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A test of mettle

  • Published at 10:17 pm June 23rd, 2016
A test of mettle

Growing up in Bangladesh, Ramadan was always a festive occasion for my family and the community in general. Preparations for the blessed month would start right from the Shab-e-Barat holiday, culminating in the sighting of the moon and the first Taraweeh prayer of the year.

It is hard to explain to someone who has not witnessed it firsthand, how the prospect of fasting during the day for an entire month takes on this odd mix of sanctity and festiveness. Waking up in the wee hours of dawn for sehri, counting down the last few minutes before iftar, planning the things to do (and food to eat!) on Eid day, all of it becomes part of the celebration. I still recall those Ramadan months I spent back in my hometown, with a large family of cousins, nieces and nephews. The whole neighborhood used to come alive at sehri time, with night guards calling out loudly to wake people up, kitchens abuzz with the sounds of meals being prepared, and us youngsters trying our best to keep our eyes open. On the other end of the day, a sweet serenity used to descend minutes before iftar, with everyone seated round the table, offering their heartfelt prayers before breaking fast. One rather misses those moments today, with tiny families cooped up in small apartment units.

Growing up, a lot of things have changed about Ramadan. Gone are the days of month-long school vacations. The focus has moved away from what delicacies to have for iftar, or what new outfits to get this Eid. Ramadan has been invaded by grown-up things like budgeting for the month, getting all errands done after tiring hours at work, and let us not even get started on the plight of those who need to procure tickets to go home for Eid.

Yet the magic of the month has not really diminished. For me personally, Ramadan has become a celebration of human willpower. It seems to me that for this one month at least, we all function at the very peak of our abilities, presenting our very best to the world.

From the religious point of view, one of the characteristics of Ramadan is that on this month, God makes some permissible things impermissible, even if only for a certain number of hours every day. Thus we are forbidden from food and drink during daytime, and are expected to offer extra prayers in the evenings. This is not a lifestyle that can be sustained all year round, and in a sense that is the point of Ramadan.

For one month, we are expected to push ourselves to our limits, with the hope that being able to do this successfully will carry over in our lives for the rest of the year. For one month, we are expected to restrain all our baser urges, and remind ourselves that we are more than just a more intelligent sort of animal.

The second takeaway from Ramadan for me is a sense of gratitude. I do not refer here to the somewhat clichéd concept of gratitude that we have food on the table and loved ones to share a meal with, even though that is also a crucial component of it. For me, there is a deeper component to the feeling of gratitude that this month evokes.

Once again, this might be hard to explain to all but those who have witnessed it firsthand, but the feeling of being able to observe the month of Ramadan properly can be very fulfilling. There is an immense sense of accomplishment in being able to fast the full month, in being able to offer all the prayers, particularly for those like me who often miss out around the year. There is a return to fundamentals, and a simultaneous rise to the ethereal.

Just last week, we shared a meal with some extended family members where we all got to sit around the iftar table and listen to an elder talk about the life of prophet Abraham. It occurred to me then that this is not something that would have been possible at any other time of the year. In your run-off-the-mill dinner parties, even if the whole family does somehow come together, topics are constrained to the usual politics, the price of goods and the usual griping about work and life in general. I realised then, that Ramadan gives us an opportunity to change our very mindset. It turns us, even if only for a month, into people who revisit our roots, the core of our beliefs, and ponder how we should be leading our lives today in alignment with those beliefs.

Even as an adult weighed down by the world, more than a little cynical, I am grateful for the month of Ramadan. I am grateful of this reminder that we are more than our bank balance, our degrees and designations. We are headed towards more than the next big project at work or the next vacation. I am grateful to be part of a tradition that reminds me that we are not alone, that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. This is what Ramadan offers to me, and I hope that I can make the best of this opportunity this year, and in the years to come. Ramadan Kareem to everyone, and an advance Eid Mubarak!

The writer is a senior lecturer at Brac University