KARACHI: P and I have been friends for over a decade.
We share a fondness for fresh vegetarian food (he loves palak paneer) and can spend hours discussing the benefits of all things natural (How come people who eat meat are more angry than those who don’t?) P, like me, grew up in Karachi and went abroad for his undergraduate degree in Biology and Chemistry.
After his father passed away he returned to run the family business of herbal medicines. He is blessed with a fantastic sense of humour (I’ll never forget the name of the product they made for flatulence) and he was always the one making all the plans (French Beach, I’ll bring the chips). His evil laugh always had me in stitches. I am an anchor on Express 24/7 and P, my friend, is a ‘mullah’.
Six years ago, P married his first love C. She has a disorder of the nerves which can cause excruciating pain in her extremities. It is a condition that she managed with a young child from an earlier marriage. Sometimes, in retrospect I often wonder if the transition from bachelor to husband and father for P happened too swiftly, even though he puts in his best effort.
In those initial months of being married, did I imagine there was a strain in his voice? Or was it that I had caught him in the middle of a work meeting? That was the time P started questioning everything. Why had his youth escaped him? Why had his father passed away so soon? Leaving it to him to manage the business and take care of his family? Why was C ill? Why could he not have married her earlier? Why was there no cure for her illness? Questions that he did not and could not find answers to.
He was not angry, just puzzled by life. And we, his friends, were perhaps just too busy or unable to answer them for him. Then P decided to read the Quran in translation. He was particularly taken by Dr Mohsin Khan and Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s work. When I asked him one day about his “sudden” desire to explore religion, his reply was simple: “I don’t know. Something is missing from my life.” And he took to it with a vengeance. Websites were Googled, CDs and books were purchased and he sought guidance from all those who were willing to talk.
In his quest, he met some members of the Tableeghi Jamaat who spoke to him about educating others on the word of God and the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). He accompanied them on a three-day retreat. Its message was mostly that one should lead the life of a true believer by example and not just lecture people on Islam. Today, he takes part in their 40-day retreat each year. It is at the mosque that he sees complete acceptance of a person regardless of class, economic status, colour, ethnicity, personal predicaments or circumstances.
And everything - all worries, happiness, sorrows and celebrations - were Allah’s Will. One day, business brought him to Islamabad where I live. I was looking forward to seeing him again. I drove up to the Margalla Hotel and there he stood - in the same chinos and polo T-shirt he always wore. But something was different. He had grown a beard - a ‘two-fister’. There was a brief but awkward silence. I didn’t know whether it would be the usual bear hug and three pats on the back.
Should I not touch him at all? I was not a Mehram, or someone permissible to appear unveiled in front of him. But he was P after all. So I hugged him and we laughed. He says he had been scared I would reject him. Over the years, as he has changed, he has been surprised - people he never suspected have turned away and others he never expected, have embraced him. Nonetheless, at 40 years, P is a changed man. The man who used to dance the night away in a slightly buzzed state now keeps turning the radio off and doesn’t keep a television in his house.
Sometimes I wonder if he disapproves of my lifestyle, my career. I also wonder about C. She married a cleanshaven, ‘moderate’ man who turned into a ‘mullah’. She has repeatedly threatened to leave him; she finds it difficult to manage with her illness, especially when he leaves. For his part, he says that he provides for her and the retreat is something he needs to do for himself. But he doesn’t force his ideals on her or their two daughters. They don’t wear the hijab. But most of all, I think about them - the Tableeghi Jamaat - and us, his friends.
We were once his support system when he needed to find balance in life. But they gave him something that we did not. They do not question me, he says. Tomorrow if I shaved my beard and went and sat among them, they would not ask. But my friends questioned me when I kept a beard. When I ask him why he has gravitated in this direction and what is different, his answer is simple: I am comfortable in my own skin now.
Anjum Rahman hosts ‘The Other Line’ on Express 24/7.