslim event? Well…umm…err…okay, I confess. I. Keep. The. Ramzan. Fast.

Punam Mohandas

Ooer. That makes for great after-dinner conversation or opens a can of worms, depending on your perspective! Me, I’m blasé. Yep, sure, there was a time when I enjoyed the look of consternation on people’s faces and, swift on the heels of that came the hows, whens and whyfores. Okay, so you gotta curb all those gasps of wonder coz now, it’s beginning to pall.

People don’t get that it’s time to mind their own business when I smile and politely say, “it’s personal.” So then I toyed with the idea of looking coy and keeping mum. Apparently I don’t do coy too well. Coz then I had an incensed family who promptly jumped to the conclusion that I was dating a Muslim dude and that led to MORE questions. Amid an aghast chorus I decided regretfully that the demure act wasn’t working. It’s not the ‘dating a Muslim’ bit that I object to; never done it so can’t comment. I object on principle to the idea that if someone, especially a woman, is a maverick and goes against the grain, there’s gotta be a man involved in there somewhere! Oh well. Salman Khan’s still single, innit J.

When I was working in Dubai, a friend who was also country manager of a leading airline there would get mighty agitated as to how I could keep the Ramzan which was “their” fast when I could never remember “our” rituals. Simply put, I was always too hungry earlier to observe any fasts – a side-effect of boarding school days! I’ve also never understood the requirement to go veggie during the Navratras and so never bothered; my poor mum would religiously (sic!) call me twice a year to remind me to lay off all things living.

To my utter disgust and incomprehension, last Ramadan I got called a “mulli.” Is there even such a word? I’m pretty sure that “mullah” which means clergyman, does not have a feminine equivalent. To me, it’s as racist and as derogatory as “nigger.”

More recently, someone called Anil something, tweeted (Twitter) to Mini Mathur, former VJ and now married to film director Kabir Khan, that “u were my fav when unmarried…now after u married a mullah –we all dislike u.” @!#$!@#!??? “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” (William Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice.) In my humble opinion, being a staunch Hindu, Muslim, anything, leads to nothing but extremism – and therein lies trouble. Let’s try being a staunch human being first huh, take it one step at a time.

During my stint at the Times of India New Delhi, I found most of my female colleagues mysteriously absent one day. It’s “karwa chauth,” I was told. Oh, ah. About 3pm, I find the guys slinking off too. I collared one such, who is now one of the senior VP’s at the TOI. “Whither goest thou?” I demanded. The wife is fasting and feeling weak, I was told. Huh? Did I mention this man was also having an extra-marital affair?!

And this is what gets my goat, really. This veil of hypocrisy and the big drama that surrounds this Hindu fast of one day. There are women who can’t wait for the day to be over so they can be merry again…women with cheating husbands who go through this meaningless social ritual to “keep face”…men who frankly dread this day and tiptoe around crabby wives. It’s like Hinduism is selling these instant-karma fixes; fast one day, get a lifetime of brownie points!

Sure, I’ve kept the karwa chauth fast. Once! Since I had married someone from south India where this custom is not observed, I sat around aimlessly waiting for those dry fruits and pure ghee thingies and sarees and what-not that Hindi movies and my mother promised my ma-in-law was supposed to gimme! Nada, zilch! Also, the husband was in the Army, and I don’t suppose cloak-and-dagger stuff coordinates very well with moon sightings. At 11pm, a contrite husband came bursting through the door. I pointed a finger at him and calmly said: This. Is. The. Last. Time. If he wanted to stay alive and in good health, it better be on his own merit from now on!

Hell, don’t go getting the idea I’m advocating one religion over another! I haven’t read the Quran, I don’t do namaaz, I don’t visit the mosque. It’s all about a personal belief. Ramzan for me is a great test of my self-endurance. So – would I permit my children to keep this fast? I get asked this a lot. For starters, I wouldn’t –couldn’t – permit my kids anything! It’s all about freedom of choice. My youngest tried to fast along with me once. I promptly dissuaded her, coz she was in a boarding school and we all know they serve regurgitated cardboard that passes for food in these places anyway!

This is my twelfth year of fasting and now, I just get plain irritated, because inevitably, leading from the obvious questions, we then suddenly find ourselves taking sides in the great Hindu-Muslim Divide. So Narendra Modi’s media engine goes into overdrive and tomtoms that he sent choppers for the rescue mission during the Uttarakhand tragedy. Instantly, there’s a social media pool that starts saying he only rescued Hindus and abandoned the Muslims. Nobody ascertained whether he actually sent choppers, if so, how many, if so, how many pilgrims were saved due to his one-man rescue act?! Nobody’s answering my plaintive question as to how Muslims were identified and segregated to NOT be rescued?! Get real!

Excuse me while I get on the emo track here but, when Bhagat Singh, Mangal Pandey et al were fighting for freedom, for US, so we could become these boorish bigoted pigs today, did they think of first separating the Hindus from the Muslims, the black from the white, before they laid down their lives for us ingrates?! I was born and raised a Hindu Punjabi, educated in a Catholic convent, and I observe the Muslim Ramzan fast. Rather than be called a fruitcake, I’d say that it’s me that’s a proud product of a secular India. Not the pathetic dogmatists who are merely a product of closed minds and a stifled upbringing. Sadly, there’s no one else around quite like me but then again – when did revolutionary thinking ever call for a support team?!

Right. So again, why am I fasting? Dude – it’s personal!!

Punam Mohandas is a senior journalist with 19-years of experience. She has been the Editor of various publications such as Hotelier India (Mumbai), The Big Project (Dubai), Coordinating Editor with the Times of India (New Delhi) and a reporter with the Khaleej Times (Dubai). Her weekly columns that appeared in leading English publications such as the Hindustan Times, the Times of India, The Statesman and the Delhi Midday, were hugely popular and ran for several years. She is an accomplished and accredited travel writer who continues to pen travel blogs, and is well recognised among the travel trade, tourism boards and hospitality circles across several countries. She was the Editor of the Times of India travel guide – the ET Traveller – for two editions. Furthermore, Punam conducts in-depth and sensitive interviews on Indian film personalities and writes professional film reviews exclusively for The Film Writers Association of India. She was also formerly the Director Communications for PATA, based out of its head office in Bangkok.

 Punam is the author of the book ‘Fallen Angels’ and is presently working on and researching material for her next books, both of which are centred around Thailand.