Muslims are going to celebrate Eid al-Adha tomorrow or day after tomorrow. Eid al-Adha or the slaughter festival makes me remind of my childhood days:
”On the morning of Eid, everyone had a cold shower, using a bar of red Cosco soap. I was dressed in a new frock, new shoes were put on my feet, my hair was tied with a red ribbon; then a drop of scent applied on me, and another put on a tiny piece of cottonwool, which was tucked into my ear. The men wore white pajamas and panjabis and donned caps on their heads. They, too, placed bits of cottonwool dabbed with scent into their ears. The whole house was filled with the beautiful smell of atar.
I left for the open prayer ground with all the men. What a huge place it was! Large sheets were spread on the grass for the Eid-namaz. With the sole exception of uncle Siddique, all my uncles, Baba, Dada and Chhotda stood there with everyone else. The field was packed with people. When the namaz started, everyone bent down together. I watched the spectacle, enchanted. It was a bit like doing Physical training during our school assembly. When we bent down to touch our toes, perhaps this was how we looked. After the prayers, Baba and the other men embraced one another. Only men were allowed to do that. When we got back home, I said to Ma: “Let’s embrace each other for Eid!” Ma shook her head and said, “No, females aren’t supposed to embrace.” When I asked her why, she simply said, “That’s not the custom.” The words ‘why not?’ sprang to my lips and struggled to get out.
People started to make arrangements for the sacrifice. A black bull had been brought three days ago, and was tied to the banyan tree. Tears were streaming from its dark eyes. I felt sorry for the bull. Here was a living being, chewing the cud, switching its tail; yet, only in a few moments, it was going to turn into buckets full of meat. The Imam of the mosque sat under the tree and sharpened his knife. Uncle Hashem went and brought a heavy bamboo pole. Baba spread a large mat in the courtyard, for the men to sit there afterwards and chop the meat into pieces. Having sharpened his knife, the Imam called from where he was sitting. At once, uncle Hashem , Baba and a few other men tied the bull with a rope, placed the bamboo pole between its legs, so that it stumbled and fell. The bull cried out in pain. Ma and my aunts were standing at the window to watch the sacrifice. All eyes were dancing with joy. Only uncle siddique, still wearing a lungi and devoid of any scent of atar, stood in one corner of the field and said, “A poor, defenceless animal is going to be killed so brutally, and people are actually happy to see that happen? And so is Allah? None of you have a shred of sympathy in you. That is the real truth.”
He removed himself from the horror of the sacrifice. I kept standing. The bull thrashed its legs and bellowed again. It took as many as seven strong men to hold it down. It threw them off desperately and rose once more. Again, the bamboo pole was used to make it stumble and fall. This time, the Imam acted quickly. As soon as the bull fell, he raised the knife, shouted “Allah hu Akbar! Allah is the great.” and slashed its throat. A stream of blood spurted out. The bull was not yet dead, it continued to roar with its half-slit throat, its legs still trying to get away.
An ache started in my heart, sharp, persistent, like a pin-prick. I was not required to stand and watch any more. Ma had told me, as she did on the morning of every Eid, that it was my duty to watch the sacrifice. When the Imam began skinning the dead animal, its eyes were still full of tears. Uncle Sharaf and uncle Felu remained glued to the spot, refusing to move from the scene of action. I left for Monu mia’s shop to buy balloons.
The meat was divided into seven portions. Three of those were for Grandma’s family, three were for us, and the remainder was distributed among our neighbours and the poor. The best thing about Eid was that Baba stayed in a good mood all day, speaking gently, not shouting at or beating any of us for not studying. We spent all our time eating pulao, korma, shemai and jarda, whatever mistake we made, everything was forgiven by elders. The work of cutting the meat went on all day. Huge ovens were lit to cook it in very large pans. In the evening, when the cooking was over, Ma and Grandma bathed and wore new sarees for Eid. Aunt Runu and aunt Jhunu got dressed and started to look for an opportunity to slip out to visit their friends. Guests to the house started pouring in. uncle Siddique, still wearing a lungi and an ordinary shirt, returned after a walk round the whole neighbourhood. He said, “There is so much blood everywhere … the entire area is drowning in it. I don’t suppose anyone knows how many bulls were killed today? Those animals could have been given to farmers. So many of them can’t plough the land because they don’t have oxen. Why are men such monsters? I just don’t understand. One single family wants to eat all the meat they can get from a bull. And yet, think how many don’t even get a handful of rice!”
