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Travelling in faith

I have been knocking

from the inside

Rumi

Ajmer 135 km, said the sign above a traffic signal in Jaipur. No sooner had I read that name than a reverent desire grew within me to visit the dargah sharif there, but I had not planned such a trip. Next time, I promised myself.

That evening, I was introduced to the accomplished Nur, who in the course of conversation said she was thinking of going to Ajmer. ‘May I come with you,' I blurted, and was instantly embarrassed by myself. The next day, any thoughts of retreating from my hasty request fled when Nur enquired warmly if I was still interested in the day-trip. Her eyes conveyed the reassurance that she genuinely meant it.

No sooner had we announced our plans than we were bombarded by that inevitable question, ‘What special wish, mannat, will you petition for?' Faced with endless possibilities and worldly desires that could be sought for, I could not think of any particular thing that I wanted to have come true. It seemed a bit grasping to make that trip in order to seek favours. The wish was really to visit Ajmer, to pay one's respects to the saint. And that wish had been instantly granted. Nur thought the same way; in that accord lay the beginnings of friendship.

The two hours of journey by car passed swifly, engaged as we were in enjoyable conversation. Part of me still wrestled with the question though. We were going to a place where pilgrims from all over the world come to get their prayers heard. I had no doubt that whatever I asked for would be given. Perhaps it was silly not to ask for something. But if a wish were made and it came to fruition, I would have to return to Ajmer to offer the customary thanks. What if I could not make that journey? Better not to ask for anything then.

Outside, the terrain was primarily brown, filled with rocks and sand. When we passed Kishangarh, it seemed incredible that the dust-hazed, barren landscape had provided such fertile ground for the lush greenery and delicate lines of the miniature paintings of this region.

Soon we were in Ajmer, jammed in an autorickshaw driven by a manic driver. He tore up and down the winding crowded streets, giving us a roller-coaster ride that threatened to be derailed when we got stuck in an alley too narrow to accommodate two vehicles side by side. Inching past the other vehicle, perilously close to tipping a tyre into the gutter, we laughed till our stomachs hurt at this unexpected adventure.

We made our way to a guesthouse from where we would be escorted to the shrine. A sumptuous lunch awaited us. ‘You've been called to Ajmer,' said our venerable host whose family had been in the service of the dargah for centuries, ‘that much is certain.' Indeed looking at the smooth way the trip had come together, without any great planning on our part, it seemed there was a larger grace presiding over it. And as always in the presence of grace that singles one out, one could only feel humbled.

Bathed, freshly clothed, heads covered, we sped towards the great doorway, becoming part of the crowd swarming up the steps. I had chosen a green chadar as part of my offering but when the flower-bedecked basket arrived it was covered in purple. Slightly disappointed, I consoled myself with the thought that perhaps that colour was more acceptable to the saint.

To carry the offerings over the head, an unaccustomed posture, was alone enough to feel a strong rush of piety and surrender. Jostled by the crowd, watching my step, I was lost in the experience, unable to articulate thought. Through the small, low entrance, trying not to tilt the basket, into the saint's chamber. Head bent beneath the tent of velvet extended from the tomb, the murmur of the khuddam's supplication filling my ears, no last-minute wish rose in me within the rose-perfumed dark except a prayer for peace and happiness for the family.

On the return journey, Nur and I were companiably silent for long stretches of time, absorbing the enormity of the experience. Much had changed in the world since the Khwaja's days. In this time and place, it was possible for two women, incidentally Muslim and Hindu, to decide to make a journey together, to travel in friendship towards the horizon of faith and to come away having experienced it in their own individual way.

Back home, as I lit the orange taper from the dargah at maghrib it seemed as though the wavering flame were chiding me. I was an idiot to have worried about not being able to return to Ajmer in thanksgiving. After all if grace had led me there once, would it not ensure that I found my way back again?

In this time and place, it was possible for two women, incidentally Muslim and Hindu, to decide to make a journey together, to travel in friendship towards the horizon of faith and to come away having experienced it in their own individual way.

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