Mullah Mchungu has promoted himself to a motorized wheelchair; he zips into my living room as soon as I open the door, as if escaping an assailant. I catch a glimpse of a vehicle backing out of my driveway and speeding away, the grim face of a youngish woman full of venom behind the wheels.
DIL these days, taubah! Is it my fault I am almost an invalid? She expected me to help her haul this wheelchair from the trunk. Is she a bloody lunatic?
Oh dear, I groan inwardly, is this going to be another combative session with this old grump? The Mullah is talking about his daughter in law who has (happily, I assume, just to get him off her hair for a few hours) just dropped him off. I met him briefly at jooma the other day but did not have time to greet or ask about his health since he was busy greeting others at the center, having returned to Sanford after a long hiatus. I study him now; he looks okay for an 80 plus man, especially since he was almost ready to croak not so long ago. He still carries an aura of defiance, meanness and perpetual confrontation about him, but the nasty danda he carried around is gone, now that he can torment others with his wheelchair; I feel a bit safer.
Sallam Mullah, how are you? I ask. You look good. How was your flight over, other than it being long?
Never mind how I am. My hemorrhoids always tend to get agitated on these long trips. Other than that, I’ll somehow survive until the angel of death comes knocking. What is the matter with these modern girls? Have they no empathy for people like us? I wonder what Ali saw in her...
I shrug my shoulders, not wanting anything to do with his protracted family feuds. I busy myself with making him tea and preparing a plate of saltines and cookies. As usual, the man says nothing until he enjoys and finishes the cuppa, asking for another, dunking the cookies in the steaming tea to soften them for his grinning dentures. Alhamd’Allah, the Mullah, like me, has seen the light and divorced from the use of cancer sticks, so I don’t have to mess around with taking him to the patio outside, setting him up with improvised ashtrays or tolerating, for hours afterwards, the lingering awful stink of cheap beedis around the house. It is also quite nippy here in Sanford this late February, and I have no desire changing from the little I am wearing, in the comfort of my warm house. The Mullah regards me quietly as I clear up, wash and stack the dishes to dry, giving me a creepy, uncomfortable feeling of a prey about to be pounced on.
You don’t seem to be a man dying, Kisukaali. You look very healthy, better than last time I saw you. What is all this emotional stuff about you dying any day now?
I sigh, come over and sit by him, but not too close, just in case.
No Mullah, I say resignedly, I am not dying, not anytime soon anyway, I hope, insha’Allah. The doctors have detected a nasty intruder in my system, but they are divided on treatment and recovery, if at all. I am going through treatment and a strict exercise regiment. I feel completely fine, without any symptoms whatsoever.
Well, you have had many people scared, I included.
Kisukaali, tell me, what is your Hindu name?
I stare at the guy, startled. He has this uncanny ability, to change the subject and catch me off-guard. Has he lost his marbles, finally? Hindu name? The Mullah firmly knows I am a Muslim, so why the obviously silly and stupid question? I open my mouth to protest but the guy sneers at me and holds out a quivering hand, stopping my protest.
Yes, I know you are Muslim, but your forefathers weren’t, na? All of us Khojas have Hindu surnames, like Kanji, Walji, Hirji, Bhimji, Somji…I am a Whatyoumaycallit. What are you? You can’t be a Yusufali. So, what is your Hindu name, past Yusufali?
The guy has me stumped; I have no clue. I tell him so. Mullah flashes me dentures so white, the makers of Polident would want to hang their heads in shame. The guy makes me (and others) think he is smiling at them, but that is not so; the dentures are ill fitting, giving him a look of sporting a permanent goofy smile.
Ah, your forefathers were smart. They did not want to publicize their Khoja identity; that’s why they changed the last name and buried the Khoja one. He taps his forehead, winks at me conspiringly and repeats, Smart!
I want to give him a litany of reasons why my forefathers were far from being ashamed, rather, were mighty proud of their Khoja identity. But we’ve had this debate before, and I want to avoid another one.
You know Kisukaali, the Mullah says after a while. I thought you were different from the regular crowd, had some steel ones on you. But I am obviously wrong. I come to the US thinking we Khoja’s might change from our adamant adherence to rituals that have no place in Islam. The education system in the West is set up to give us a more rounded schooling, one that thinks out of a box. I still cling to the hope this will change our young minds eventually, but I have my doubts. Old geezers like me are hell bent on transferring their mindsets to the new blood. I think our Imam (a), when he comes, soon insha’Allah, will find us still deeply stuck in useless rituals at our centers.
I am not going to fall for the bait the Mullah dangles at me; I remain mum. He repeats his act of shutting his eyes as if asleep; only to open them when I begin to fret and commence a rant that lasts up to the time his combative DIL returns to pick him up.
Kisukaali, I have lectured you at length about some of the useless stuff we do at HIC previously. Today I’ll just talk about our addiction to shaking hands. By Allah, it is an epidemic, I tell you.
I stare at the guy. Is he serious? What is wrong with shaking hands?
I have to shake hands with my salaat neighbors after fajr, after zohr, after asr, after magreeb, after ishaa, left and right, and over, some of us creating a nuisance, going the other way. Some nuts also turn around and shake hands with the people at the rear. It’s like a bloody traffic snarl in Mumbai, sometimes, I tell you! Some don’t want to wait their turn and thrust their hand across their neighbor’s belly. And then, and then, after it’s all over, you get up, make a line and shake hands with everybody. Again! What bakwaas. Even heroin does not have that strong an obsession! Thank Allah we are not a 10,000 community, else we’d have to spend two days a week just shaking sweaty, miserable hands…
I want to laugh, but contain myself with some difficulty. However, I point out to Mullah that shaking hands after prayers is a recommended deed, practiced by all communities, not Khoja’s only.
Exactly! We Khojas blindly copy other community’s traditions and then make it Gospel. A man goes to Mumbai, hears a dua he likes at a certain center in Pala Ghali, comes here and voila, it is incorporated into ours, like it or not. Let us all introduce our favorite duas here and see where we end up.
Hmm, Mullah Mchungu does have a point here, I think.
But Mullah Saheb, I start, not wanting the old man to have the last word...
Bah! Bas! Do you have any, even a weak one, hadeeth that says our Aimaas (a) shook hands after every salaat, then formed lines and people waited, in turn, to shake hands with each other? Share it with me and I’ll shake your hands until kingdom comes.