Long train journeys are for
dreaming. A six-hour journey that began at dawn in Delhi, with mist and
the sun an orange ball, landscape turning from green to dry amber as we
approached the dry deserts of Rajisthan, I wondered at the madness of
Here we were, spending 12 hours on a train to Ajmer and back to Delhi
at midnight to visit a shrine or dargah Sharif in Rajisthan of the Sufi
Saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti.
It’s strange how the mind works, how desperate human beings are to
find some meaning in chaos, and how a single dislodged nugget can
When I was planning this trip to India I saw a photo of a famous
Bollywood actress, Priyanka Chopra dressed in salvaar kameez, a fetching
dupatta disingenuously framing her gorgeous sensual face visiting the
dargah (shrine) in Ajmer, Rajasthan. There was a blurr in the background
of gold filigreed walls, arches, strewn rose petals on marble floors.
A few days later my mother casually mentioned that she went as a
child with her mother on a pilgrimage to this Ajmer Sharif, a shrine
(built and embellished by successive mogul emperors) of the most famous
Sufi Saint Chishti order in India, which was founded by a Persian, Kwaja
Moinuddin Chishti in the 13th century.
My mother told me that after independence when my grandmother left
India for Pakistan for a brief spell, her funds in India were frozen by
banks due to strained relations between the two countries. I was taken
aback. I asked my mother how my grandmother, pianist, historian, a
critical thinker, a very liberal Muslim who eschewed ritual and
religious dogma and looked to the Qur’an as a guide would have faith in
a saint, a shrine of all things. I said, under my breath, not quite
daring to criticise my darling late grandmother to my mother,
“Surprising for someone who said repeatedly that one’s relationship is
directly with one God to turn to a saint.”
Well, my mother said, “Your grandmother’s assets were returned to her
“That’s weird,” I said. “Probably a coincidence.”
Not “weird” my mother replied sharply, “Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti was
a saint, known also as Garib Nawaz, ‘benefactor of the poor,’ whose
rigid regime of self discipline, tolerance for all faiths, generosity to
those in need, especially food and wealth, independence of rulers and
the State, made him closer to God. We don’t PRAY to saints—Muslims
believe in one God. We ask saints to pray for us. No one walks away
empty handed from the darga,” she said.
That’s when I submitted to contradiction.
Two days later, I came across a song composed by the Oscar winning
composer AR Rahman, called Kun Faya Kun from the Bollywood film Rock
Star starring Ranbir Kapoor who, finding himself homeless, goes, hollow
eyed, haunted (he acts well) to the dargah and finds food, a roof over
his head, music and solace.
I didn’t expect the tears but the centuries old strains of the
Qawwali-Sufi devotional music sung by Oscar winning music composer AR
Rahman, the visuals and ancient music evoking a kind of mad tandem of
genius, centuries of faith, of exquisite workmanship. It was to AR
Rahman’s music the dargah’s massive silver gate opened into a mosque in
a courtyard (constructed by the third Mugul Emperor Akbar in the 16th
C), which opened into another white mosque (built by 5th Mogul Emperor
Shah Jehan in the 17th century) many arched, and a Persian inscription
running the full length of the building. There were glimpses of silver
railing, a marble dome and screen surrounding the rose covered tomb of
That triggered another memory. On one of our visits back to India
from Tobago to see our grandmother (her name was Shahnur Jehan Begum)
she would be infuriated if I called her a generic “grandmother” in
Bangalore. She had a woman staying with her. Our grandmother obviously
doted on this woman simply known as Cherrie, a shapely divorcee who
dressed in a series of cling film type dresses, perpectually had a long
cigarette between her shapely deep rose stained lips, and spoke with a
husky, worldly voice.
Cherrie was a “Sufi” our grandmother told us. We had no idea what it
meant except it was strange. We accepted Cherrie because our grandmother
loved her and because she, Cherrie, always carried about her an air of
expectancy, of excitement, unpredictability. One night she woke my
sister and I and decided we were going to picnic at the illuminated
Vidhana Soudha (the seat of the state legislature of Karnataka) gardens
where she drank wine, and we hot milk with a dash of brandy from
thermoses (in case we caught a cold), and Burrimummy sipped on brandy.
It is a spectacular rectangular building with 40 feet granite columns
flanked by domes, crowned by a 60 foot dome, the largest legislative
building in India which shone like burnished gold.
She pointed out sounds of whispering trees, the patterns of leaves on
marble, the smell of jasmine, mingling with freshly rained grass, the
symmetry of the building, moon shine. She made us feel and see
everything. We went to Cherrie, to intimate concerts and poetry
readings, of Rumi in people’s homes where Cherrie sat taking deep drags
of her cigarette, leaning luxuriously on the shoulder of a much younger
man which apparently didn’t scandalise either my grandmother or the set
of the arty world she moved in.
In Trinidad, two years ago, I saw a line
by Rumi posted on Facebook which evoked a memory of Cherrie, “The wound
is where the light enters.” I dug out old photos and saw after reading
up on the Sufis and Rumi that actually she wasn’t a hardened rebel in
India, but a wounded woman seeking her way.