Supplication by Neera Kashyap

The dream must have occurred between sleep and waking for I was aware of a deep stillness pervading my mind and body, lasting until dawn. I waited for Rohit to wake up. He listened, his sleep-lined face alert and murmured, ‘There's something here. It's worth finding out. I haven't seen you look so relaxed in years.’


I took leave from work and went to a library where Rohit had an institutional guest membership for a year. It was very plush but I hardly noticed. As I scanned the computer catalogue for Muslim male saints and came across names and orders I had never heard of, my eyes fell on the notice board. There was a single newspaper clipping in the centre of the board with the title, 'The other Sufis: Jaya Das goes in search of Delhi's women saints'. I stood up, transfixed, greedily absorbing four columns of text and two colour plates of a tomb's exterior and interior. Both the women were associated with Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. Bibi Fatima Sam had died when Nizamuddin Auliya was still a boy. The other was Bibi Zulekha or Mai Sahiba, his mother.


I read everything I could lay my hands on, even ploughing through scholarly articles on JStor. I located Mai Sahiba's dargah on Google maps. Except as a tourist, I had never gone to a dargah before and had no idea if there were any special rules I needed to observe. I called our Muslim receptionist Majida to ask her as casually as I could. Her tone gave nothing away. ‘No ma'am, nothing special. You have to remove your shoes before going in, that's all.’


‘Yes, what about the head covering? Does one tie the dupatta in a special way?’


I could feel her hesitation. ‘No ma'am. Just covering the head is fine. The dupatta must fall over the right shoulder.’ There was a pause. ‘There is a women's section for prayers. Women don't enter the Mazar sharif, the inner chamber, which has the male saint's grave.’


‘What about a woman saint?’


‘Everyone can pray at the dargah of a woman saint.’ She added, ‘You can offer rose petals. They are sold outside in small baskets.’


I choose Wednesday to go. That was the day Hazrat Nizamuddin would visit his mother's tomb to pray. I walk through a narrow lane off a busy road. There is the smell of roasted wheat. A shopkeeper is making rumali rotis on a rounded tawa. Next to him is a workshop for tyre repairs. The tomb is at the end of the lane. I enter a covered courtyard with a single large table where a woman is selling flowers, rosaries, incense sticks, prayer caps and rose petals in round baskets. There are women beggars who sit, hands raised to the sky, but don’t ask for money. I have already covered my head tightly. I slip off my sandals, enter a large hall with floors lined with striped matting. Just as I turn to the shrine to my right, I realise I haven’t bought the flowers.


The shrine has a strong unfamiliar fragrance. It is enclosed by silver pillars, railings and arched entrances with a carved flower pattern. There is a marble railing above the silver one with jali work. Beads hang from the top of the frame in short trails of silver. Bunches of chrysanthemums and roses cling to the frame’s sides. They have faded. A dome rises above the grave, its painted flower patterns and etched calligraphy lit by arched glass windows catching the sun. There is a chandelier above the grave. I finally look at the grave. It is raised and covered by two sheets, the lower one is a shiny purple with large gold circles, and the top is bright yellow with beads and embroidery. It is covered with rose petals.


I let a teenage boy pass and watch him kneel, place his forehead on the grave, then turn his head from side to side, touching the covered tombstone with both eyes. His head disappears under the sheets for a long while in prayer. On rising, he places all fingers on the sheet, and then brings them to his lips. He stands murmuring, then moves away quickly. All I can manage to do is kneel, bring my forehead and palms down on the rough brocade. The fragrance fills my nostrils.


I move to a corner and fall into a cross-legged crouch. The matting area is small. A green haze fills the shrine. An old woman in worn clothes stands to one side. Her hands are held up, her gaze fixed pleadingly on the shrine, her body rocking back and forth. Despite the silver plated metal, the chandelier and lamps, the shrine is not well off.  Mai Sahiba came from an elite family but spent most of her life in poverty, a widowed weaver raising two young children on her own. When there was nothing to eat, she would say, ‘Nizam, today we are the guests of Allah!’ I looked at the grave of the daughter, Bibi Jannat, to the mother's right, enclosed in low marble jali. She married, had a daughter, Bibi Zainab, also buried here somewhere.


Three young women come in together. Their heads are firmly covered but none of them wears a veil. They kneel one by one at Mai Sahiba's shrine, then sit down to murmur lines from a book held up by the woman in the center. Heads bent, engrossed, they read like they are praying. Hazrat Nizamuddin said of his mother that when she prayed, she appeared to be in direct communication with God, her prayers accepted without delay. Every month when he sighted the new moon, he would seek her blessings by placing his head on her feet. Then one evening, she asks him, ‘Nizam, at whose feet shall you place your head next month?’ Her son counters her tearfully and asks, ‘In whose care will you entrust me?’ She replies she that she will let him know the next day and sends him to sleep in the house of a saintly neighbor. In the early hours of the next morning, he is urgently fetched by his mother's woman attendant. Mai Sahiba holds her son's right hand. Breathing her last, she whispers, ‘O Allah, I entrust him to Thee.’


