“Women should not go to dargahs, actually” says Mehboob Shaikh. He is the owner of the Karam Garib Nawaz flower shop, (shop no 4) on the stone bridge that leads to the Haji Ali dargah. “I also have just heard it on the news, but if the mullahs are saying it, it must be with some reason. Who knows from where women come, and in what condition...” We argue briefly about why a man’s prayer is any different from a woman’s. “But it is a different thing that here women are still permitted to go,” he adds.
Yet, going by the sheer coloured cloth count on the bridge, it would seem that at any given time, most of those who appeal for the grace of a saint are women.
At two in the afternoon, the dargah of Sayed Peer Haji Ali Shah Bukhari, that limb of Mumbai stretched out in eternal supplication, is as bedraggled as it always is—rubbish lines the ocean on both sides of the narrow walkway; a giant part of a ship (which locals call a ‘signal’) lies to one side of the dargah, and it is as much defaced tourist spot as it is site of succour. A stylish woman holding a half empty bottle of Bisleri walks ahead of women in multi-coloured burkhas, saris and salwar kameezes punctuated by variously skipping, snotty and singing children. Teenage girls come in groups; two women bathe in shin deep sea water in their saris; two girls from Bhiwandi gossip on the back steps. Men simply punctuate the thin crowd here. Limbless beggars take their corners and shout ‘Ya Allah’ in a practised rhythmic chant that sounds more like a quintet than begging. Men with rexine tote bags, fresh off the trains, weave with their belongings through the crowd towards the shrine.
Amanullah Sheikh, dressed in a cotton-silk Pathan suit, is appointed to me. He is 18, lanky, is a Mumbai-born Patna Muslim, dropped out of his tenth standard to start selling flowers, and lives in Marine Lines with his family of four. He is the intermediary who will take my womanly prayers to the sanctum. So he carries my bag, and gestures for me to follow.
The cordon in the women’s section is not new, Sheikh tells me. It was installed when the renovation of the tomb began, and only enforced last year. Until then, women could touch the mazaar (grave). The humble structure has been in a state of upgrade to Makrana marble and construction since 2008. “But even the men will have a wall distancing them from the tomb once the construction is over,” Shaikh says. “Only the priests can touch the grave now. And me” he beams proudly.
Sheikh offers me water, tells me where to park my slippers, offers me a chaddar for my head, and carries my bag of offerings through the gents’ section, beckoning me to touch it with my prayer through the cordoned off grill of the ladies’ section. As my attention wanders to the crowd, he shouts out from the sanctum, and makes me watch, so I can be sure that the priest unfolded my chaddar and placed it on the tomb itself. Very few attendants can do this I am assured. Most of the bags that women offer get dumped by the side of the tomb. “If you were a man, I would have taken you inside and made you stand next to the priest himself. My returning customers tell me whatever they ask for is done, whenever I have done that for them,” he adds.
He then splits the sacred thread in two, gestures for me to tie one half on the door, gives me a minute to pray among the other women huddled on their knees in the women’s enclosure, while he waits for me outside, where the men stand.
Asma Noorani, owner of the Haji Ali Juice Centre, Noorani café and the Haji Ali canteen, is serving customers at the mouth of the Haji Ali dargah, barely visits the tomb anymore. “It has all become too commercialised now,” she says. The chaddars that are bought and placed on the tomb are recycled and resold in the stores on the bridge within minutes. The garlands go back intact and are sold upto 5-6 times in a day. “I have also heard that they will soon start charging an entry fee” she says. Noorani’s father founded a small café to cater to tourists heading to visit the tomb of the saint in 1937, and as the café flourished, they retained his name out of gratitude and expanded it to their other establishments as well. “That we have existed for over five decades is itself an example of the grace of the saint, you don’t even need a chaddar, let alone an entry fee.”
Legend has it the Peer, who forsook his worldly belongings before going to Mecca, returned well- travelled and enlightened. He met a woman who was crying on the road, out of fear of being scolded by her husband for having dropped all the oil she was carrying. He took her to the spot and jabbed his finger in it, and oil spurted out of it again. Peer Bukhari was then plagued by a recurring dream that he had injured the earth by this act, and instructed for his body to be taken towards the sea near where the incident occurred when he died. Miraculously, the tides brought his coffin back, wedging it between the rocks here. On this spot, his dargah was built.
I sit on the steps and watch the women pray. I ask each of them what they prayed for as they emerge: long life for their husbands, jobs, money, son’s job, marriage, the litany is endless.
“Did you pray for yourself?” I ask one woman.
She has no clue what I mean.