There was no point in asking him to have a bath and put on new clothes. Grandma gave up, and simply said, “All right, so you did not wish to take part in the celebrations. Don’t you even wish to eat? Aren’t you hungry?”
“Why, yes! Give me whatever you can. I’ll eat anything, except that meat,” uncle Siddique replied, heaving a deep sigh.
Grandma’s eyes brimmed over. How could she bear the fact that her eldest son, her first-born, would not touch the meat from the sacrificial bull in Eid day? She wiped her eyes, vowing silently not to touch the meat, either. When did a mother ever eat anything, anyway, without first feeding her child?
Very soon, the news of uncle Siddique’s refusal to have the special meat spread through the house. The grown-ups began to feel a little uncomfortable. Ma said, serving the meat on our plates, “Miabhai is going to return to Dhaka without eating this meat. He says he can’t bear the idea of a sacrifice. What about the meat we buy in a butcher’s shop? Does that come without killing an animal?”
After Eid that year, uncle Siddique stayed a long time with us. He spent the whole day reading, reclining in a chair, and walking in the courtyard in the evening, wooden clogs on his feet. Sometimes, he came over to chat with Baba at night. Uncle Siddique always spoke in an even voice. He never raised it. If he heard anyone else do so, he clicked his tongue regretfully. Uncle Hashem had a habit of shouting every now and then: “I’ve fallen! I’ve fallen in!” This brought everyone running to the spot, and they found uncle Hashem clutching the edge of the well, his body swinging inside.
“Stop this dangerous game, Hashem!” Grandma scolded him. “One day, you really will fall right into it.”
Uncle Hashem clambered out, grinning. Uncle Siddique stared foolishly, his mouth hanging open. “That was a game?” he asked. “And it was supposed to be funny? I found nothing funny in it. Has Hashem gone mad?”
But uncle Hashem did not stop there. Sometimes, he caught either uncle Felu or me, held us upside down over the well, and said, “Drop you! I’m going to drop you!” When he did that to me, I screamed with all the power in my lungs, and everyone rushed out once more to see what uncle Hashem was doing. Again, uncle Siddique just stared blankly.
One day, aunt Fajli turned up, fully aware that uncle Siddique was at home. “I have something to tell you,” she declared as soon as she saw him, without wasting any time on greeting him, or any other preliminaries. Uncle Siddique smiled and laid a hand on aunt Fajli’s back. “Why are you so cross? You were not like this before. At least take off your burkha and sit down. Then we’ll talk.”
She brushed his hand off and replied, “No, I have not come to this house to sit and chat. I have only one thing to say, and I will leave as soon as I’ve said it.”
She took only the veil off her face, sat down on a bed and went on, “You said the other day that Allah has said a man can sleep with his maidservant. Where did you find such a thing? In which verse of the Quran? It’s wrong, totally wrong! Allah did not mean a maidservant. The Quran is quite clear about this. It mentions female slaves. A sexual relationship with a female slave is considered legitimate. But now there are no slaves. After all, we pay a salary to our maids, don’t we? We don’t actually buy them!” Aunt Fajli smiled. It was a smile of triumph.