More than an hour passes, yet I have not been able to ask for anything. Many people, mostly women and children, have come and gone. The only people left are the old woman and me. She is still beseeching, rocking back and forth. I am still in a corner, crouched and uncertain. A young man wearing a scruffy grey kurta and a plastic prayer cap appears with a duster and proceeds to clean the railings. I feel him peering at me several times. My dream returns to me: a bearded holy man under a banyan tree looks at me with compassion, asks me to visit his mother's grave, says I will find it easily. I suddenly remember that a prayer room Mai Sahiba used still existed near her grave. What would a prayer room in a tomb be called?


I approach the man and whisper in Hindi, ‘Where did Mai Sahiba pray?’ He doesn't understand me. So I gesture prayer with slightly cupped hands raised and say Mai Sahiba twice. He looks at me with suspicion, but flicks his duster towards the back of the shrine. I take a step down to see a small dark doorway to one side. I feel my way with my foot. Inside the prayer room, the light comes from two low openings, one from the shrine and the other from a shaft. I sink to the ground facing the shrine. A thick woolen carpet covers the ground. It is instantly comforting. I slump forward and find myself kneeling. There is nothing here, no pictures, no flowers, no incense, no fragrance: just the view of a silver pillar in the shrine and an unswept shaft.


I breathe deeply and wait for my anxiety to settle. In this eight-hundred-year-old dark cell, emotions well up in waves. She had prayed here constantly. She could communicate directly. Mai Sahiba, I am so scared. I am so scared the cancer has returned. The symptoms are all there, only worse than the first time. Four places this time. I am so scared for the baby. What will the baby do when I have cancer? I can only go through the treatment again for the baby’s sake, for Rohit’s. But what if it doesn’t work? I don’t know you, Mai Sahiba but they say you listen to the prayers of women, listen with love. Do you think you can help me? I know I won’t be able to cope with the baby and the cancer and the work, even if I give up the work. Can you help me? I don’t want the courage to cope … I just don’t want the cancer … I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die once the baby comes. It would break my heart, it would break Rohit’s. Mai Sahiba, Mai … please help me, please help us.


My body is so racked with sobs, I have to gulp for air. I reach for my dupatta but it is tied tightly at my back. I let the tears flow, let them collect beneath my nose, let them wet my chest with warmth. I am so exhausted I slouch against the wall. I look at the ceiling. It is flat. My eyes close. In my mind, I say her name again and again, asking for nothing. A calm replaces my exhaustion, slowly first then deeply. I recognise this as the calm of acceptance. I search for disappointment. There is none. I stir at last and am startled to find the old woman standing on the threshold. She is not rocking, not beseeching, just staring at the shrine. As I rise to leave, she moves to squat before the opening. In the dim hall beyond the doorway, I glance at the signboard on the wall. It says, ‘Mai Sahiba Hazrat Bibi wishes you good health, happiness and success.’


My steps quicken and I follow a woman who seems to know the exit. We enter a large hall which runs at the back of the building parallel to the shrine. It is empty. I note the woman is very well dressed. Her dupatta is fine and lacey. She scatters a basket of rose petals over a grave walled by a marble trellis enclosure. This must be the granddaughter – Mai’s granddaughter.


In the front courtyard, yellow rice is being distributed free on leaf plates. I take a plate and bow to the man in gratitude. The beggar women now swoop down on me, clamouring for money. I put my leaf plate on a parapet and give them money generously. As I close my purse, one of the women hands over my plate of rice to me. We smile. In the lane, the tyre shop is now busier than the shop making rumali rotis.


Rohit is astounded that I want to go alone to get the biopsy report. For once, he does not argue, lets me go. I don’t want his fear, just don’t want it around.


I arrive at the hospital at the dot of noon. I must be the first to pick up my envelope from the lab’s front office, for there is a sheaf of reports waiting to be claimed. I make my way down a passage and enter an empty room meant for changing into medical gowns. I lock myself in. I open the report. The room is just the size of Mai’s prayer cell.



Neera Kashyap has worked as a newspaper journalist, specialising in environmental journalism, social/health communication and research. She has authored a small book of short stories for young adults, Daring to Dream, Rupa & Co, 2003 and contributed to three anthologies from Children’s Book Trust. Her essays have interpreted scriptures and ancient literatures for print journals such as Mountain Path and Life Positive. Her short fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction have appeared in literary journals such as The Earthen Lamp Journal, Muse India, The Bombay Literary MagazineReading Hour, Out of Print Blog, Aainanagar, Cerebration, Ashvamegh and Kritya. She lives in Delhi.