Three of us friends—M, N, and I—come from different religious backgrounds. One of the things that keeps us together is our common interest in promoting better relations between people who follow (or claim to follow) different religions. We are part of an active interfaith group. In addition, we sometimes together visit organizations that are doing good work for needy people from different religious backgrounds: interfaith service being at least as important as interfaith theological confabulations. I love these visits: one gets to meet inspiring people who are doing beautiful things with their lives, embodying inter-religious harmony and a spirituality that transcends religion even without speaking or theologizing about it.
Yesterday, we went on our latest such trip. N had collected some money which she wanted to give to a woman who had worked in her home as a domestic help when she was a child—which was perhaps more than 40 years ago. The woman, Bibi Jaan, is a Muslim. Now maybe 90 years or so old, she lives all by herself in a little structure in a slum in a distant part of the city.
Bibi Jaan had stopped working with N’s family many years ago. But sometimes during the Muslim fasting month of Ramzan, she would go all the way to N’s place, and N’s father (who is a Muslim) would give her some money in charity. With Ramzan this year scheduled to start shortly, N wanted to go over herself to meet Bibi Jaan and hand over some money that she had collected for her, and M and I decided to accompany her.
A woman called Uma was the only person N was in touch with who knew where Bibi Jaan lived. Luckily, N had Uma’s telephone number. She spoke to Uma, and Uma readily agreed to take us to meet Bibi Jaan.
When we got to Bibi Jaan’s place in the slum, we found the door locked. Bibi Jaan had gone out and we didn’t know where she was and when she would be back. It was pointless waiting for her. And so, we headed for Uma’s place.
Even though we missed meeting Bibi Jaan, our encounter with Uma made up for it. Uma’s love and concern for Bibi Jaan were palpable and truly touching, I discovered as we engaged Uma in conversation. Uma happened to be a Hindu, and Bibi Jaan a Muslim, but this religious difference didn’t seem to matter in what was their very obviously intensely close relationship.
Uma spoke in a language I couldn’t understand, but N translated bits of what she said, so I managed to get a rough idea. It was something like this: Bibi Jaan worked a domestic help in Uma’s home for a very long time. Uma had known her ever since she was a little child, maybe more than 50 years ago (Uma is now almost 60). Bibi Jaan had once served Uma and her family, but now she was old and infirm and alone and the roles had been reversed. It was now Uma’s turn to take good care of Bibi Jaan: which she does—and with seemed to me to be great love.
Every Thursday, Uma arranges for Bibi Jaan to come over to her home, where she gives her good food to eat and also gives her a ‘head-bath’. Bibi Jaan spends the night there, along with Uma’s family. The next morning, Uma takes Bibi Jaan in an auto-rickshaw to a dargah, a Muslim shrine: perhaps Bibi Jaan likes spending time there. On several occasions, Uma has paid the bills when Bibi Jaan has fallen sick. Uma has also taken Bibi Jaan along with her on trips outside town.
Uma isn’t at all very ‘educated’ by the standards of the world. She lives in a very modestly-sized house and receives a meagre pension—a thousand rupees a month, if I understood correctly—on account of her deceased husband (fortunately, her son has a job and helps support her financially). Yet, despite (or perhaps precisely because of) her educational and economic background, she seems to lovingly tend to Bibi Jaan.
This was truly interfaith harmony in action: A Hindu and a Muslim woman bound together by a relationship based on love and mutual service that began more than half a century ago and is still going strong! I don’t think I’d witnessed anything like this before!
I don’t suppose Uma and Bibi Jaan have ever heard of the phrase ‘interfaith harmony’, but that’s something they’ve been living out together, over many, many years!
One should give even from a scanty store to him who asks