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     Volume 6 Issue 38 | September 28, 2007 |

   Cover Story
   A Roman Column
   View from the    Bottom
   Writing the Wrong
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A Roman Column

An Elusive Hour

Neeman Sobhan

It's fresh, it's free and it's readily available everyday, yet now that I need it, it eludes me like an evanescent butterfly. Being an early riser I am normally able to snare it, embrace its beauty, and meditate in its mercurial grace. But just now, when I need to do business within its fleeting passage, it escapes me.

I am talking about the Italian Alba, the Latin and English Aurora and the Islamic Subah Sadiq or true dawn. I am speaking petulantly about the hour of the ending of Sehri and the beginning of the fast, of that elusive time just before "the white thread becomes distinct from the black thread….." (2:187). Everyday since Ramzan started I am making and breaking my appointment with this mysteriously veiled hour of the day. By the time I wake up, daylight has already cracked open its shell and the newly-birthed morrow has winged across the horizon.

This is particularly humiliating for me, since, as I mentioned before, I am by habit an early riser and by nature a creature of the small hours when night, ready to depart, is at its stillest and day is but a hope for light. And what happens to all this poetry of reveille when that special month arrives with its injunctions regarding rituals starting at an hour for which my temperament and habit are ideally suited? Ironically, instead of effortlessly waking for Sehri at a comfortable time, my usual waking time anyway, I find myself rousing to find the moment passed and the nocturnal sky bleached, laundered and hung out to dry! And I am left either rushing or forfeiting my breakfast or pre-fast breakfast, or whatever the Sehri meal should be called! This last is not the reason for my frustration but the fact that I may actually have to resort to that most barbarous of inventions---the alarm clock!

This would be a low blow indeed to my pride at being the only member of my family whose inner clock is deemed more reliable than an alarm clock and regularly requested by others to 'please wake me before 6 or 7.' Alas! Ramzan seems to have knocked the daylights out of me! Every morning, I find I have slept beyond the Fajr hour.

Scrambling for breakfast is neither my style nor my experience and not because I don't eat eggs but because that stance of rushing is against the spirit of the early riser. The pleasure of rising before others is to relish the peace and quiet, and wallow in serenity over a cup, not to gulp down tea and toast with an eye on the clock.

Normally, I wake before light and walk out to my newly constructed upstairs terrace-balcony. The skyscraping pine tree in my back garden which I peer up to from my ground-floor terrace affords from my upstairs balcony an eye-level intimacy. I pull a chair to the railings and watch the distant hills and valleys take shape from the shadows slowly lifting in the horizon. I tell time from nature's clock hidden in the landscape around me revealing itself with each passing moment. While waiting for the red tile roofs near the skyline to ripen and become visible in the infusing light, I decipher the nearby purple flowering Gelsomino vines cascading between the boundary walls of my neighbour's backyard and mine. When the pots of petunias gushing below on my downstairs terrace reveal their magenta hues I know it's time to face eastward and join the first birds in their anthem of praise and thanks.

Evanescence--Photo: Rafia Ahmad

In this bubble of calm I sit and meditate; walk and wake my muscles; plot and plan my day; read, write and dream my literary fate; and savour the best cup of tea of the day. ALL this before sunrise. And NOW………now that I need to wake before daybreak and have an essential bowl of porridge to sustain me through a fasting day, and have the pleasure of saying the morning prayer in a spiritually enhanced mood, I have joined the throngs of sleepers who need the cockcrow of the alarm clock.

I miss the Sehris of my childhood, being gently woken by family members and invited to a table already laid with a nourishing meal. As I write this during my Roman Sehri, spooning my oats and raw nuts and sipping my anti-oxidant promising green tea, I remember with nostalgia the Sehri-breakfasts in the East and West Pakistan of my childhood. In my parental home in Dhaka cantonment of the sixties, eating parathas, omelettes, halwas and firnis at some magical hour still heavy with night. Then the family would go for a 'morning walk' towards the old pre-Ershad golf course, returning with the azaan filling the sky now blooming with new light.

In Quetta, my father's last posting in West Pakistan, I recall sitting with my family at a gelid hour rubbing our frosty hands around the glowing charcoal fired pipe-stove in my parent's huge bedroom in a colonial house, where my kind and unconventional mother refused to disturb the servants and made a picnic Sehri-meal for us right there on the pipe-stove of the bedroom. The taste of the bread toasted on the fire in an antiquated handheld wire-grid toaster lingers in my memory equally with the shadows of my siblings crowding the walls as we giggled through what we thought was a midnight feast.

A different world, a different Ramzaan, a different dawn. I miss not only the remote past but also the recent past. And by recent I mean last month; yes, I miss my pre-Ramzan dawns. Those were not prescriptive but elective hours, not bound by strict rules and injunctions and made serious, but the spontaneous choice of my heart, embraced with spiritual joy without thought of religious technicalities or of heavenly reward. I still woke early, prayed and had my repast but without any ulterior motives or the fear of infractions and penalties.

I respect the broad structures not the narrow strictures of religion and society. Perhaps between the man-enforced and interpreted technicalities of religion and the divinely programmed intuitions and spiritual impulses we are all endowed with by nature, there is a compromise. I think I will give my body clock and instincts another chance. If tomorrow I have not woken, eaten and prayed before that elusive hour of the white thread and black thread, by the ticking of my inner time-keeper, I will accept defeat and take recourse to the mechanical and false light of a digital dawn. But as Thoreau said, “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.” Huh? I don't know either, ask me after Iftaar.

I not only get the first whiff of morning breath…I meant morning's breath.

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