Asad opened the refrigerator door and peered inside. His eyes fell on a huge chocolate cake and some sandwiches, the leftovers from yesterday’s tea.
“Oh God! Why am I being punished like this?” He groaned silently.
It was the first day of Ramadan and Asad was fasting. He had just returned from school and was feeling ravenous. After dropping his heavy backpack on the bedroom floor, he made a beeline for his favorite spot in the house, the kitchen. But fasting meant no food for at least four more hours. He would have to wait till sunset to break the first fast of the month.
Just for a second, Asad felt sorely tempted.
“Who would know if I eat a slice of the cake?” he mused. His parents weren’t home, his grandparents were resting and his baby sister, Fatima was too young to tell tales.
“Somebody would know, “a little voice argued inside his heart. “He, who knows everything, since He is our Creator.”
Asad slammed the fridge door shut in frustration. He was fourteen and felt ashamed of his momentary weakness. He went to the living room where a maid was spooning Cerelac into Fatima’s little mouth. Fatima gurgled and grinned at her older brother who bent down to give her a hug. Asad looked at the pale yellow concoction that was smeared across her face and swallowed hard. Even Cerelac smelled good at this hour.
He flopped down on the sofa in disgust and switched on the television.
“Maybe a nice program will take my mind off food for a while,” he thought, aggressively pressing down the channel buttons on the remote control.
He paused at BBC channel where a cute anchorperson was presenting a report. Asad stared at her for a while without registering the news but then some live images made his attention snap back at the report. Rachel Hayward was talking about intense, widespread poverty and famine in Africa where millions of children perished each year due to hunger and malnutrition.
Asad stared at the disturbing pictures of dark brown skeletal children with distended stomachs. Flies hovered around their faces and their naked bodies, as mothers listlessly tried to wave them away. Their misery was writ large on their faces and their empty eyes bore testimony to man’s inured ways.
Asad thought with a guilty pang about the uneaten pizza he had thrown away in a fit of temper last night. He had ordered his favorite Chicken Supreme but the delivery boy had brought some other pizza and would not take it back. Asad had paid for it and just to show the impertinent delivery guy what he thought of his services, had tossed the pizza into the trash can outside his house. It had felt so good at that time but now he felt like a total jerk.
He remembered how his grandmother always chided him when he left rice uneaten on his plate that was later scrapped off by the servant and dumped in trashcan. He remembered the lavish meals he and his friends ordered in college canteen and then discarded because they could not eat a bite more. If excess, extravagance and waste were crimes, then he was guilty of each one of them.
He changed the channels once again and put on MTV. He had a huge crush on Beyonce but after witnessing the BBC report, the music seemed too loud, too cheerful and even obscene. He switched the television off.
“What is wrong with me today?” He thought uneasily. “It must be the lack of food that is making me so restless.” He glanced at the stately golden clock adorning the living room wall. Only twenty minutes had passed and he still had more than three and a half hours to kill.
“I’ll go to Bilal’s house.” He decided, thinking about his friend’s house across the street. “Maybe a few rounds of computer games will improve my mood.”
When he stepped out of his house, he saw was a couple of dirty, bedraggled children foraging through the trash can. The older kid, who seemed about 5 yrs old, dragged a piece of dried chapatti out of the refuse heap and brushed away blackened mango peels from it. He broke it in two and offered the other half to his younger sister. Asad stood rooted to the spot in horror.
“Hey. Don’t eat that. It’s terribly dirty and probably mouldy too,” he shouted but the duo quickly crammed the hard chapatti into their hungry mouths and scampered off.
“Why had I never noticed such things before?” he wondered.
Asad had never been hungry in his entire life so poverty, deprivation, and hunger were concepts that he had never thought about.If the home cooked meal was not to his liking, he always ordered his favorite foods from upscale restaurants and had them delivered home. He had a credit card, a gift from his father on his fourteenth birthday and he used it for lavish meals whenever he wished.
Now hunger due to the obligatory fast was forcing him to look at the plight of the less fortunate and the more he saw, the more disturbed he felt.
