Basking in the mellow sun of a Kolkata winter, we share a chillum with Ghulam Fakir, one of the greatest living singers and ascetics of the Fakiri tradition of Bengal. The fresh weed, grown in Ghulam-da’s own backyard, is a knock-out. As the chillum goes around a friend who is a co-organiser of the Baul-Fakir Utsav asks him a question that had also been needling me for a long while.
“Ghulam-da, you’re a religious Muslim. Yet you booze a lot and smoke ganja. Isn’t all that haraam (sinful)?”
Ghulam-da smiles, his whole face that reminds us of his ancestors from Central Asia, and says,”Arre! That’s all big talk of the fundamentalists who think they follow the Shariat. We, who follow the preaching of Lalon Sai, are not bothered about such petty things.”
“Don’t you face resistance for what they consider as iconoclastic practises?” I enquire.
“Yes. They are getting stronger in our village of Gourbhaga also. They receive a lot of money from the Gulf States. You know, I have to tolerate the loud and distorted call of azaan from the mosque near my house five times a day. The muezzin has an awful voice. He has no idea how to use the microphone. Even the birds have left the locality!”
“I’ve heard that in some places the Fakirs have been physically assaulted…”
“That’s right! The situation is bad for us in some districts and especially across the border. But in our village, people like us who follow the Marfat mode of Islam are treated with respect. In fact a few Fakir families from Bangladesh, which is just a few miles away, have crossed over and settled in our village being unable to bear persecution in their homeland. In Gourbhaga the Fakiri tradition derived from the preaching of Sufi saints, Lalon Sai and Shiraj Sai still dominate.”
The chillum comes back to Ghulam-da. He takes a long drag, shuts his eyes and inhales the smoke. After a few minutes, he exhales, picks up his dotara and strums a few sweet notes.
“You know, a very funny incident happened the other day. I was having tea in our local tea-shop when our neighbourhood maulvi arrived there with some of his followers. Our maulvi is young but he is one big egotist. He takes a lot of pride in memorising the entire Koran. On seeing me, he started making snide remarks condemning us Fakirs as alcoholics and drug addicts. He told his sycophants that we all would surely burn in dojakh (The Hell)! Usually, I ignore such comments but that day I could not keep my cool.”
“So, what did you do? “
“I challenged that text-bookish yob! “ “How can you be so sure that we are sinners because we smoke ganja and drink liquor? Can you vouchsafe that the mouth which you label our ways as haraam has never uttered one lie or obscenity? Are you sure a single impure thought has not passed through your brain, the organ which differentiates between haraam and halal (pure)?”
“The maulvi was flabbergasted. His followers were stunned to see that their learned imam was completely at sea. I counselled him not to follow the texts blindly but see the hand of God in everyman and in our daily lives. One must not just memorise the Holy Koran. The true follower is the one who is enamoured by the spirit of love and tolerance that is the basis of the Holy Book.”
The chillum goes around one last time. Ghulam-da strums his dotara and then starts to hum a couplet by Lalon Sai in his deep and sonorous voice:
Paap punyer katha aami
Kar-e je sudhai?
E deshe ja paap gonyo
Onyo deshe punyo tai!
Whom do I ask
What is wrong and what is right?
A sin in this land
Is considered divine in another!