In 2006, I was invited for lunch by a close relative, Yawar, at his spacious bungalow in Karachi’s DHA area. When I arrived, I found him sitting with a dozen or so men in his drawing room. 

After getting up to greet me, he quietly apologised, saying that since he was the ‘chairman’ of the area’s ‘residents committee’, he could not decline a request by other members for an urgent meeting. In fact, he asked me to attend it too.

The matter being discussed had to do with some members demanding that the monthly committee meetings be held at a fixed venue instead of at their homes. Various options were being aired in this regard — Golf Club, Creek Club, the Karachi Gymkhana — until one Zahoor Sahib, a middle-aged man, suggested that the committee start holding its meetings at the area’s mosque after Friday prayers, every third Friday of the month. 

Instantly, consensus was reached. Well, almost. Because three men remained conspicuously silent. Finally, one of them, Munawwar sahib, a man who seemed to be in his late forties and who owned a chain of utility stores, spoke (in Urdu): “Friends, how do you plan to get Henry sahib and Mr Anosh into the mosque?”

The other two who had remained quiet were Henry sahib and Mr Anosh. Both members of the committee, seemingly in their sixties and residents of the same area, were non-Muslims. Henry sahib was a Christian, I believe Catholic, whereas Mr Anosh was a Zoroastrian (Parsi). 

Religious bigotry can sometimes even unnoticeably colour our sense of community

An awkward silence descended upon the room. Mr Anosh began to stare at the ceiling, while softly scratching his throat, and Henry sahib began to stare at the carpet underneath his feet, as if closely examining the beautiful designs on it. My relative suddenly turned towards me and asked, “Nadeem, what do you think? Would it be possible?”

Taken aback, I just shrugged my shoulders: “I’m not very good at these things, but since these two gentlemen are residents of the area and ...” Zahoor sahib cut me off: “We can ask Imam sahib!”

Now, apparently, this Imam sahib was not the imam of the mosque, but an aged person who was treated as a ‘religious scholar’ by the residents. He and his wife delivered religious lectures to the men and women of the area every three months or so. 

“Friends, why are you complicating matters for Mr Anosh and Mr Henry?” Munawwar sahib asked. “Why create an issue? We can meet somewhere else, unless we are looking to get some extra sawaab from the Almighty by having our committee meetings at a mosque.”

This did not go down well with Zahoor sahib: “Yaar, Munawwar, you hardly come to the mosque. Maybe our meetings will be able to make you come and pray there more often...”

There was laughter all round. But none from Mr Anosh or Henry sahib.

“If I may,” I politely interrupted, “why not ask Henry sahib and Anosh sahib?” 

Munawar sahib agreed: “Absolutely! They contribute to the funds of the committee as much as any one of us. And they have a vote too.”

Unfortunately, this suggestion seemed to have made Henry sahib and Mr Anosh even more uncomfortable.

“No, no, you guys do what you think is right ...” Mr Anosh said, evasively. 

Then Henry spoke: “You can have the meetings there [at the mosque] and can update us...”

“Thank you,” said Zahoor sahib, “so we all agree on this then?” Some quietly nodded their heads, and some softly said ‘yes’.

But in came Munawwar sahib again: “In that case, I suggest, the monthly maintenance bills of Anosh sahib and Henry sahib be slightly less than ours.”

“And why so?” asked one Danish sahib. 

“Because, if we use the mosque for our meetings, maulvi sahib will rightly ask us to contribute to the mosque’s electricity bill. That would be added to our individual maintenance fee. Why should these two men pay additional charges if they are not even there?”

“The mosque will charge us?” asked Danish sahib, surprised. “But we already pay for its upkeep.” 

“We can ask Imam sahib,” said Munawwar sahib, sarcastically. I tried my best not to smile but no one else in the room treated Munawwar sahib’s comment as a sarcastic jab. Instead, they now began to discuss the topic of a mosque charging a fee from its funders.They shared relevant hadith, quotes from the holy book, and quotes from Imam sahib, until Danish announced, “We already pay for the mosque! For its electricity, water, gas...”

“It has a gas connection too?” someone asked. 

“Maulvi sahib and his family have to eat too, brother. So they cook in the rooms where they live, connected to the mosque,” Zahoor sahib replied. 

So it was agreed. They would meet at the mosque (and Mr Anosh and Henry sahib would have to pay as much maintenance fee as everyone else). 

Years later, in 2017, I was driving through another posh locality of Karachi — Bath Island — when I saw Munawwar sahib walking briskly on a street. I stopped my car to say hello. “Assalamalaikum, Munawwar sahib, do you recognise me?” 

“Jee, jee, I do. How are you?” he replied.

“What are you doing here in Bath Island?” I asked. 

“I now live here,” he said. 

“Where are you walking to so hastily? Let me give you a lift.” I offered. 

“No, no, it’s quite alright,” he said. “I’m just going to that mosque over there.”

“Munawwar sahib, I grew up in this area,” I said to him. “Friday prayers ended an hour ago in that mosque...”

He laughed: “No, little brother. I am going there to attend a meeting of our residents’ committee.”

“Really?” I smiled widely, thinking he was joking. “Even in this area?” 

“Boss, this area or that, what does it matter? People are the same everywhere,” he smiled back. 

“How did the mosque meetings at DHA go?” I asked. 

“Didn’t Yawar tell you?” he asked.

This is what happened: Munawwar sahib sold his house in DHA (he didn’t say when). Since he had continued to insist on including Mr Anosh and Henry sahib in the meetings, some members of the committee started to suspect he was from a ‘heretical’ sect, although he wasn’t. Even though these members were admonished by others for saying this, Munawwar left the area with his family.

“What about here?” I asked. “Are there no Anoshs or Henrys living here?”

“I’m sure there are,” he replied. “But I have learned to ignore them. I’m sure you can understand.”

Saying this, he bid me farewell, and walked away.

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 3rd, 2020


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