He’d risen from his cot under one of the many arches of the madrasa and had religiously made his way for Fajr. As the sun rose behind him, a part of his mind flitted to the prospect of whether or not anything new would happen today. For the last fifty years, he’d looked after the madrasa and had spent his days watching the world from his stool that stood at the entrance. As the sky’s colours changed, as if a brush was sweeping together colours on a palette, Majhul hoped, like he did every day, that someone new would enter the ruins of this madrasa and feel what he felt. In the moment that someone else did, even if for just that moment, he’d know he wasn’t alone, or crazy.
So he took up his spot again and ate his first meal for the day. He imagined what it would have been like, to live here all those years ago. Distancing himself from the sounds of the traffic that consumed the roads, he transported himself to 1561, where he wasn’t in the midst of ruins. With only a place that was hardly visited, a mosque where only a few men gathered and only his imagination of a time that he’d never experience, Majhul would get through his day the same way he had been for years now. He’d wait for visitors to turn up, he’d crave the comfort of a single conversation and hope that someone would make him feel less lonely for a single moment.
For the last fifty years, he’d looked after the madrasa and had spent his days watching the world from his stool that stood at the entrance. As the sky’s colours changed, as if a brush was sweeping together colours on a palette, Majhul hoped, like he did every day, that someone new would enter the ruins of this madrasa and feel what he felt.
The day passed and all he saw was traffic. Across the road, the Old Fort was buzzing as usual. People lined up by the dozen to buy their tickets at the gate to the daunting fortress. The cameras would start clicking before the visitors even stepped into the main courtyard, and instead of admiration and love for the history that they were surrounded by, they would be caught up in the matter of which area would be the most scenic for their next pictures on social media.
Now social media was still a concept relatively foreign to Majhul. He’d heard about it, been asked why he wasn’t on Facebook, or why he didn’t get someone to put up a video on YouTube to attract more visitors, or why he didn’t know whether the information he told his few visitors was what was to be found on the vast expanse of something they said was called Google. All he knew about it truthfully, is that it was something on the internet that had gotten people into a constant battle of showing off. The best pictures, the best food, the best clothes, the best places, who was winning this race? But to him, the gatekeeper of the history that survived amidst the four walls of the Khair-ul-manazil, what use was this?
Majhul would get through his day the same way he had been for years now. He’d wait for visitors to turn up, he’d crave the comfort of a single conversation and hope that someone would make him feel less lonely for a single moment.
Every day, the madrasa let him into a new secret from Maham Anga’s day and age. Every day, he woke up and wore one of the three pairs of clothes he owned, prayed, and fell back into the stories of the 1500s. When history had opened itself up to him with the crumbling walls he was surrounded by, what use was this race to him?
“As-salaam alaikum bhai jaan.”
Majhul tore his eyes away from the scene opposite the road and turned his head over his shoulder to the tall man who had just greeted him.
“Wa-alaikum salaam,” he responded with a smile.
This man, Alvan, was one of the only visitors this mosque received, apart from the pigeons who were fed here. The men who visited, including Alvan, would leave behind the grain that would be spread out in the courtyard for those most devoted and attached to the madrasa. For now however, it was approaching sundown and Alvan and a few other men who were drifting in, would join Majhul for the evening prayers.
All he knew about it truthfully, is that it was something on the internet that had gotten people into a constant battle of showing off. The best pictures, the best food, the best clothes, the best places, who was winning this race? But to him, the gatekeeper of the history that survived amidst the four walls of the Khair-ul-manazil, what use was this?
These men made up the only community Majhul had ever come to know. The madrasa was home to Majhul but was almost as integral a part to their lives. Together, they had formed a pseudo-society that kept this place, a place hidden away from the hustle of Delhi life even in the centre of the city, alive. They never came, only to offer prayers. Instead, they offered their companionship to their bhai jaan, combined their efforts to clean the grounds and for a short while, their voices filled the madrasa, a place that usually echoed only with words Majhul conjured up when he fell back into the past.
When these voices grew louder, Majhul would forget where he was. Their voices made it easier for him to pretend the time was that of Akbar and Maham Anga, not of the traffic on the road outside. He moved from his stool at the gate to where the entrance to one of the destroyed staircases began. Just like everyone, he had been forbidden from attempting to ascend these many years ago by the last caretaker, and now despite his upgraded status he had never made it to the first floor. But he had seen it many times. Even now, the chambers upstairs was where he found himself, not standing before the staircase that barely existed. These men, his companions, despite their affection to the madrasa and to Majhul, would never truly feel what he felt when he looked around.
“Bhai jaan,” Alvan’s voice was louder.
Majhul spun around quickly, realizing that he had been lost upstairs.
“Chaliye, waqt ho gaya hai.”
He followed them to the central arch, where the five men came together in their faith. But unlike the others, who would go home to their families, Majhul’s prayers centred on a cure for his loneliness and on the loneliness of the mosque.
The next day, Majhul’s routine stayed untouched.
For some reason that day, he decided to step outside and inch closer to the traffic he usually only watched from a distance. It was hard to explain but Majhul could feel himself getting restless, anxious even. Today, for the first time in a long, long time, Majhul felt the need to step away from the shelter Maham Anga had built for him.
