Ramzan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, is considered holy by the community. During Ramzan, Muslims all over the world maintain a strict fast the entire day, breaking it only when they sight the Eid moon.
During this period, a small corner of Bombay takes on a festive mantle -- transforming into a shopping fair that attracts Muslims from all over the city. Senior Correspondent Syed Firdaus Ashraf and photographer Jewella C Miranda steal a few glimpses
The sun was nearly ready to dip below the horizon. Burqa-clad women, accompanied by little children, were racing through last-minute shopping for fruits and kababs before rushing home. Some of the men were adjusting their topis (the caps worn by Muslims during prayers) as they hurried to the mosque for the evening prayer.
"I'm sorry, sir," apologised Yasin Memon, a kabab seller. "But I can only talk to you after I break my fast." As I watched, he kneeled down on the road to begin his iftari prayers. Nearby, a glistening aluminium plate was piled high with a variety of fruits and meat dishes.
Memon was not the only one. Memonwada Street off Mohammed Ali Road was filled with hundreds of Muslims breaking their roza, after hearing the muzzein's call to the faithful for the evening prayer.
None of these are unusual sights on Mohammad Ali Road. As Ramzan (the holy month which requires Muslims to fast from sunrise to sunset) sets in, Muslims from all over Bombay congregate here to celebrate the coming of Ramzan-Eid.
"Nearly 5,000 people from all over Bombay come to Mohammad Ali Road to break their fast every day and shop for Eid," says Memon.
Ikhlaq Ahmed, a Memonwada resident, has arranged tables and chairs in the small by-lane so that people can sit comfortably and break their fast. A restaurant owner, he sets aside thoughts of profit during this period. "Ramzan is a holy month for us. So, I don't mind if the people who sit in my restaurant to break their fast don't eat the food I provide."
Mohammad Ali Road, an artery that connects south Bombay to the north, is named after the late freedom fighters, Maulana Mohammad Ali and Shaukhat Ali. The brothers had joined hands with Mahatma Gandhi to launched Khilafat movement against the Britishers. After the mutiny of 1857, it was the first major instance of Hindu-Muslim unity.
During the month of Ramzan, it is brilliantly lit for nearly a kilometre. But it is the beautifully decorated Minara Masjid that catches the passer-by's eye. Shopkeepers fill its narrow by-lanes, advertising their wares by shopping at the top of their voices. Each by-lane has its own speciality - be it shops dealing in ladies clothes, shoes, perfumes or kababs.
Says Memon, "Celebrating Ramzan is Mohammad Ali Road's USP. During this festive period, you will find people coming here from all over Bombay and opening a small temporary thela to sell their goods."
"Look at me," he says. "This is not my regular area. But I put up my kabab stall here during Ramzan because it enables me to do business of more than Rs 1,000 a day. It's impossible for me to do this kind of business in Bandra, where I sell kababs during the other 11 months of the year."
Mohammad Abrar, a regular ice-cream vendor at the Victoria Terminus railway station, moves his stall to Mohammed Ali Road during the month of Ramzan. And sells falooda (a milkshake containing fruits, nuts, jelly, vermicelli, khus-khus topped with ice-cream), a change dictated by demand. "Muslims don't like to eat ice-cream during Ramzan. So, I sell faloodas -- it's cheap, a poor man's dish."
Though Abrar does not make as much money as Yasin, he does manage to double his earnings. "I sell about 300 faloodas and make a profit of Rs 400 daily."
But the most famous shop on Mohammad Ali Road belongs to Irfan Abdul Latif. The self-named shop, specialising in sweetmeats, was started in 1917 by a small time shopkeeper called Suleman Mithaiwala who came from Talegaon, near Pune. Today, the shop is a perennial favourite with film stars like Salman Khan, Chunkey Pandey and the yesteryear villain, Ajit.
Suleman Mithaiwala believe that their sweets are fit for kings. During Ramzan, they make special sweets every day and have to hire temporary help to cope with the demand. Till date, their recipes for making sweets are so secret that only a chosen few know the details.
"Though we make hundreds of sweet dishes during Ramzan," says Suleman's grandson, Latif, "our most popular items are phirni, shahi halwa and malpooha. But we sell them only during the month of Ramzan. The day the moon for Eid is sighted, we discontinue making these sweets."
The fair-like atmosphere and the huge market attracts burqa-clad women of all ages, who come with their families all the way from suburbs. Hasina Bano, for example, has come down to Sewri in north central Bombay just to shop, "We come here every here for our Eid shopping - for sevaiya (vermicelli), utensils, clothes and sandals. Besides, I love the way this place is decorated."
But isn't it inconvenient, travelling a distance of more than 25 km just to shop? "Yes," says her daughter, Asiya Bano. "But, then, you don't get the kind of variety that you do at Mohammad Ali Road."
Hasina adds, "Though our seven member family spends around Rs 100 on travelling, it's worth it. All of us feel satisfied after shopping here."
As do Ruhi Khan, a young collegian, and her mother who have come here all the way from distant Mumbra in Thane district. "I have come to buy the Dulhanmehndi (henna), which is very famous," says Ruhi. "And Jannatul-Firdaus (a popular perfume)." While Dulhan mehndi comes at Rs 50 a kg, Jannatul-Firdaus retails at Rs 10,000 a kg. But it also sells in smaller bottles, at Rs 30 for 2.5 gm.
For Shakeela, on the other hand, this is an escape from the shackles of home, "The women in our family hardly get chance to go out, because of a busy schedule at home. This is the only month when we see the outside world, and shop for the entire year. Moreover, it is written in our holy book that every individual who can afford new clothes must wear one for Eid."
The building opposite Minara Masjid is dominated by Jains. Nearly 20 Hindu families have been living here for more than seventy years. Prakash Shah, who owns a courier business, has been living here for the last 40 years. "We did not face any problem during the infamous riots that rocked Bombay city in 1992-93. In fact, in our locality, both communities helped each other."
To date, they continue to respect the boundaries of each other's religion. Which is why, except for cold drinks, they don't eat or drink a morsel in each other's house. And yet, the two communities continue to maintain an amicable relationship.
Meanwhile, the clock was ticking. The muzzein had given the call for the night prayers from the Minara Masjid nearby. And the faithful stopped all their business to heed the call from God.
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