noshtalgia Food

Sehri: an omelette before sunrise

Everyone has an iftar-at-my-Muslim-pal’s-home-was-awesome friend, but no one can invite you to a dead-of-night sehri party

“Hazraat!” calls the maulvi over a megaphone set atop the turret of a mosque a few hundred metres from Collectory Kutchery in Raebareli.

Ji,” replies bade abba, my uncle, from his house, wide awake at 3.30 a.m., knowing full well he can’t be heard by the maulvi.

“Sehri ka waqt ho gaya hai (It’s the time of sehri),” the maulvi says, “uth jaiye (wake up).” There’s a warm, admonishing note to his amplified voice.

Ji, ham sab uth gaye hain, (Yes, we’re all up),” my uncle replies.

Every sehri in Raebareli started with this conversation. Every time, we laughed harder than before.

It’s one of the fondest memories I have of Ramzan...

“What’s the time,” I asked myself in the darkness. I looked at my old HMT Janta, which I had bought from a shop in Connaught Place that was selling off its last HMT watches. Its dial bore little black curls of numbers written in Hindi. 3.20 a.m., it said. I started up with a jump. I had roughly 45 minutes to prepare a meal, eat it, and drink lots of water. Sehri, when you live alone, is a depressing affair.

Before sunrise

Back home, sehri came with the warm embrace of our homely kitchen and an ever-present mom whipping up something every night — alu parathas, puri-sabzi, omelette, kebabs. Those days, fasting was just something I liked doing.

Sehri is the early morning meal you take before roza (fast) starts. It is less celebrated than the more famous iftar. Everyone has at least one iftar-at-my-Muslim-pal’s-home-was-awesome friend, but no one can invite you in the dead of night to a sehri party.

Sehri is eaten before sunrise. And it’s preferable that you don’t sleep after sehri — start your day early with the fajr namaaz and go to bed early. I am a night person. I have barely seen the 7 a.m. sun. But a devout Muslim would never justify not offering namaaz. The payment of faith is that you’ll never be able to do enough.

But then again, how much is enough? Following the Sharia to the very last point, offering namaaz five times a day, fasting during Ramzan, never faltering from the Sirat-ul-Mustaqeem (The Straight Path)? Is that enough?

What about the poor and the homeless? Isn’t every day a fast for them? What good is a fast for those who have neither sehri nor iftar to look forward to?

Omelette and toast

A splash of water on the face woke me up. I did a mental stock check and decided on bread-omelette and a cup of tea.

At the Allama Iqbal Hostel in Aligarh in 2005, we were given eggs, bread and butter for sehri. It felt special, doing it on my own then — breaking eggs, spilling the milk, dealing with short circuits in the ceramic heaters. Or we would go to nearby dhabas for alu parathas and Mathri omelette. When you’re at home, religion is another one of those things you do because your parents tell you to. Living alone, you decide to do it by yourself which is, in some ways, a leap of faith. But most of us follow religion because of a mix of emotions and justifications — fear of god, fear of hurting parents, fear of losing one’s identity, fear of society. Fear. The driving force of nature. Where is love then? Are we allowed to love god? Can we? Is religion a leap of faith or the fear of an abyss?

As these thoughts coursed through my head, I sleepwalked to the fridge and armed myself with eggs, bread, butter and milk. Soon, there was an omelette sizzling in one frying pan and toast browning next to it.

Raai ke daane ke baraabar bhi imaan le ke jaaoge to duniya se dass guni badi jannat milegi (If you have faith equal even to the size of a mustard seed, you will get a heaven ten times bigger than this world).

But what if I don’t want jannat? What if I don’t like gardens and rivers? What good are rivers of wine if they won’t intoxicate me? And silk — smooth and inviting — what if I don’t like silk?

Questioning Islam doesn’t go down well, and it might be true of other organised religions as well. Is it because this is what the people at large want? A simple narrative, a list of dos and don’ts, one villain (Iblis, Rakshas, Satan), one hero (Allah, Bhagwan, God), and the victory of good over evil? But what if I question the nature of good and evil? What’s good for me could be evil for someone else. Is there a universal measure of good and evil?

If God writes our Qismat, why did he write these sad stories that surround us? The preacher will tell you that what I am writing here is pure evil. It will ensure my ticket to Dozakh (Hell). Will keeping a fast help me escape? There it is – fear again.

But I stayed with Islam and with sehri. Why did I believe? What did I believe in? I believed in seeking. Faced with the vast unknown, what can one do but seek?

Feeling hunger

In Okhla, sehri didn’t feel like an out-of-place meal. Markets opened at iftar and stayed open till fajr. We cooked sehri every night and went out for a cup of tea before the sun rose.

In the grey air of dawn, dimly lit shops slowly breathed the morning fog. Dark shapes sat huddled around short-lived fires made of garbage and ate their last meals of the day.

Once, in Abul Fazal Enclave, we went looking for a dhaba and found a baker working late, baking patties. Through the door, he looked like the keeper of hell. The fire blazed as the hot patties found their way from his furnace to our belly.

Another favourite sehri destination in Delhi was Okhla Mandi. Huge trucks loaded with vegetables lay sleeping soundly after a long trip. Bent men carried sacks of vegetables to a tin shed the size of a football field. Inside, heaps of vegetables stretched as far as the eye could see. Silent, solemn workers with their sacks walked as if they knew they were trapped in the maze forever. The market opened at 8 pm and closed at 3 am. Little shops sold tea, fried chicken, biryani, milk, and alu parathas.

Sitting there, I would sometimes wonder why we put in so much effort to observe these rituals, unquestioningly yielding to religion. “Religion is so complicated,” said an almost-atheist friend.

“What’s simple?” I asked. “Science is simple,” he replied. What’s simple? Leaves are but photosynthesis isn’t. Motion is but space-time isn’t.

At 3.55 a.m., my sehri of omelette, toast and tea sat in front of me, promising to stay by my side through the day. “If you don’t stay hungry, you will never understand the pain of a hungry person,” my mother once told me. Is that the only way to gain true empathy? Staying starved to feel their pain?

I wolfed the food down. Then came glasses and glasses of water. If someone says you’re going to be thirsty for the next 15 hours, how much will you drink? How much is enough? The thirst will still return and so will the hunger.

I sat on the bed, brimming with food and water. A strange sensation I get used to every year anew. I’ve been doing it for 17 years now; 17 years of devotion to a cause that’s as difficult to understand as anything else in the world.

A small voice in my head said to me, “Allahu Akbar.” (God is the greatest). Or was it in the air?

Sunday Recipe

Pheni tastes best when served with milk and sugar

Pheni tastes best when served with milk and sugar   | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Doodh Lachche

Quick to cook and rich in energy and flavour, Doodh Lachche or Doodh Pheni is basically milk and deep-fried fine vermicelli. It’s a staple sehri dish and you can buy the fine, fried vermicelli from special shops that are set up during Ramzan.

Ingredients

1 litre Milk

Sugar to taste

250 gm or a few discs of pheni

A few pistachios and almonds

A few strands of saffron

2 pods cardamom

Method

1. Boil the milk on slow flame till it starts to thicken. Add sugar gradually.

While it is cooking, add crushed cardamom.

2. Break up the saffron in a teaspoon of cold milk and add to the boiling milk.

3. When the milk reduces to roughly half, remove from stove and cool slightly.

4. Place the lachche in a bowl and pour the fragrant milk over it.

5. Garnish with nuts and serve.

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Printable version | Apr 5, 2020 4:39:57 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/food/sehri-an-omelette-before-sunrise/article27160425.ece

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