About 3,800 km away from her home in New Delhi, Rakhshanda Jalil experiences the haj.

It took a visit to the tented city of Mina for me to fully appreciate Indian secularism. The Indian tricolour flying high amid a sea of flags representing different Muslim nation-states stands out a like a beacon for two lakh Indian pilgrims. For wherever there is the Indian flag, surely there is a sign in English, Urdu and Devnagri announcing a lost-and-found counter, a mobile medical dispensary, or a consular official doling out whatever help an Indian haji is likely to need. And it isn’t just at Mina that the Indian bureaucracy — notoriously lethargic but here alert and agile — steps out to lend a helping hand to Indian pilgrims, the bulk of whom come from rural areas. (Many are first-time travellers and most are elderly or infirm.)

It begins from the Indian airports that send over 400 planeloads of hajis and continues every step of the way with the Indian consulate offices in Jeddah, Mecca and Medina reaching out to fill the gaps left by the Saudi officialdom. Those who accuse the government of bending over backwards to appease India’s largest minority possibly cannot imagine the enormous pride one feels at being Indian at such a moment.

Mina, situated at a distance of 8 km from the Sacred Mosque in Mecca, is where the rituals of the actual four days of the haj begin. Preparations for the haj commence long before; they start virtually from the day one makes a niyat (a solemn vow or decision) to set out on the haj, a journey that is, for most Muslims, unlike any other. From that moment on, one begins to recite the talbiyah, a sonorous chant of affirmation: Labbaika, Allah Humma Labbaika (“Here I come, Allah, here I come”). And it is this joyous affirmation that I have been murmuring at odd moments over the past weeks till I find myself here at Mina, 3800-odd km from my home in New Delhi.

Standing beside the camp office of the Indian consular mission on the first day of haj, with the Indian flag fluttering from the nearby tents, I find myself a speck in the vast ocean of humanity that has come from distant parts of the Muslim world. Here I am, one of six million people — all guests of Allah, all united in a common purpose, all drawn by some invisible magnet. The men are dressed alike in two pieces of white unstitched cloth (the ahram, which they must wear for the duration of the haj); the women wear their everyday clothes though they must cover every strand of hair and be accompanied by a mehram, that is, a husband, father, brother or son.

For four nights we share a tent with strangers — there is no segregation between men and women nor is there any purdah; in fact, one of the requirements of the haj is that women must keep their face uncovered.

On the second day we move from Mina to Arafat, a short distance of 10 km to be covered from this year by the much-hyped new metro. Walking, even in the hot sun, would have been better than the endless delays and bottlenecks of a new system that is proving to be more a hindrance than a help. In the plain of Arafat we pray, seek forgiveness, and communicate with Allah with a near-feverish urgency. Standing under the mid-day sun in Arafat is said to be symbolic of the Day of Judgement when every soul will stand before his or her Maker to be judged. A few neem trees, a gift from the late Indira Gandhi for Indian hajis, provide some respite from the searing heat in that otherwise treeless and forbidding plain. All around me the jalal of Allah is like an almost tangible presence raining down from a cloudless sky.

Before nightfall, we must leave Arafat to reach Muzdalifa, 7 km away, where we will rest under the open skies and collect pebbles for the ritual of stoning the devil. Shortly after midnight we walk back to our tent in Mina, catch some sleep and then proceed towards the jamarat (the three pillars that are said to represent Satan). From the pebbles collected at Muzdalifa, we throw seven at each pillar; in the process of this ritualistic stoning, we also stone our own vices and vanities.

On the third day, the men must shave the hair on their head and offer an animal as sacrifice (now a token for 450 Saudi Riyals ensures that a suitable animal is sacrificed and its meat distributed among the poor in far-off lands). Tawwaf (seven circumambulations of the Kaaba in the Sacred Mosque) in Mecca followed by sayii (walking seven times between the hillocks of Safa and Marwa in a re-enactment of Hajra’s desperate search for water for her thirsty baby) completes my haj. What remains is a visit to Medina, neither obligatory nor part of the haj ritual but nevertheless important and much anticipated.

In Medina, I find how, sometimes, the expected can catch you unawares. I have come here once before, but this time, coming to this hallowed ground after performing the haj, everything feels different. I am consumed with a sense of awe as I stand in the Prophet’s Mosque. Prayers, wishes, entreaties, remembrances — all covered so beautifully in the Urdu word dua — tumble out of me. Relatives, friends, colleagues, loved ones, even casual acquaintances jostle and thrust through the maze of memory. Names and faces of long-dead ancestors find their way into my litany.

I forget many of my carefully rehearsed special prayers. Instead, I find myself weeping and mumbling, weeping and mumbling, rocking to some unknown rhythm. Till the realisation dawns upon me: I have, indeed, been blessed.