As he stepped outside, he turned his head towards the board within the compound that attempted to encapsulate the history of his house in a few lines for the stray tourists. But far from what he was expecting, Majhul found a little girl, not more than sixteen, standing before the board with her head turned towards him. While he worried about how she had found herself here, in the compound of his isolated house, he heard a voice on his right and realized that a woman, most likely her mother, was on the phone. He looked back at the girl, still found her turned towards him and smiled. He didn’t know whether it was the lack of interaction with anyone other than Alvan and his friends, that made him smile but he didn’t think that was all it was. Something about this little girl brought a smile to his face but he couldn’t explain it. Instead, he looked back towards the ground, walked till the gate, changed his mind about stepping away from his house and turned to walk back in.
Today, for the first time in a long, long time, Majhul felt the need to step away from the shelter Maham Anga had built for him.
Resuming his seat at the entrance, this time he found himself shifting his attention from the road and the fort outside, to the little girl and her mother. The girl was tugging at her mother’s arm, and frantically inching towards the entrance but her mother was entirely absorbed by the phone call. Finally, when the call did end, the pair began engaging in a conversation that really seemed to distress the little girl, a fact that seemed to upset Majhul for some reason.
Unaware of the contents of the conversation, he tried his best to grasp at what they could be talking about but years filled with the lack of human equations, and a significant language barrier, made it impossible. Then he switched mediums. Studying the older woman, he found himself almost sensing fear, or at least apprehension. Was she scared of entering? Why? Was it because of him? Because it was a mosque? Because he was Muslim?
But far from what he was expecting, Majhul found a little girl, not more than sixteen, standing before the board with her head turned towards him.
Finally, he caught their eyes. Smiling as warmly as he could, he gestured for them to enter. The little girl took the opportunity to firmly take hold of her mother’s hand and lead her to the entrance. Stopping at the stool, they greeted Majhul.
“Wa-alaikum salaam,” Majhul replied, taken aback because he had not taken the duo to be Muslim or to be familiar with the mannerisms.
“Hume andar aana mana toh nahi hai?”
“Mana kyun hoga?”
“Hum auraatein hain?” the mother replied quizzically, almost as though she had silenced the word Hindu.
“Toh kya ho gaya behen?” Majhul was severely confused. He knew the rules of his faith, the rules that didn’t permit women into the mosques. But this wasn’t an ordinary mosque. This was his house, a house that he shared with his faith. A house that had also evolved as a tribute to history. Why would they be denied? Hadn’t he indicated that they were welcome?
But he continued.
“Yahaan waise zyaada log aate nahi hain. Zyaada kuch dekhno ko hai nahi na.”
Gesturing towards the little girl, the lady spoke, “Iss ko bohot man tha aane ka. Kheech ke le aayi hai mujhe yahaan.”
“Sach hai, yahaan sirf woh hi log aate hain jin par allah ki meher hoti hai.”
For a reason that Majhul would not understand, the two looked at each other and smiled, almost as though they were sharing a joke.
Was she scared of entering? Why? Was it because of him? Because it was a mosque? Because he was Muslim?
Slowly, he watched the girl slip away from conversation and circle around, almost in awe of his home. He was trying to focus on what her mother was saying and was responding almost mechanically, because from the corner of his eye, he could see something magical happening. As she circled and twirled in her place, grasping for elements of the mosque, taking in the history that oozed from the empty four walls and the stones that were on the verge of ruin, tears were forming in her eyes. He couldn’t understand it initially, and she seemed just as confused. But then maybe his words were true. Maybe it was the blessings that had drawn her to his house, maybe this place was just as good for her as she was for the place.
The last time he had seen this happen, a young boy had stumbled into his house looking for shelter and he had seen the tears in his eyes, for the warmth and comfort the mosque offered. But this was different, the girl didn’t seem to need anything. Perhaps, silence is what she came looking for and instead she had found the echoes of history.
Then her eyes stopped at the central arch, and for the first time that she had entered, she seemed hesitant.
“Dua maang lo,” his voice seemed more authoritative than he had intended but he could sense the need.
There was a red rope marking an entrance to the arch, and as expected the duo stopped again.
“Mana nahi hai. Allah ek hai, chahe aap hindu ho yaa musallman. Dua maang lo, aur allah sunega.”
The duo didn’t move, despite the urging.
“Rassi tak toh jaah sakte ho, agar aage tak nahi jaana hai.”
The eagerness in the girl came alive with every word Majhul spoke. This time, gently, she grabbed her mother’s hand and walked beside her instead of leading her, almost as if she needed her next to her. Together, they stopped at the rope and folded their hands, and wished.
Majhul, observing the girl, saw the tears flow down with more ease. She wasn’t sobbing, but something was troubling her nonetheless. As she opened her eyes, she caught Majhul looking and he smiled. She breathed what seemed like a sigh of relief.
Before he knew what had happened, the duo returned to their original spot, thanked him, and they were gone with the next car that whizzed by.
As she circled and twirled in her place, grasping for elements of the mosque, taking in the history that oozed from the empty four walls and the stones that were on the verge of ruin, tears were forming in her eyes.
Written by Meher Sachdeva
Meher Sachdeva has been living out many different lives since she was five years old. While formally a student of political science and philosophy, she’s been tied to the performing arts since she started dancing at the age of five. She is currently also exploring how the worlds of business and art interact by working as an artist manager. She discovered her love for the written word while exploring the bookshelves of her local library with her grandmother. She loves writing poetry and fiction that is reflective of human relationships, religion, faith and conflicts.