He crossed the street and saw a construction crew at work. Bilals’ father was having a wing added to his already imposing residence. Asad paused to admire the skill of an old carpenter who was busy smoothing a rectangular block of wood. Wood shavings littered the floor around him.
“Are you fasting, babaji?” He asked respectfully.
The old man looked up and wiped the perspiration from his brow.
“Aye, son. Work is no excuse for not fasting,” he replied.
Asad could not imagine fasting and then working in the relentless summer afternoon heat. He looked around at the laborers, mason, and brick layers working in a rhythmic method.
“What do you eat for iftaar?” he asked out of curiosity, referring to the evening meal. He imagined the lavish food that got prepared in their kitchen everyday. It took their chef at least two hours to put together an afternoon tea.
The old man smiled,” Whatever Allah provides for us, son. He is Merciful and Most Gracious.”
“Does Mr. Haroon provide you with meals?” Asad persisted. He knew Bilal’s father was rather tight fisted. He would have insisted that the men put in whole shifts instead of cutting down their working hours in deference to Ramadan.
“What do rich men know about empty stomachs, my son,” the old carpenter replied, moving his plane over the wood in a smooth, fluid motion.
With bile rising in his throat, Asad turned back towards his house. His mind was in turmoil and his heart ached. In the living room he paced restlessly and then saw some CDs that his grandfather was fond of listening. He put on one in the magnificent stereo system that his father had recently purchased. It was recitation of the Holy Quran. As the soul stirring voice of Qari Saad Al Ghamdi reciting Surah al Baqarah filled the room, Asad felt waves of serenity hitting him. He felt engulfed in peace and tears shimmered in his eyes.
“Those who spend their wealth in the way of Allah and do not follow up their spending by stressing their benevolence and causing hurt, will find their reward secure with their Lord. They have no cause for fear and grief. ”
Asad spent some time listening and absorbing the message from Allah. Then he took a bath and said his prayers. His parents came home and the smell of iftaar being prepared filled the house.
As the entire family gathered for breaking the fast, Asad looked at the dining table laden with a variety of food ___ sandwiches, cake, fruit cocktail, tempura, triangular samosay, fried chicken pieces, dates and a variety of other dishes.
“Mom, do we need to cook so much food for one meal that no one can possibly finish?”
“What’s on your mind, son?” his father asked, surprised by his son’s unusual question.
“Dad, Mom’s on a diet, grandparents can’t eat fried and salty food as per doctor’s orders and Fatima can’t eat solid food. That leaves you and me to finish at least eight dishes. It’s pure waste.”
“Asad, what is wrong, son?” His mother asked concerned about her son’s state of mind.
“Mom there are people out there dying of hunger. There are people who have a handful of dried dates to eat and yet work all day on rich people’s mansions and then thank God for His blessings.”
“Asad, we do pay zakat and charity to help those in need. I am very happy that you are being so thoughtful and caring, but we cannot eradicate poverty on our own,” his father reasoned.
“Yes, but maybe this Ramadan we can share our food with those whose needs are greater than ours, father. May I?” Asad asked with a tilt of his head towards the food.
The grown ups looked bemused but Asad felt a gleam of pride in their eyes. He went outside and invited the laborers for iftaar. At first hesitantly and then with joy and gratitude they accepted his offer.
Asad’s servants laid out linen on the green grass of their beautifully manicured lawn and the men took off their shoes and sat cross legged waiting for the Maghrib azaan which would signal the time to break the fast.
As Asad passed out fresh dates and fruit to about two dozen men in the garden, the old carpenter said smilingly, “Didn’t I tell you that Allah is the best Provider and we eat out of His provisions.”
For the first time in the day, Asad laughed aloud in joy.
“Thank you for teaching me the true spirit of Ramadan, babaji . It is not about mindlessly abstaining from food and drink all day but understanding the needs of others and pleasing Allah to gain His blessings that Ramadan is all about. Sharing and caring, that’s the true spirit of this holy month.”
“Aye, and praying too. Now help this old man get up so that I can say my prayers, young man.”
Happy and satiated, they all went to the local mosque to offer their prayers and thank Allah for all His blessings.
By Gulrukh Tausif