Uncle Siddique sat cross-legged on the bed, hugged a pillow and said: “Ah, is that all? And this was so important that you would not take your burkha off, relax for a minute, but just say your piece and walk off? All right, tell me this: why do you think the system of slavery disappeared? Why do we not have it any more? Can you tell me? Who stopped the system? Your Allah? Or was it your Prophet? It was simply the people, do you understand? If the people had not put a stop to it, can you imagine how terrible life would be, even today? Besides, just think for a moment. Whether it’s a female slave or a maid, how could Allah decree .. ”
Aunt Fajli interrupted him, raising her voice: “What Allah said was valid in those days. Women had no one to take care of them, offer them security. A female slave had nowhere to go. That is why Allah …”
This time, uncle Siddique cut her short. “If you think the Quran was written for a specific period of time, that’s fine. Remember that, and kindly let it remain in the past, in that particular period. What’s the point of making a song and dance about it today? And there’s something else. Why did Allah say things that related only to those times? He knew the past, He knew the future, He is omnipresent, He is a know-all. Then why didn’t he write in his Quran that in the future slavery was going to be abolished? He could even have written that one day, the world would have electric lights, motor cars, aeroplanes, rockets … why, He could have mentioned about man going to the moon! I totally fail to see why you are so concerned with things that do not apply to this age, the times that we are living in. You worry too much, you’re afraid of nothing.”
Aunt Fajli got up with a long face. She lifted her veil with one hand and said, “I had no idea how you had sunk so low, brother. Shame on you! Even to look at you would be a sin for me.” She shot out of Grandma’s house, came over to our house and promptly lay down, saying, “please let me sleep here for a while, I’ve got such a raging headache!”
Ma went to the kitchen to prepare a meal for her: fine white rice, and roasted pigeon.
When uncle Siddique talked to Baba, it was usually to discuss the purchase of land. “Buy some land in Dhaka, Rajab Ali. You can get it cheap right now. Later, you’ll never get it at the same price.”
Baba nodded and said, “Yes, let me think about it.”
I longed to talk to uncle Siddique and hear stories of Dhaka. What was Dhaka like, what did it have? But I noticed that he never even looked at me, possibly because his ‘princess’ was now an ordinary creature, raised in the dirt and dust. However, on one particular occasion, and that, too, on his last day before he left for Dhaka, I did get to talk to him directly. I was on my way to the lavatory, when I found a torn piece of paper lying on the ground. It had a few words in Arabic written on it, so I gave it to Ma. Ever since I had learnt to recognise the Arabic letters, Ma had taught me to collect anything I found written in that holy language, to make sure it did not get mixed up with other rubbish, or was stepped upon. I was to pick it up and throw it away into water. Normally, that was exactly what I did. I kissed it quickly, then floated it on water, like a boat. Today, I took that piece of paper to show Ma, simply to prove that I was a good girl, I had not stepped on it. Ma was shaking some clothes out to dry on a rope. “I can’t take it right now, give it to your uncle,” she said to me.
Uncle Siddique took it from me, and read the words aloud fluently. This made Ma cast him an admiring glance. Anyone who knew Arabic was immensely honourable, and ought to be revered, although uncle Siddique did not go to the mosque on Fridays, or do his namaz for Eid . No one seemed to mind.
“What will you do with this piece of paper?” he asked me.
I clutched Ma’s saree, leant a little against her — more mentally than physically — and replied, “I shall give it a little kiss, then throw it into the pond.”
Uncle Siddique threw it down on the ground at once. “You want to kiss that? Do you know what’s written in it? It says, you son of a bitch, I’ll fuck your mother.”
Ma flushed with embarrassment. The wet clothes remained in her hands, she could not shake them out. Phulbahari was walking from the well towards the house with a full pitcher under her arm. She stopped in her tracks. Grandma was watering a chilli plant. The jug slipped from her hand, and all the water ran out, making a wet patch on the ground. I took a couple of steps towards uncle Siddique, my eyes nearly popping out with amazement, and said, “Uncle Siddique, isn’t Arabic Allah’s language? You mean it can be used to write dirty words, too?”
Uncle Siddique walked about, his clogs clicking on the floor, and replied, “Why not? Arabic is spoken by the Arabs. They drink alcohol, they do other things that are wrong, they murder. They use foul and abusive words. They take as many as thirteen wives, or even a hundred.”
“Stop it, Siddique!” said Grandma.
Grandma’s first-born, brought up with a great deal of care and affection, sent to a ‘madrasa’ where he learnt Arabic so well — stopped at his mother’s command.”
(From ‘My Girlhood’, my memoir)