It’s the early hours of the morning. The sky is still a bottomless black and I’ve roused myself from sleep to eat before the fast begins.
Barefoot I pad soundlessly through the sleeping house, vigilant for a rogue Lego piece or toy car. Alighting the stairs, the diffuse glow of street lamps guides me across the warm wood floor of the open-plan sitting room to the cool tile of the kitchen where I reach up to switch on the extractor fan’s soft light, facing away as I press the button to avoid the image-burn on my retinas. Waiting for my eyes to adjust, my unfocused gaze settles on the table beyond the breakfast bar and my mind spins back to past Ramadans.
Staying with my husband’s family, there was always something left over from the previous evening to set bellies up for the long day ahead. Sleepily rubbing eyes, we converged in the hall of the ground floor Edinburgh flat in rumpled, squinting ones and twos looking for all the world like zombies. My mother-in-law would already be in the bright narrow kitchen, tossing rolled out atta (chapatti flour) from hand to hand to knock off excess flour before expertly slapping the perfect disc onto the centre of the hot tava (hotplate with a handle), then adroitly rolling out another while the surface changed colour and blistered. She’d turn it to cook the other side and finish it off to a puffed up phulka over an open flame. My father-in-law always ate a full meal for sehri (the morning pre-fast meal) so she’d make enough roti (‘bread’ in Urdu & what we commonly called chapattis) for anyone else who wanted some. Skeptical of the long-term nourishment in my cereal with banana slices and raisins, she’d coax me to let her make me a paratha instead.
Carrying food and tableware we gathered in the sitting room. My in laws didn’t own a dining table, we ate around the coffee table or sitting on the floor. Steaming bowls of aromatic salan (generic Punjabi term for any curry dish) and chikirs (baskets) of cloth-wrapped roti awaited, along with the requisite jar of achaar, a spicy pickle that could enliven the plainest of food. In Pakistan a midday meal for a poor farmer might be simply chapatti and achaar, basic in content but sumptuous in flavor.
A dented saucepan of chai brewed on the hob in the kitchen, the smell of warm milk and ilaichi (cardamom) soothing the subconscious like a mother’s kiss, ready to accompany something sweet to finish. That pre-dawn cup of chai was always the best one of the day.
We ate, the television bathing us in its flickering glow as slow circles of black-and-white clad worshipers circumnavigating the Ka’aba moved across the screen. Purposeful and indefatigable as ants, their hypnotic movements coupled with the voice-only Islamic naats (Muslim poetry sung without instruments) lent a spiritual depth to our simple meal.
Afterwards, dishes were collected and returned to the kitchen and we took turns to perform wudhu (pre-prayer ablutions) in the solitary bathroom. For reasons known only to themselves my in-laws kept the hot water turned off, switching it on solely for showering, so wudhu was always a brisk intimacy with icy water chilled by the penetrating Scottish winter.
One-by-one we re-grouped behind my father-in-law on a floor now carpeted with ja namaaz (prayer mats), the TV a dark, sombre eye reflecting our synchronized prostrations back at us. Together we prayed fajr, the dawn prayer – shoulder-to-shoulder, elbows touching – before finishing our individual dhikr (remembrance) and dua (personal prayers as opposed to the recited verses of the obligatory prayers) and returning to bed for two or three more hours of sleep. Cocooned in the covers I fell asleep to the click of claws on laminate flooring as the dog in the flat upstairs paced out his territory for the umpteenth time.
K appears and interrupts my reverie by flicking on the main light and smiling at my scowl. “Like to work in the dark, don’t you?” It’s an observation not a question. He flashes a smile that says “Love you, Chamchi”
Yawning in concert, we prepare orange juice, fresh berries, Greek yogurt, toast and eggs and put the kettle on to boil for a pot of tea. We’ve experimented with various foods over the years to see which sustain us through the day: baked potatoes, beans on toast, pasta, porridge, various meat and vegetable dishes. This year for the first time we even had Sushi. But once you reach a certain point in the thirty days it doesn’t really matter what you have, your body knows the drill and hunger and thirst are just fleeting shadows. Also there are times when, for one reason or another, we haven’t got up for sehri and completed the days fast on an empty stomach. After that any meal, however small – even just a glass of milk and a banana – seems plenty.
Still lingering in the past, I elbow K, “Remember when we had to sneak around ninja-style ‘cause the slightest noise would wake the baby?” He smiles, “Yeah, wasn’t it J who used to arrive in the kitchen mid-meal for beans on toast?” Our shared awe at the changes wrought by the passage of time is like an unspoken prayer offered in gratitude for things unimagined. Three sleeping forms of various sizes occupy the rooms above us now.
With only a few days of Ramadan left, I know I’ll miss our intimate meals for two in these pre-dawn hours when it feels like we’re the only ones awake in a slumbering landscape; just us, the journey we’ve made and the mournful wail of the freight train as it shunts over the railway crossing and is swallowed up by the night.